Just when we think we shouldlay off the homeless beat for awhile, some serious shit goes down. On April 12, the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the City of Orlando's "group feeding ordinance" - which places restrictions on sharing food with groups of 25 or more people in public spaces within a two-mile radius of City Hall- "does not violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment." This means that the plaintiffs, a collection of hirsute anarchists called Food Not Bombs, who feed the homeless at Lake Eola Park every Monday morning and Wednesday evening, will have to apply for a permit to serve their vegetarian food at the lakeside picnic area, and will only be able to do so twice per year.
The ruling is the latest (though surely not the final) chapter in a five-year legal battle between Food Not Bombs and the city, which made its way to the Eleventh Circuit Court after a federal judge overturned the ordinance in 2008. The appeals court already ruled in favor of the city in December of 2009, but the case was granted a rare rehearing this past February. Last week's decision may prove to be the dagger to regular food sharings at Lake Eola Park, yet Mayor Buddy Dyer and company have not decided to plunge it in quite yet. At a press conference on April 13, a bestubbled Dyer said that he would not begin enforcing the ordinance until he consulted with a "multi-departmental team" consisting of police, legal, parks and public works.
Exhumed from 2008 and distributed from the mayor's podium was a list of parks within the two-mile bubble around downtown, as well as a registry of free meals available to the homeless. "The way this case … has been sometimes portrayed in the media is that the city is somehow preventing homeless feedings. Nothing is further from the truth," Dyer said. "At any lunch or dinner time, seven days a week, people in need can receive a meal."
But the devil is in the details, according to Steve Proveau, a thin, middle-aged homeless man whom Happytown™ spoke with at a Food Not Bombs sharing later that evening. "You can eat three times a day, but it's not in any one place, and it's not guaranteed," Proveau says, describing long lines for sandwiches at the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, as well as a hostile, urine-scented environment at the Coalition for the Homeless. "We're no different than anybody else walking their dog," he says. "We like the scenery [at Lake Eola Park]."
Food Not Bombs' attorney Jacqueline Dowd was also at the sharing and visibly drained. After all, she had spent years arguing that food sharing was an "expressive conduct" protected by the First Amendment, which the Eleventh Circuit Court agreed with in a matter of a couple sentences. Yet it also argued, at much further length, that First Amendment rights do not always supersede "reasonable regulation." "I thought they ruled on something which was in the rear-view mirror," Dowd says.
The group now has several options. It can comply with the ordinance, which means it'd have to strategically spread its feedings among the 42 parks within the two-mile-wide bubble around City Hall, applying for a permit each time. But even in the event that they are approved on every try, it would still not suffice in covering an estimated 104 feedings per year, so we foresee another legal battle over whether individual members of Food Not Bombs can apply for separate permits. The group may also petition sympathetic downtown churches to allow feedings on the premises, according to Dowd, and then there's always the "long shot" of petitioning to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Food Not Bombs member and senior anarchist Ben Markeson, reached the following day, was unusually measured in his reply: "We are going to continue to do food sharings in downtown public parks."
Evidently the Eleventh Circuit Court's decision was also a shot heard 'round the state, as the St. Petersburg Times reported on April 15 that the ruling "may give St. Petersburg officials the legal cover they've wanted to pass a similar rule." The Christian Science Monitor picked up the story as well, so bravo, Orlando! Fame!
Speaking of fractious boutsof indecision involving the City (not-so) Beautiful - and speaking of things that we probably talk too much about - the last two weeks have produced some ridiculous developments in the performing arts center saga. When we last checked in with the lunching ladies of conspicuous aesthetic consumption(see Happytown, March 24), a newly minted fourth-party consortium of people who make things happen, the Orlando Community Construction Corporation, was making serious faces at just how important it was to move forward with breaking ground … quickly. With construction bids set to expire on May 9, the project could go up in flames and down with $110 million! Zoinks!
Following a DPAC board meeting on April 8, a fairly nasty game of incestuous telephone(via email, naturally) erupted between the city, county, DPAC and the OCCC. Tempers flared, strings tangled and cups were crunched as representatives from the county circulated what they considered the big takeaway from the board meeting: DPAC had managed to shave $14 million from the $30 million budget gap that it came a'begging the county for back in January; it no longer needed additional assistance from the county; tourist development tax dollars (when available) should probably just go toward paying back the city's $31 million bridge loanto DPAC; the second (or local) phase of the project meant to house the ballet and the symphony orchestra will be put on hold indefinitely; and (AND!) the county's scrutiny had already cost the project $20 million in philanthropic donations with $50 million more certain to follow should May 9 come and go (which, math fans, is nearly all of the money that has been pledged for the project). In other words, fuck the county.
When faced with this summary, Orlando Chief Administrative Officer (and OCCC member) Byron Brooks fired back. "I am concerned that it appears that the county is prematurely drawing conclusions," he said, going on to call the summary "an overreaction." That probably wasn't the smartest move. Brooks, you see, wasn't even at the meeting, and even though the po-faced DPAC board may just be a wounded gaggle of birds with nothing but spite to regurgitate into the public's ears these days, the county was just reporting what had transpired. To be clear, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer went on record in the April 13 Orlando Sentinel saying, "It's certainly not our position that we no longer need the county's involvement." Or: Sorry?
So what does it all mean for the future of the imaginary Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts? Just ask stodgy old former Orlando Mayor - and neutered DPAC board member - Bill Frederick.
"We are very, very close to having this thing go," he told the Sentinel, "but we're also very close to the very real prospect that it may not go at all."
It means nothing.
What does mean something, however, is the fact that your favorite state Republicans are on a gleeful mission to destroy everything, including the entire election process. On Wednesday, April 13, State House Speaker Dean Cannon's ghostwritten baby HB 1355 (it was presented by creepy State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala) reared its ugly, 151-paged head, giggling at the prospect of shutting down third-party voter registration, eliminating the ability to change your address at your polling place and generally attempting to make sure that regular people have a hard time voting. The League of Women Voters of Florida, which regularly registers voters and is nonpartisan, called foul immediately, likening the bill to the old Jim Crow laws. Should the bill pass muster (it will), those who dare to register voters on their own could be fined up to $1,000 if they don't take an oath and provide personal information at the supervisor of elections' office and if they don't return their voter registration forms within 48 hours. Welcome to the age of apathy.Enjoy your stay.