ACTIVISM 101 


;"Imagine the Sex Pistols ; having a charity."

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;That's how John Barry, a Kissimmee attorney who works with the ACLU, describes the few dozen Orlando Food Not Bombs activists who crowded into City Council chambers July 24 to protest a proposed ordinance restricting feedings of the homeless in downtown parks. They were raucous and obnoxious. They booed and hissed, presented themselves as morally superior, and painted commissioner Patty Sheehan as a mean-spirited villain bent on taking food from the mouths of the needy. They were so convinced of their own righteousness and naive to the realities of the world that, despite their numbers and enthusiasm, they were easily dismissed.

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;They were their own worst enemies, and they lost. As expected, the ordinance passed on a 5-2 vote, with commissioners Samuel Ings and Robert Stuart dissenting. (Daisy Lynum called the ordinance "bad public policy," but voted for it anyway.)

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;"Food Not Bombs needs a PR overhaul," says Barry, who notes that not all the FNB members were disruptive. "And the city has kind of stepped in it."

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;He's right on both counts. The ordinance restricts "large group feedings" in the 39 parks that fall within a two-mile radius of City Hall. Feedings with 25 or more participants — servers included — require a permit, and the city will only grant two permits per park per year to any group. The focus of the ordinance was Orlando FNB, which has been feeding about 80 to 100 mostly homeless people in Lake Eola Park every Wednesday afternoon for more than a year. Local residents and business owners complained that the influx of transients led to aggressive panhandling and crime, as well as the unpleasantness of having people urinate and defecate in their yards. Elderly people said they were scared to go out at night.

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;Some statistics bolster these claims. In the first four months of 2006, 18 transients were arrested for crimes around Lake Eola, including vehicle burglaries and muggings. On April 27, a homeless man slashed a woman with a knife and took her purse, according to police records provided to Sheehan's office. Between May 1 and May 17, there were 26 car burglaries reported in the area.

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;Whether the feedings are to blame is debatable. Most of the crimes happened at night, hours after the afternoon feedings. And homeless people tend to gather in public parks during the day, food or no food.

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;Still, the issue isn't as cut-and-dried as some activists portrayed it. There are rich-versus-poor elements, but there are also legitimate safety concerns. Some consensus was needed that, indeed, using the parks as soup kitchens may cause problems, but there was little to be found.

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;Neither Sheehan nor the rest of her colleagues deserved the e-mailed barbs hurled at them in the last month. Take this one, from an unknown sender: "You want DOGS TO EAT AT RESTAURANTS, and you want to DENY HOMELESS PEOPLE CHARITY. I bet you call yourself a christian, too. How do you sleep at night? Probably with a full belly in a nice, warm bed, right? You make me sick. You, lady, are the true definition of the word ‘CUNT'."

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;Or this, from another Orlando FNB supporter: "SORRY! The homeless will not disappear. Despite our wishes to the contrary, neither will the elite slobs you and your city cater to just disappear! … [The ordinance] is a transparent attempt to run off the homeless and the hungry from the plain, uncomfortable sight of your city's overfed, shopping-til-they-drop, conspicuously self-involved yuppies and elite."

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;Others called commissioners "dicks" and implied that Sheehan hates "lots of people" and finds it "unpleasant to look at many of them, particularly those without money." They not only dismissed the concerns of people who live near Lake Eola, they also demonstrated a profound ignorance of the commissioner herself. Sheehan is perhaps the Council's most liberal member. She's a leader in the gay community, a champion for civil rights and a zealous advocate for transparent government. Disagree with her if you want to, but she's hardly a tool of rich.

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;"Have I been painted unfairly here?" Sheehan says. "Yeah. … You gotta have rules [for the feedings]. The really crazy thing is I've been there."

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;She's referring to the fact that she faced poverty as a young adult, and as a lesbian in a conservative area she's been the target of discrimination and fierce rhetoric from the right.

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;She met with Orlando FNB and University of Central Florida students a few days before the ordinance's first reading on June 19, but the meetings went badly. Orlando FNB and the ACLU, which would represent them and other groups in any legal action, threatened to sue. "Well, then, we'll see you in court," Sheehan says she told them.

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;"People really did become intransigent at an early stage," Barry says.

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;That spilled over to the July 19 hearing. Sheehan's opening remarks were met with a chorus of boos and snickers. More than once, Mayor Buddy Dyer had to tell FNB members to shut up.

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;"Hey!" Dyer yelled after several interrupted a speaker with boos. "Let's accord a little respect to all speakers. It only suggests what your true motivations are if you can't respect everybody and everybody's opinion."

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;A few minutes later, another outburst: "Would you just like to act up, or would you like to have a serious conversation about a serious issue?" the usually subdued Dyer asked. "Well, then leave!"

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;The ordinance has problems. Philosophically, these are public spaces, yet the government is effectively trying to keep a class of citizens — the homeless — out. And the industrial-zoned space at Sylvia Lane and America Street that the city has provided for such feedings is far from perfect, though the city has donated park benches and portable toilets. (As Sheehan notes, the space is in her district, and other commissioners haven't been as generous with their parts of town.)

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;The feeding zone is dangerous: At least one homeless man died nearby. On March 26, police found 54-year-old transient August Felix severely beaten; he died a month later. Orlando cops have arrested five teenagers for the murder.

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;There are no nighttime feedings, so those with day jobs can't go during the week. There are NIMBY concerns here as well, because there's a high-rise retirement community nearby. As the Ripple Effect, which uses the space on Saturday mornings, pointed out, there's no guarantee the city won't change its mind and boot the groups from this park at some point in the future.

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;The new ordinance has unintended consequences too. It's now illegal for, say, Orlando Weekly (or any other organization with more than 25 employees) to host a company picnic in Lake Eola Park without a permit.

;;On the other hand, the permits are free. And there are plenty of loopholes to exploit: Groups could rotate parks, or contain feedings to 24 people at a time. Or, as Orlando FNB figured out on July 26, you can actually give out the food on the street, then direct the homeless recipients into the park to eat.

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;The combative approach Orlando FNB took didn't help their cause. "[Elected officials are] not going to listen to screaming and yelling," says Orange County commissioner Linda Stewart. She would know. For years before she ran for office in 2002, Stewart was one of the region's more prominent neighborhood activists. She also served as chairman of CountyWatch, a nonpartisan group that closely (and effectively) monitors county government.

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;Her approach was a more tactful one. Get empirical data to present to an elected official, and do it in a coherent manner. Having lots of passionate supporters to back you up is great, but it does no good if you haven't approached officials beforehand. Otherwise, "They're only going to hear you yell for three minutes" at the public hearing "and then sit down," she says.

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;That's how a group of community activists got the county to enact a moratorium on big-box stores earlier this year. "That wasn't because the people were screaming and yelling," Stewart says. "You have to have the data."

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;In 2002, gay rights advocates lobbied effectively — both in public and behind closed doors — to get Orlando to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance, often smoothing over rough edges caused by their more outspoken activist allies. They knew the political landscape and finessed the sticking points before the vote. So, even though Mayor Glenda Hood voted "no" to suck up to her GOP overlords, the mayor let the ordinance pass and declined to veto it. That's how the game is played.

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;Orlando FNB isn't nearly as sophisticated, and both their rigidity and Sheehan's prevented compromise. Ultimately, that means that discussion of Orlando's visible and growing homeless problem turns into a shouting match, and the city's ham-handed and parochial solutions aren't effectively challenged. One or two speakers at both of the ordinance's public hearings, July 24 and June 19, tried to make that point, but Orlando FNB members drowned them out.

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;If the confrontation moves into the legal sphere, other organizations will probably take the lead. One of the ACLU's strategies involves the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits local laws that substantially burden religious activity unless the law is the "least restrictive means" of furthering a "compelling governmental interest." Since many churches see feeding the homeless as part of their ministry, that gives the ACLU grounds for attack.

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;"A Food Not Bombs lawsuit is a loss," says George Crossley, head of the local ACLU. "With religious groups, we absolutely will win it."

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;Homeless advocates have also formed STOP, or the Stop the Ordinance Partnership, an amalgamation of religious and secular groups, including Orlando FNB, that will lobby the Council to create a more permanent policy toward the homeless that includes a drop-in center and safe, sustainable places for the homeless to receive meals.

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;That's how progress happens. Sometimes it's slow and sometimes you lose. But if you earn the respect of decision-makers, things get done. If Orlando FNB is really more interested in helping the homeless than in demonstrating their contempt for the system, they'll need to learn the rules before they can win the game.

; jbillman@orlandoweekly.com

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