Sometimes I think I have become so cynical that I am no longer capable of feeling true outrage. I have come to expect fascism, brutality and heartlessness from my elected leaders as a matter of course. But every now and then, something comes along that makes my jaw hit the floor once again. Today was one such time, and the jaw-dropper for me was learning, courtesy of the excellent SchNews bulletin, that distributing food to the homeless is now illegal in some US cities.
SchNews focuses on the case of Eric Montanez of the “Food not Bombs” collective, who was charged with “serving 30 unidentified persons food from a large pot utilizing a ladle”, according to the arrest affidavit.
I suppose I should not really be surprised. After all, these measures are consistent with the criminalisation of homelessness that I saw countless times in New York. When the Upper West Side liberals praise Mayor Giuliani for “cleaning up” the city, the sweeping away of homeless people out of Times Square and into the city’s margins is largely what they’re talking about (along with his massive campaign of state violence against young black men).
This stuff is also consistent with the solemn announcements that are drummed into my ears every time I take the Underground here in London: “Please note that begging is not permitted in any part of London Underground.” And the signs in train stations: “Do not give to beggars.” Eerily reminiscent of “Do not feed the animals.”
God forbid that we (the omnipresent white middle-class we) should be reminded of captialism’s collateral damage as we go bleary-eyed to work for it on a Monday morning. Far better that charity be outsourced to responsible organisations with well-paid directors and glossy brochures and nice respectable offices in Soho. A direct debit is so much more comfortable than that awkward fumbling for change, that feeling of terrible guilt. After all, it’s not our fault, is it? Is it? Why should we have to be confronted with such unpleasant realities?
And in any case, everyone knows that homeless people spend all their money on drugs and alcohol. They must do that, they must be somehow deserving of their fate, because otherwise there would be something terribly wrong with the world, and that’s a possibility we can’t allow. There must be a flaw there, something that led them to the streets, something that differentiates them from us. So far better to put them somewhere out of sight, and let those nice well-meaning, well-funded charities take care of them with whatever’s left over from their marketing budget.
Speaking of collateral damage, as I was many paragraphs ago now, I wonder if the name “Food not Bombs” has anything to do with the harrassment the group has been receiving. Drawing a connection between militarism abroad and deprivation at home is extremely threatening. Operating as a collective rather than a corporate-style charity is also threatening. Citizens taking collective, direct action? Making links between war and hunger? Distributing food to unidentified persons using a ladle? Hey, these guys are practically terrorists!