TAMPA — Jimmy Dunson was scooping quinoa and mushrooms onto plates for a line of homeless people Saturday afternoon when the warning came.
"You got 30 more seconds in which to take the table down or these folks will go to jail," said a woman who identified herself as a Tampa police lieutenant, according to a video from the event posted on Facebook.
Dunson and other volunteers from the group Tampa Food Not Bombs, didn't budge. Officers arrested them a few minutes later on trespass after warning charges on the grounds they were operating in the city-owned Lykes Gaslight Square Park without the required permit, a move the group has characterized as "criminalization of compassion" on a weekend when thousands have poured into the city for the College Football Playoff National Championship.
"We're doing an act of kindness and mutual aid, and that should not be criminalized," said Dunson, one of the seven volunteers who was arrested. "There shouldn't be this giant bureaucracy that keeps people from being kind to each other."
Police spokesman Steve Hegarty said the issue was not that the group was passing out food but that it did not acquire a permit to set up shop in a city park, which is required by city ordinance. Further, he said, officers warned volunteers from the group days before while they were passing out coffee and bagels in the same spot that they would be arrested if they returned again without a permit. The timing had nothing to do with the game, he said.
"We warned them: You set up table, chairs and everything, that's against ordinance," Hegarty said Sunday. "We told them exactly what would happen. And that's exactly what happened."
Durson confirmed group members were warned Tuesday by police, but it didn't deter them. The video, streamed live via Facebook, shows volunteers behind a table lined with food and a sign with the organization's name and mission: "Serving vegan/vegetarian meals to the houseless and hungry in Tampa." The lieutenant gave several commands for the group to take the table down before handcuffing them, some still wearing the plastic gloves used to serve the food.
"Please help yourselves," one of the volunteers said as he stepped away from the table.
Arrested were Dunson, 32; Bert Donaldson, 38; Dezeray Rubinchik, 38; Jason Grimes, 26; William Payton, 46; Roger Butterfield, 26; and Christopher Mince, 30. They were not jailed, Hegarty said, but rather taken across the street to the police department and released on their own recognizance with notices to appear in court.
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, said city spokesman Ashley Bauman. 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.
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Dunson pointed to the insurance requirement as the primary reason why the group has not applied for a permit, calling the stipulation "absurd."
The group has held these events most Tuesdays and Saturdays for years, he said, with more than 100 last year alone. The last time the group had run-ins with police was in 2004, when five people, including Dunson, were arrested over the course of two months based on a rule that banned feeding people who are homeless in city parks. The arrests triggered protests by the group and a re-examination of park restrictions after a lawyer representing the protesters pointed out they were too broad to hold up in court.
Since then, the group hasn't had any issues, Dunson said. But with thousands in town for the football championship, he said he believes the timing was intentional.
"The city has a lot of money hinging on the events this weekend," he said, "so we don't think it's a coincidence that now is the time they chose to crack down on our food sharings."
Bauman said the arrests "had nothing whatsoever to do with the game."
"We felt action had to be taken because of the overwhelming and growing crowd in the park," she said.
Durson didn't have a crowd count for this weekend's event because it was cut off early and several people were there shooting video of the arrests, he said. But the group generally serves 20 to 25 people on Saturdays and roughly 10 more people than that on Tuesdays.
And as for this Tuesday, he said, they'll be back.
Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 445-4157 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @kathrynvarn.