from the pages of../

Food Not Bombs

By Alex Vitale & Keith McHenry


In the last two years the tide of urban conservatism that brought reactionaries such as Former DA Rudy Giuliani, former Police Chief Frank Jordan, and businessperson Richard Riordan to power in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles as well as many smaller cities, has signaled an increase in official attacks against the visible and invisible homeless. Cities across the country are implementing new laws against panhandling (SF and NYC), sitting in business districts (Seattle and Santa Cruz) as well as breaking up homeless encampments of any kind (NY, LA, and SF).

This war against the homeless is essentially a strategy of "out of sight, out of mind." Responding to business interests, city officials believe that if they can remove the so called "visible and hard-core" homeless people that their political problems will be solved. There is a war over the control of the appearance of urban space. Unable to address the real causes of social and economic inequality, business leaders and politicians increasingly feel that if the homeless can be permanently contained within the homeless shelters and rehabilitation programs, then the economic problems of retail businesses and the tourist industry will be miraculously solved (see" Urban Militarism", June 1994). Their success in isolating homeless people will also signal the end of any real effort to provide the low cost housing, support services and employment that are needed to end wide-spread homelessness.

Food Not Bombs represents the first, and often only, organized line of defense for homeless people facing these new attacks. While legal strategies have brought some relief in Miami and New York City, grassroots mobilizations by and in support of people on the streets has come largely from Food Not Bombs groups. Their strategy of serving food where homeless people themselves choose to congregate has been successful in both breaking down the divisions between the supporters and the supported and in asserting true public access to urban spaces.

As a result, Food Not Bombs groups in Seattle, Santa Cruz, Ft. Worth, Berkeley and Salt Lake City have experienced police harassment for the first time. And more established groups in Boston and San Francisco have experienced new levels of harassment. On May 11, three dozen people were arrested in Santa Cruz for "sitting" while participating in a Food Not Bombs regular meal, volunteers in Berkeley have been constantly threatened by the city for their on-going food program in People's Park, which is once again the sight of land use struggles. This time pitting the city of Berkeley and the University of California against homeless people who have taken refuge there. Police in Boston forced a confrontation with the 14-year-old FNB collective over the right to serve food in Boston Common, causing supporters from numerous community groups and a local City Council member to show up in expectation of being arrested, only to have the police back down.

Most dramatic has been the ongoing assaults against the San Francisco group. Since 1988, two mayoral administrations have tried to figure out how to stop the public serving of free food by FNB resulting in over 725 arrests. In 1988 the city tried arresting the group for failure to have a permit for tables in the park, for failure to have a permit for leafleting, then for failure to have a health permit and park use permit. After over 100 arrests in 1988, then-mayor Art Agnos recanted and gave FNB the permits. Since then it has been a constant struggle.

All along though, the city continues to maintain in the media and in court proceedings that the issue is health permits. Even during periods when FNB had valid permits, the city continued to state publicly that the group was a nuisance solely because they lacked a health permit. However, Police Commander Dennis Martel, in charge of policing FNB activities candidly revealed in a television interview on September 24, 1993 that FNB "obviously is not trying to serve food, they are just making an anarchist statement and we are not going to allow it."


60 Days for Serving<R> a Bagel

Mayor Frank Jordan announced in September 1993 the creation of the Matrix Program designed to enforce "quality of life" ordinances such as drinking in public and aggressive panhandling. Only days after the announcement, police officers started showing up at FNB locations, confiscating food and arresting volunteers. Since then, over 300 people have been arrested, including several dozen felony arrests for conspiracy to commit the misdemeanor of serving food.

The most serious of these has been the arrest on multiple felonies of FNB member Keith McHenry who is viewed by the city as the organization's key member. He is currently facing two felony charges that would each count as "strikes" in the Three Strikes/Life in Prison law recently adopted in California. In both cases Keith is accused of assaults where the alleged victims and witnesses were all political employees in City Hall, several of whom have been key figures in the on-going harassment of Food Not Bombs.

Under pressure from the City, the District Attorney asked for and received a $75,000 bail amount in McHenry's case. Fortunately, club owner David Nadel put up his business as bond to secure McHenry's release, but only after he spent much of May in jail. At McHenry's first appearance in court over 100 supporters showed up and solidarity actions were held by dozens of FNB groups across the country. Later, at the regular lunch food service, police retaliated by arresting and assaulting six members of FNB and charging them with felonies of conspiracy to serve food without a permit; and were held in jail for several days until public outrage caused the charges to be reduced and the activists released. On September 19 Keith will have his next appearance and a large demonstration has been planned including serving food on the steps of the court house and police headquarters in defiance of the anti-food laws.

Despite several hundred arrests, until 1994, no one from FNB had ever been brought to trial. In February 1994 volunteer Robert Norse Kahn was convicted of serving free food in violation of a court order by visiting Judge Barclays who sentenced Kahn to 60 days in jail. The Judge would not allow the words "homeless" or "homelessness" spoken during the trial. Mention of the six year history of Food Not Bomb's efforts to get a permit was also prohibited.


The Food Not Bombs Community Thrives

San Francisco Food Not Bombs has tried numerous nonviolent strategies in trying to end the attacks including law suits, letter writing campaigns and extensive lobbying of city, state and federal elected officials and a campaign to get international human rights groups to investigate. This strategy has had some success in bringing attention to the institutionalized corruption of the mayor and police department. Ultimately, the strategy that has proven most successful, however, has been to continue to serve food in the face of on-going arrests and violence.

Since the most recent assaults, volunteers have continued to serve food every day, rather than retreat. Continuing to serve food, denies the city even short term success in stopping the public serving of food in support of homeless people and their rights. In fact, it becomes the front line for resistance by homeless people and their supporters. Food Not Bombs groups across the country see this is as their primary political mission. In Seattle, FNB has been actively involved in regular sit-down demonstrations against new anti-loitering laws. Santa Cruz FNB has begun serving food in the downtown area where homeless people have been congregating in the face of similar measures.

San Francisco's Civic Center location was chosen because it was the site of a major nine month encampment organized by homeless people. This continues to be one of the most contested public spaces in the city. Recently, the city has granted a special permit to a religious group to serve food in a less visible place nearby. However, FNB members and numerous homeless people have refused to cede this space, because once the organized presence of the food program is removed, police efforts to completely clear the park will go unchallenged.

In the past, the city has tried to mollify the effect of Food Not Bombs activities by enticing them with indoor facilities. Groups have always resisted this because it would undermine the purpose of the organization. The group exists to support public actions against poverty not to recreate the welfare state mentality of the soup kitchen. Most homeless programs either foster dependency through giveaways that discourage the participation of homeless people and often treat them as criminals who should be punished for asking for help, or deny the political roots of homelessness through self help and personal rehabilitation models that encourage the view of homelessness and poverty as personal failures not societal failures. Food Not Bombs combines personal involvement (of homeless and non-homeless people) and direct, positive, humane action which targets both immediate needs and underlying political causes.

With the new wave of assaults against San Francisco Food Not Bombs has come a counter tide of support. Members of the National Lawyers Guild, the Gray Panthers, Local 2850 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Union, the Black Trade Unionist Association of San Francisco, and other groups have publicly participated in the food program in defiance of the prohibitions. On one occasion, several Catholic priests were arrested for serving food causing a flurry of media coverage.

In late 1992, SF FNB along with the SF Tenants Union, the SF Coalition on Homelessness and other groups initiated a squatting campaign under the name Homes Not Jails (see "Homes Not Jails, Z" February 1993). The first buildings were occupied a week before Thanksgiving in 1992. There are both visible housing takeovers and covert living squats. The oldest continuously-lived in homes are now over a year old. Two children have been born in squats and no one has died. These covert squats provide real housing for people and a base for future organizing.

Homes Not Jails has also been taking over Federal property including housing at the Presidio Army Base in an effort to show that the government has no intention of seriously addressing homelessness. They have been negotiating with Federal officials to have the government's abandoned buildings turned over to non-profit groups to house the poor, but so far the authorities have blocked all efforts at real solutions confirming people's belief that they must work to provide their own housing rather than waiting for the government to do it.

The direct action community cannot rely on the mainstream media to report the facts about community resistance, so FNB activist are building their own FM and AM radio transmitters and distributing news via the Food Not Bombs Radio Network. There are now several low-watt stations in the San Francisco Bay Area started by FNB members and other concerned community activists, that are sharing tapes and technology. This allows the direct broadcast of important information that doesn't get into commercial or even non-commercial radio. It is an attempt to reassert the "public" aspect of the public airwaves that has long been abandoned by the FCC and most "public radio" stations. There is currently a major push nationally, to get as many transmitters set up as possible to make enforcement by the FCC more difficult.

Food Not Bombs members have also started organic gardens in vacant lots in several cities. They help build community by offering a way for people to work together towards a common, positive, life-affirming goal. The harvest is shared with people who need it; building a resource base for the community and further activism. It is also an effort to exert community control over land use instead of market control.

All of these activities assert that the way to make social change is to create institutions that represent the kind of world we want to live in. And, as with similar efforts in the past, the creation of human institutions comes immediately into conflict with the inhuman ones that dominate society. Serving free food in public, a seemingly innocuous activity, has resulted in the city of San Francisco spending millions of dollars (by their own account), making hundreds of arrests, and continually attacking non-violent activists.

Next June, Food Not Bombs is going to have its second International Gathering in San Francisco. They will develop strategies to create new chapters in North America and Europe, build resources and improve skills, and discuss long term political strategies for confronting militarism and poverty. This event is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco. Food Not Bombs and other human rights groups will be staging demonstrations that week to protest its pro-war and anti-humanitarian policies.

Alex Vitale is in the Ph.D. Program in Sociology at the City University of New York and has written on homelessness politics previously for Z Magazine. Keith McHenry is a human rights activist and co-founder of Food Not Bombs. His columns appear regularly in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. San Francisco Food Not Bombs has information on how to get in touch with or start a group in your area. They can also be contacted about the FNB Radio Network and other local and national FNB activities at (415) 330-5030 or 3145 Geary Blvd. #12, SF, CA 94118.