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Arresting 'Food Not Bombs' is Censorship

"I was there..."

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by Keith McHenry, co-author of Food Not Bombs, How to Feed the Hungry and Build Community

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1989 documentary on "Camp Agnos," the homeless encampment that sprung up in Civic Center Plaza.

"Across From City Hall" by Mission Creek Video 1989.


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Cops breaking up a FNB action in Civic Center

Photo: Rick Gerharter

There is nothing wrong with protesting war and poverty by feeding the hungry in a high visibility location. Food Not Bombs volunteers do this in over 100 cities around the world and in their 15-year history, San Francisco is the only community where the bread-and-soup servers are being arrested. For example East Bay Food Not Bombs serves every day without police interference and the Berkeley City government has not collapsed. The only difference between San Francisco Food Not Bombs and the other groups is that the San Francisco group made the mistake of applying for a permit. They first applied for a permit on July 11, 1988. After nine volunteers, including 3 people who also worked with St. Anthony's soup kitchen, were arrested on August 15, 1988, Food Not Bombs received a letter from the City saying "no such permit existed."

For example on March 15, 1994 Mayor Frank Jordan's office stated publicly on KQED Forum that "all Food Not Bombs had to do was apply for a permit."

The Mayor's office had received the 98th application for this permit from Food Not Bombs on February 15, 1994. The group has now applied over 130 times in the past 7 years.

Food Not Bombs has had two Health Permits since 1989 and buys a million dollar liability insurance policy for the City every year. No one has ever been made sick from eating any of the over one million meals served on the streets of North America.

Food Not Bombs has a Fire Permit for outdoor cooking.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has voted 3 times to issue Food Not Bombs permits but the police tell the group that they do not recognize the authority of the Board.

Not only has Food Not Bombs applied for a permit, but its members have also participated in hundreds of hours of meetings and public hearings with highly paid ($100,000 a year) city employees to discuss the details of free food distribution in city parks. Hundreds of supporters have spoken at these hearings and these supporters have also organized several very successful postcard and letter writing campaigns. It is estimated that the taxpayers of San Francisco have spent over ten million dollars to stop Food Not Bombs from feeding the hungry.

San Francisco Food Not Bombs has not been arrested over 1,000 times and its volunteers sexually harassed, beaten and injured by the police because it "needs to apply for a permit." As San Francisco Police Commander Dennis Martel clearly stated at his September 24, 1993 press conference, "They're obviously not trying to serve food, they are just making an anarchist statement and we are not going to allow it." While it is true Food Not Bombs feeds hundreds of people every day, they also stand up for the civil and human rights of the poor, homeless, hungry and, ultimately, all of us. The police do not obey the law because they are opposed to Food Not Bombs' message.

The fact that the homeless ARE people like you and I is such a threat to the rulers of San Francisco that all traces of reference to that fact must be erased. Anti-Matrix (Matrix was a Mayor Jordan anti-homeless crackdown campaign in 1994-95, ostensibly ended by Mayor Brown in 1996) posters must be taken down by the federally funded neighborhood watch groups and foot patrolman. Because it takes time to take down the posters the bulletin boards at places like Fort Mason Center and William De Avila Elementary School must be removed and the cement kiosks on Market Street taken away. When speaking at public hearings leave quickly after speaking or you might get arrested. The neighborhood watch people will grab and push you hoping to land you in jail. If they fail at provoking at fight, then the police might just arrest you anyway. Trying to get accurate coverage from the major media in San Francisco is nearly impossible.

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