Food activists in Central Florida are continuing to defy a local ordinance restricting group feedings in public spaces, as another five members of Orlando Food Not Bombs were arrested Wednesday for providing food to the homeless in Lake Eola Park. What began as a local act of defiance has made headlines around the nation and even abroad, in addition to stirring other organizations to stage acts of solidarity in places as distant as Italy and the Ukraine.

The group began feeding the homeless without first obtaining a “large group feedings permit” from the City of Orlando on May 25, advertising on their website the organization’s intention to defy the law which limits them to feeding groups of 25 or more two times per year. Since then, 12 activists have been arrested.

The Orlando Sentinel noted that an article on the subject had been shared more than 80,000 times on Facebook, and that the paper had received hundreds of emails from as far as Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Via the Sentinel:

In Detroit, 10 artists and musicians who read an Orlando Sentinel article about the arrests protested and showed their solidarity Monday afternoon by handing out lunches to about 150 people. They walked from Hart Plaza to Cass Corridor, where many homeless people congregate, and gave away sandwiches, organic fruit and bottles of water.

“The story outraged us,” said Lori Hildebrandt, 42, one of those who participated. “It just blew our minds that somebody got arrested for feeding people who needed help.”

Olin Ezra Wade of the Detroit Underground Initiative, who organized the protest, agreed.

“It’s a publicly funded park,” he said. “People can’t be going to jail for feeding other people. It’s absolutely absurd.”

Years of political wrangling beginning in 2006 led to several temporary victories for Food Not Bombs, an international organization that focuses on issues of hunger and homelessness with chapters in many large cities around the world. After the ordinance was twice rejected as unconstitutional, a three-judge panel overruled the original trial judge’s decision last July and ruled in favor of the city of Orlando.  The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had agreed to hear arguments against enforcing the ordinance, which made it temporarily unenforceable, but ultimately cemented the law into place earlier this year.

Ben Markeson, one of those arrested last week, spoke to The Florida Independent last fall, explaining his take on Orlando’s rationale for restricting public feedings of the homeless. He also responded to the city’s offering of space for Food Not Bombs to provide food outside of the two-mile radius surrounding City Hall, as outlined in Orlando City Code 18A.01:

“They’re trying to get rid of homeless people, and trying to stop groups from sharing food with them,” Markeson says, “because they think it hinders business and growth and redevelopment, so they’re basically putting profits ahead of people.”

He says the city offered a fenced parking lot behind the Orlando Utility Commission building for groups wanting to feed the homeless, but likened the area — which has no running water and barbed-wire-tipped fencing, and requires a city worker to unlock a gate for entry — to an apartheid scenario.

“Basically what they are trying to do is stage an apartheid-like system in downtown Orlando based on socio-economic status,” he says. “I think that homeless people deserve access to the same public amenities, such as parks, as people who are more affluent. So I oppose the city’s attempt to institute discrimination and second-class citizenship against the homeless. We don’t use a dime of public money, and we don’t want anything from the city of Orlando except for them to stop trying to hinder us in sharing food with homeless people.”

Speaking to the Sentinel’s Scott Maxwell, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer referred to the activists “food terrorists,” insisting that a host of other organizations working to combat homelessness in Central Florida operate within the law and are more successful at tackling the deeper issues associated with homelessness, while Food Not Bombs purposely defies the ordinance simply to garner publicity.

“I think that just shows that the mayor has lost control of the situation because people haven’t behaved the way he thought they would,” Markeson says of Dyer’s rhetoric. “They’re taking a stand on principle and they’re putting their principles on the line by getting arrested for them and he doesn’t know how to cope with that.”

“Food Not Bombs is not a charity,” he says. “People confuse us with charities, and there’s nothing wrong with charity and I respect and admire people who engage in charitable acts. Orlando Food Not Bombs is a political group, and when we do the food sharings we’re doing them to express our political opposition to poverty and inequality and our society’s misguided priorities.”

He goes on to detail how he feels some of Orlando’s priorities are at odds with the needs of its citizens. Pointing to the recent construction of the new $480 million Orlando Magic basketball arena and the plans for a downtown performing arts center as well as a football stadium renovation, Markeson argues that these projects, which will cost taxpayers more than $1 billion, are simply out of step in a state with 10 percent unemployment and where one in six receive food stamps.

“So you have the city of Orlando spending over a billion dollars on these three venues at the same time that you have at least 10,000 homeless in Central Florida, and on any given night there are only 2,000 shelter beds for them,” he says. “And the reason that we call attention to the political aspects of the issue of food is because there are underlying reasons why there are people who need the food that we share, and that’s poverty, inequality, a lack of living wage jobs, a lack of affordable housing and social services. We’re calling upon the public to have a conscience and care about these issues and we’re calling upon Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer to care about poor and working people in Orlando as much as he cares about the developers, special interests and the Chamber of Commerce.”

Markeson says that a reasonable compromise would be for Food Not Bombs to be given permission to use the Lake Eola Park picnic area, which is a space that the Orlando and the City Parks Bureau set aside for the public consumption of food.

“The ball is in the city’s court,” Markeson says. “We’re going to continue to share food at Lake Eola Park, and it’s up to the city if it chooses to hinder our grassroots, all volunteer efforts. There’s a need for the food that we share and all we’re trying to do is help people in the community. If the city wants to come in and keep arresting people for doing that, that’s up to them. I think ultimately this is going to require an approcach of resistance and a political strategy as well.”

Mayor Dyer could not be reached for comment.

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