Saturday, April 21, 2018
Public safety

Police appear but no arrests made as food handed out again in Tampa park

TAMPA — Glen Edwards made his way along folding tables laden with muffins, hash browns, even pizza despite the early hour.

Edwards, 45 and homeless, grabbed a pastry and wondered where the police were. Three days earlier, as fans packed downtown ahead of the College Football Championship game, seven members of the group Tampa Food Not Bombs were arrested and charged with operating in the city-owned park without a permit.

Now it was just after 8 a.m. on Tuesday and the group was back. Along with sustenance, they brought signs with slogans like "Sharing food is not a crime." Edwards looked over toward the police station across the street from the park, but police were nowhere to be found.

"Usher's gone, there's no more cops," Edwards shouted, speaking of the Grammy winning musician who played a free concert at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Sunday as part of the pregame festivities. "Now it's not a crime to eat."

Police would eventually show up and warn the group that they risked arrest if they didn't break down the tables. Group members linked arms and surrounded the table, shouting "People over profits," and "TPD has got to go." After several tense minutes, officers made their way across the park without arresting anyone.

Group members cheered what apparently is a temporary triumph.

"It was a victory today," said Tampa Food Not Bombs organizer Jimmy Dunson. "We were able to share with everybody who came. We hope the city has seen the light and that they will allow us to share with our homeless brothers and sisters."

But the food servers are not off the hook. Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty said police already have the names of those serving food who were arrested Saturday and charged with trespassing, so the agency plans to file additional trespassing charges directly with the State Attorney's Office.

"If we knew who they were, we didn't need to have a confrontation," he said.

At issue is a section in the city's code of ordinances that prohibits distribution of food to the general public without written approval from the city. To use a city park for that purpose, a facility-use permit must be obtained, which involves an application, potential fees and deposits, and liability insurance coverage of at least $1 million.

Giving out food in a park is allowed, Hegarty said.

"Folks from our building do that on a regular basis," Hegarty said. "But when you set up an event, you've got hot food and tables and everything, you just have to go through the proper process, and that hasn't happened here."

Food Not Bombs members say that process is an undue burden. They argue that they have been handing out food on Tuesdays and Saturdays for years, and the city suddenly decided to enforce the ordinance. Their theory: City officials decided to crack down because so many visitors were in town for the game. City officials have denied that.

Food Not Bombs is not a charity, according to its web site, but rather "a global grassroots movement" with hundreds of autonomous chapters that serves free vegetarian food but also aims to "stop the globalization of the economy, restrictions to the movements of people, end exploitation and the destruction of the earth and its beings."

Dezeray Lyn was among four people who were arrested Saturday and who showed up Tuesday to serve food again. Lyn, of Tampa, learned from media reports that she probably will be charged with trespassing again.

The 38-year-old emergency medical technician for a private ambulance company acknowledged the arrests may cause trouble with her employer. But she is undeterred.

"I'm taking that risk," Lyn said. "My job is meaningful to me, but there are people who would go without a meal if Tampa Food Not Bombs is not there. This is one of those things that's worth it."

Group members say they'll be back on Saturday — with their tables.

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

   
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