Academic journal article Theory in Action

Breaking Bread, Sharing Soup, and Smashing the State: Food Not Bombs and Anarchist Critiques of the Neoliberal Charity State

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Breaking Bread, Sharing Soup, and Smashing the State: Food Not Bombs and Anarchist Critiques of the Neoliberal Charity State

Article excerpt

We think that it's terrorism to arrest people for trying to share food with poor and hungry people in the community to meet a community need. And all we do is we come to the park and we share food with poor and hungry people. I don't know how that qualifies as terrorism.

-Benjamin Markeson, Orlando Food Not Bombs Activist

On May 25, 2011 when police in the city of Orlando, Florida arrested activists from the anarchistic mutual aid group Food Not Bombs, Orlando's Mayor, Democrat Buddy Dyer, called the activists perpetrators of "food terrorism" (Goodman 2011). What sort of terrorism did these activists engage in? Did they poison food supplies? Destroy non-GMO food crops? Did they "pie" a conservative activist during a press conference? No, these anarchistic threats to order and decency had twice weekly been providing free vegan meals in Lake Eola Park for anyone who is hungry; breaking a city law which allows for an organization or individual to provide free food in public parks no more than twice a year (Jacobson 2011).1 In the month following the first arrests, a total of 28 people were arrested for "illegally distributing food." Even though the charges were later dropped, the case brought national attention to the city-getting coverage in the New York Times, the Guardian UK, and Democracy Now-prompting the following inquiry: why is the city arresting people for the ticketable offense of giving away free food?

This is not the first and will probably not be the last time that a city government arrested members of Food Not Bombs. As an example, between 1988 and 1995, the police and city officials harassed San Francisco Food Not Bombs, issuing over 1000 citations to FNB activists. The harassment worsened during a weeklong tent city protest of the United Nations 50th Anniversary celebration. Eventually, Amnesty International threatened to designate Food Not Bombs activists as "Prisoners of Conscience" if the city of San Francisco did not stop. In addition, since 1995 Food Not Bombs activists in Areata (CA), Atlanta, Berkeley, Birmingham (AL), Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Des Moines, Fredericton (NB), Las Vegas, Long Beach, Montreal, New York City, Palo Alto, Quebec, Phoenix, San Jose, San Diego, Santa Monica, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Whittier (CA), Worcester (MA) and other cities have been threatened by city officials or arrested for the act of giving away free food (Heynen 2010).

Why have so many cities arrested activists for serving free vegan meals? In this article I contend that a partial explanation exists in the way that Food Not Bombs resists neoliberal charity. That said, the groups' hostile relationship to neoliberal charity is not sufficient on its own for explaining why certain cities have cracked down on the organization. Instead, Food Not Bombs' opposition to neoliberal charity makes the group's actions a serious threat to state power only when the right confluence of neoliberal economic development, austerity, urban gentrification efforts, and public visibility come together.2 In the following, I look at the impacts of neoliberal policies on homeless services, examine how neoliberal charities discipline and regulate the poor, and then analyze the way that Food Not Bombs activists see their actions as a form of resistance to neoliberal charity.


While the United States, especially compared to Europe, has a rather underdeveloped and limited welfare state, the US did expand social service programs between 1932 and 1980. During this period the state expanded the social safety net to include affordable housing through HUD, affordable food through the national Food Stamp Program, medical support through Medicare and Medicaid, and financial support through welfare and General Assistance. To be clear, there are serious questions to be raised about the efficacy of government action during the New Deal, Fair Deal, and Great Society, but these policies can generally be seen as lowering poverty and providing essential services for those who desperately needed them. …

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