Handouts shouldn’t result in handcuffs
Published: Sunday, June 12, 2011
Updated: Monday, June 13, 2011 11:06
On April 16, 1963, a young activist sits in a Birmingham jail cell and writes a letter. In that letter, the activist submits that "…an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."
That activist was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and almost five decades later, his words continue to ring true.
Last week, 12 members of Orlando Food Not Bombs were arrested for feeding the homeless. According to the Orlando Sentinel, they were violating an Orlando food-sharing ordinance, which states any group that wishes to conduct large-scale feeding operations of 25 people or more are required to obtain a permit. However, groups are only allowed two permits per year, per public park. That's a problem for FNB, which according to the Christian Science Monitor, since 2005 has fed the homeless twice a week, every week, in the same park.
The Sentinel states that the penalty for violating the ordinance is 60 days in jail, a $500 fine or both – costs that the organization is now facing.
Like members of FNB, I work with homeless people every week. Through my experiences, I have gained invaluable insight on homelessness in Central Florida. However, there is one thing that I thought was universal knowledge — like the rest of us "non-homeless" people, the homeless need to eat. The fact that the city of Orlando is arresting individuals for feeding the hungry sounds likes a cruel joke, but it's not.
The Washington Post reported that after a year of feeding the homeless in Downtown Orlando, local residents began to complain, leading to a city ordinance against feeding the homeless in 2006. After a long court battle, an injunction on the ordinance was removed, and this April the ordinance was enforced by Orlando police.
Essentially, this ordinance is an attack against picnics and against the public using public parks. I guarantee you, if this was a group of 25 or more Girl Scouts having picnics twice a week, there wouldn't be an ordinance. This policy discriminates against the poor and the working class and should be removed. Public parks are places for the public to gather, form a sense of community and practice free speech — just as FNB does every week, twice a week. And they have continued to do so — despite the threat of imprisonment.
Just as King did in that Birmingham jail almost fifty years ago, FNB is arousing the conscience of the community.
Last Wednesday evening, I watched members of FNB get arrested by the Orlando Police Department at Lake Eola Park for feeding the homeless. As the police escorted those that fed the homeless to their police van, we marched alongside them, chanting, "food is a right, not a privilege!" As the police van doors closed, I realized that I had just witnessed a great injustice, one we must address.
King held that there are two forms of laws: just and unjust. He said that we have a moral obligation to break an unjust law. Some find this ordinance reasonable; they think a public park isn't the place for homeless people to eat. In fact, according to the Sentinel, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer actually labeled FNB as "food terrorists" for violating the ordinance. I think the true terrorists are those that criminalize compassion and deny those their most basic liberties. I commend FNB for their service and sacrifice to this community; and I submit that this ordinance is unjust — and like that letter from a Birmingham jail states — "an unjust law is no law at all."