Arrested for Feeding the Poor

By Alan Clapsaddle 6-10-2008

Unconscionable: adjective

1. not guided by conscience; unscrupulous.

2. not in accordance with what is just or reasonable: unconscionable behavior.

3. excessive; extortionate: an unconscionable profit.

I have had some "unconscionable" things on my mind a lot lately as I have been working with the 20-somethings who make up Orlando Food Not Bombs and University of Central Florida's Rock For Hunger. All three of these definitions of the word apply to the actions of the city of Orlando, in enacting an ordinance to try and stop these groups from sharing food with the poor and homeless in downtown Orlando.

Orlando Food Not Bombs (FNB) has been sharing food with the poor and homeless in Lake Eola Park since the summer of 2004. Some local business owners and residents, who were upset with seeing the poor fed in the park, complained to city government leaders. The mayor and city council reacted by passing an ordinance specifically designed to stop FNB from sharing food. The ordinance limits a group that is going to feed 25 or more people to no more than two such feedings in a park per year, and requires that a permit be obtained.

When the ordinance was first passed, the groups moved to the sidewalk and streets a block or so away from the park, but after continued city harassment moved back to the park. FNB, acting with churches and groups such as Code Pink and the ACLU, began sharing food in a manner that strictly complied with the ordinance. Each group would serve no more than 24 people, had a table clearly labeled with its name, and the dishes (which are collected and washed) were counted to make sure there were no more than 24.

Despite all of this, on April 4, 2007, at the conclusion of an Orlando police undercover investigation that, according to the Orlando Weekly, cost taxpayers $65,000, FNB member Eric Montanez was arrested. His alleged crime: feeding more than 24 people. His weapon: a ladle.

The result was twofold. One: A jury who understood the concept of "unconscionability" found Eric "not guilty." Two: The arrest scared away groups and people who were participating, especially some of the church groups, who were afraid of being labeled "law-breakers."

Yes, it is unconscionable to let people go hungry, in a city of plenty in a nation of plenty. It is a higher magnitude of unconscionability to persecute those who feel called to serve the poor and subject them to arrest and prosecution.

A month later, six more FNB members were arrested for violating another city ordinance, "disturbing

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