Truthout - April 10, 2020

"Thousandsof groups are showing similar acts ofsolidarityacross the country. The state’s response, however, has been unarguably slow, and even destructive."

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, collectives sharing free food with the hungry were facing a sharp uptick in state repression.

In Arizona, Tucson Police Park Safety warned the public that sharing food in public parks is illegal in a statement posted to Twitter on February 7. In response, the People’s Defense Initiative in Tucson started a petition and organized a rally at the City Hall on February 19 to “remind Tucson leadership that feeding the hungry is never a crime!”

Free Hot Soup, a group that serves food to over a hundred people in a Portland, Oregon, park five nights a week, sued the city in November 2019 after it introduced a new “social service” law. The law creates new bureaucratic hurdles for solidarity services including food handling permits, insurance coverage, dumpsters, security, and restricts the services to once per week per park.

In Santa Cruz, California, one person was arrested for distributing water to the university graduate student strikers on February 10.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia, landlords and authorities worked together to halt the distribution of food.

Food Not Bombs Atlanta (FNB), a collective that gives out free vegetarian and vegan food, set up shop at Park 35 apartments in Decatur, Georgia, in September 2019. At first, the management of the lower-income apartment complex welcomed them onto their property. The residents, one of whom is involved with the FNB chapter, said the food sharing made their lives a bit easier.

“It is great, it is great. It sure does help my family out. Very important, ya know,” one resident said of the program in a video. “I think a lot of people — especially in this complex — really do need a little help.”

But when Park 35 management received information about FNB’s resource pamphlet table, which included a flyer about forming a tenant’s union, their tone toward the collective changed. Park 35, owned by multibillionaire and Trump supporter Stephen Ross, apparently feared that its tenants may start organizing together against reported holes in the floors, forcible evictions and the impossibility of reaching management to request repairs.

On October 29, 2019, management first informed FNB that they must stop sharing food on the premises. At first, the collective refused.

Two weeks later, management called the police. The police arrested one member for “trespassing” and “obstruction of an officer.” After several more weeks of police harassment — which was scaring off residents — FNB decided to deescalate by moving the food service off the complex and onto the sidewalk. But this location, next to a busy highway and a far walk away from some homes, was not ideal.

“A lot of the people that we give food to don’t have cars, some have limited mobility … a lot of people don’t realize we are there. A lot of people can’t make the trek or can’t carry a lot of groceries,” Marlon Kautz, a member of the collective, told Truthout. “We’re trying to compensate for that by helping people move boxes and delivering, but it’s definitely reduced the amount of stuff that we can distribute.”

But relocating off-site didn’t fix the police problem. “Even still — at least two times now — we have had authorities come and try to stop us from handing out groceries,” Kautz said.

In most cases, Kautz says, charity groups like churches would likely have ended the food sharing program if directed to by police. But FNB is not dissuaded from its mission. “We have a strong ideological commitment that says we don’t care what the law says, we are going to do what we think is right. And we can see where that gets us — that gets us in jail,” he said.

A Collision of Crises

Because of their persistent organizing spanning over two decades, FNB Atlanta was able to resourcefully and rapidly respond to community needs during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They launched the “Food4Life” initiative to coordinate delivery of free groceries city-wide, using a strict sanitation protocol. According to the collective, almost 1,000 families have signed up to receive groceries, and volunteers have already distributed over three tons of goods.

So far, police have left them alone. “We always worry about police interference, because they’ve shown so consistently that they’re more interested in maintaining control than helping people,” Kautz told Truthout via email. “But it hasn’t inhibited our effectiveness in this moment.” They figure, “If anything, people more readily support our efforts because we’ve shown that we will do what’s right even if the cops get in our way.”

Mutual aid efforts — acts of banding together to address each other’s survival needs with a recognition that systems in place are inadequate — are ramping up across the world. Established groups have been able to rapidly mobilize, while new groups are able to find inspiration and learn from established groups. Anarchist Black Cross and Antifascist Action in Nashville, Tennessee, mobilized to distribute homemade hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies to homeless encampments. People’s Breakfast Oakland served 150 meals to the houseless community in Oakland, California, while wearing gloves and N95 masks. Santa Cruz FNB and the Santa Cruz Homeless Union established an around-the-clock survival support station, which organizers call the COVID-19 Relief Center, while nonprofits have shut down. Before police delivered a cease and desist notice on March 24, the Relief Center provided hot meals, water, hand sanitizer and other survival gear to the county’s large homeless population. ...
Read full report at Truthout