The city racks up more philanthropic arrests, the mayor tends to the million-dollar fountain and the police chief shuffles away. There must be something in the water!
Published: June 16, 2011
On June 8, the City of Orlando cracked down on rogue mass feeding at Lake Eola Park for a third time, and to seasoned spectators, there was an emotionless expectancy borne of routine. As usual, the group Food Not Bombs doled out its vegetable medley to the homeless and destitute. As usual, Orlando Police Department Detective Rich Ruth was there, in blue jeans and a baseball cap, videotaping volunteers handing out slices of watermelon. (When asked if he was a police officer, Ruth began with a standard denial, then cut himself short and said, "No, I'm with OPD. I am … It's pretty obvious what I'm doing.") And per the city's pattern of late, a handful of young activists – five, to be exact, ranging in age from 17 to 27 – were led away from the park in handcuffs by a group of white-helmeted OPD stormtroopers (or bicycle officers) after it was determined that the young activists had each handed out food to more than 25 people without first obtaining a "Large Group Feeding" permit.
The arrests brought the one-week tally of food-related arrests at the park to a dirty dozen (that is, until three more were arrested on June 13), and though the operating procedure of both Food Not Bombs and police was unchanged – when the bike cops arrived, one volunteer put his hands behind his back unprompted – it was everything that occurred around the event that merited attention. Take, for example, the new recruits to the cause, such as the middle-aged and completely normal-looking Connie Bolak, who stood outside the park along with veteran activists including Food Not Bombs cofounder Keith McHenry. "Instead of arresting them, they should be giving these people an award, or a pat on the back," Bolak said.
Then, there's the Food Not Bombs groups sprouting up across the state in response to the standoff, such as the month-old Tarpon Springs chapter, which supplied two of the arrestees. And between the ricochet of headlines about Our Odious Ordinance, one can hear the faint squelch of our city government plunging the knife deeper and deeper into itself, playing a doomed game of political risk like so many Middle Eastern strongmen of late. While we're on that topic, we should mention that the anonymous hacker collective known as the People's Liberation Front, which carried out cyberattacks against the authoritarian governments of Tunisia and Egypt, sent this message to the City Beautiful on June 9: "Your recent arrest of Food Not Bombs activists is the line in the sand, and the Peoples Liberation Front will tolerate no more. Tomorrow morning, at precisely 10:00 AM EDT, the forces of the PLF will remove the Orlando Government web site from the Internet. It will remain a smoking crater in cyber space for exactly two hours, when we will give the cease fire order and allow it to return to normal function."
But the city's website hummed along well past the 10 o'clock hour. (Around the same time, the small Oklahoma town of Orlando probably wondered why its Internet service wasn't working properly.) Despite the cyberspace bullet our city dodged, however, the threat to its tourism dollars and its public image is very real – on June 6 the United Kingdom's Daily Mail, which reaches more than two million people monthly in that preciously pallid reservoir of tourists, described the issue thusly: "Good Samaritans ARRESTED and facing jail ... for handing out food." Wish you were here!
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