Arnold Abbott made national news when he was arrested last November for feeding homeless people. The 90-year-old activist serves food to the homeless along with other volunteers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Now activists are filing suit against the city for their blatantly unconstitutional ordinance, and the arrests, fines and court appearances that were forced on him by officials.
Fort Lauderdale has restricted “food distribution,” to locations that the city has approved. That means if you want to just hand out food to homeless people, you could find yourself on the wrong side of the law.
Food Not Bombs activists in the city say that the city has crossed the line. If Fort Lauderdale wants to play hardball in court, the punk-inspired grassroots homeless advocates say two can play at that game. Food Not Bombs just hit back against Fort Lauderdale with a lawsuit which demands their constitutional right engage in weekly demonstrations promoting social justice, including handing out food to anyone who is in need.
The 90-year-old Arnold Abbott weighed in, saying “you cannot sweep the homeless under a rug … There is no rug large enough for that.”
Fort Lauderdale Food Not Bombs members Nathan Pim, Jillian Pim, Haylee Becker, and William Toole say that the First Amendment protects their free expression, including the symbolic act of food sharing.
The Southern Legal Counsel, told The Nation that the group is right. Lead counsel Kirsten Clanton said that, “Food Not Bombs protest are political actions: They believe that our society can end hunger and poverty if our resources are directed from the military and war towards meeting basic human needs, like food … they share food with anyone who is hungry, as an expression of that political message. And the city has now said that is now a crime.”
The grassroots organization claims in the lawsuit that Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance is a de facto ban:
The Park Rule requires “written agreement” to share food, but lacks any process to obtain it or standards to guide decisions about whether to grant or deny permission and under what conditions. Revealing the lack of even any rational basis for this regulation, the same park rules allow picnics to take place without City permission.
Clanton says that this is a ban on normal public use of the park where the homeless have been being fed by Food Not Bombs and Abbott alike. That’s because the park is considered “a traditional public forum”…a place that’s naturally open for us to express our First Amendment rights. There really has been a war on homelessness that has been targeted at moving homeless people out of public space. And that’s happening in Fort Lauderdale… and all over the country.”
In spite of what the city claims, the ordinance itself states that the purpose is not to simply set up centers for free food, but to discourage giving out free food, as the program, according to the ordinance, “by its very nature” has “serious objectionable characteristics.”