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Exclusive: After arrests, Orlando activists feed homeless at City Hall

By Stephen C. Webster
Tuesday, July 5, 2011 15:18 EDT
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A group of Orlando activists with the organization Food Not Bombs figured out a clever way to avoid arrest while still feeding the city’s homeless population on public grounds: host their event at City Hall.

Members of the group had previously been arrested during a food sharing event at the picnic area of Lake Eola park, allegedly for violating a statute that criminalizes the feeding of more than 25 people without a permit.

Ben Markeson, the media liaison for Orlando’s Food Not Bombs, told Raw Story in an interview Tuesday that they made the decision to move their event due to the throngs of people who flock to Lake Eola every year on Independence Day — and to remind the mayor of a seemingly forgotten promise.

“What happened was, Mayor [Buddy] Dyer was quoted as saying that he offered to let Food Not Bombs gather at City Hall any time they like, and he’d donate some of the peppers he grows on his mayoral balcony to the chili pot,” Markeson said. “So, we wanted to see if he would live up to his word.”

Markeson added that while mayor did not make an appearance on Monday, they were not harassed by police and “at least 100″ people turned out for oatmeal, grits, pancakes, potatoes, bread and coffee.

He also said that City Hall had not been used in the past because it lacks easy access to basic sanitation facilities, unlike the public park which has running water outdoors.

The group’s mission has, since their arrests last month, gained some seemingly powerful allies in the form of “Anonymous” hackers who’ve launched a campaign against a series of Orlando websites in an effort to raise awareness of how the city treated Food Not Bombs.

Anonymous toppled the websites of the Orlando Chamber of Commerce, the Orlando International Airport, Orlando’s fraternal Order of Police, the mayor’s reelection site and two popular tourist and events websites featuring the city’s attractions.

They also sent an image of Walt Disney mascot Mickey Mouse, face covered by a Guy Fawkes mask, to tens of thousands of fax machines and Orlando-based email addresses — inspiring the mayor to call them “terrorists.”

Markeson’s reaction to Anonymous was not as extreme as the mayor’s, and he chose instead to point back at City Hall for “trying to criminalize poverty.”

“We feel that what [Anonymous is] doing is a distraction to dealing with the real issues,” he said. “The real issues here are very simple: We have a city that’s trying to stop people from sharing food in public parks to meet a community need. We have a mayor who’s trying to criminalize poverty.

“The food sharing ordinance is one of a series the city has adopted over the last few years that basically send the message to poor and hungry people that they’re not welcome in downtown Orlando.”

The group’s website said they plan to return to Lake Eola on Wednesday night, and it urged members to bring cameras in case police again decide to arrest them.

The Homeless Services Network of Central Florida estimates the homeless population at or over 10,000 in the Orlando area.

The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Image credit: Flickr commons.

(H/T: WFTV.com)

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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