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Self-Preservation vs. the Impulse to Help

Arrested for feeding the hungry

Charles Darwin thought that humans had two competing instincts: self-preservation and the impulse to help or altruism.

These two instincts have collided in Orlando, Florida, where the city's ordinances designed to provide for civic order have led to the arrest of activists for feeding homeless people. Has Uncle Scrooge replaced Mickey as the city's totem?

On the surface, this seems to be another story about stonehearted government officials and bleeding heart liberals-the two instincts clashing in the city of the Magic Kingdom.

As usual, the story is more nuanced.

Twenty-nine people, members of Food Not Bombs (FNB), face up to 60 days in jail and $500 fines for ladling out corn-on-the-cob, rice and watermelon to more than 30 people at Lake Eola Park in June. At least that is how it has been generally portrayed. Actually, their arrests weren't for feeding the homeless as such but for violating a city ordinance that restricts permits for sharing food with large numbers in downtown spaces to two a year. FNB had already gotten two permits from the city, so the arrests were for feeding the homeless without a permit, which they were now ineligible to receive, having reached their allotment for the year.

Restrictions on the number of permits issued by Orlando have been controversial, but the city does have a point. Zoning ordinances and permits for certain activities make sense as a way of helping coordinate various interests and to keep civic order. Too many restrictions and you have a police state; too few restrictions and you have chaos. In the first instance, the government restricts personal freedom and in the second, bullies often get their way. People have a right to enjoy their parks for the purposes for which they were intended. Without Orlando's permits, parks might be turned into outdoors cafeterias for the homeless, not places of recreation for others.

This isn't the first time that FNB members have been arrested. In 1988, nearly 100 were arrested San Francisco for serving meals in Golden Gate Park. FNB is a loosely knit network of non-violent groups that has fed homeless people in over 1,000 cities whose purpose is to call attention to the gross inequities in our society, particularly around matters of homelessness and hunger.

FNB's major point is valid: hunger isn't the fault of individuals but a result of spending priorities that put the emphasis upon corporate success and military spending. The present debate over the national deficit reveals how little attention is paid to eliminating hunger. In the midst of arguing over how much to cut out of the budget and whether taxes on the wealthy should be increased, if at all, the House of Representatives passed a military $690 billion military budget. While social service items are being slashed, teachers laid off, public employee salaries frozen and the unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent, the Pentagon will receive even more money than in the past.

The wealthy get wealthier, the middle class slips, the unemployed can't find work and we can't control military spending.

Meanwhile, in Orlando, the city and FNB are at loggerheads. It is a symbolic fight, really. Orlando doesn't create the national budget, so it can't be blamed for all the troubles that befall homeless people. And feeding vegetarian meals in parks won't solve homelessness and hunger.

Orlando's permit requirements seem reasonable but the city will suffer a public relations black eye in enforcing it. At the same time, FNB deserves our admiration for its efforts help shape a more humane budget. If that means that they spend time in jail and pay fines, that is the price they pay for their convictions.