Make no mistake: the members of Food Not Bombs are a bunch of lawbreakers. Bunches is more like it. With at least 500 chapters worldwide (and maybe more than twice that number), every day Food Not Bombers are defying the myriad laws restricting food-sharing. Sharing food with the hungry is an unregulated act of kindness, proclaims the Food Not Bombs Website. Resist all laws restricting compassion.
That’s exactly what Maura Cotter, founder of Long Beach’s second Food Not Bombs chapter, is doing. And she’s been to jail for it.
The wheels of Cotter’s brush with the law were set in motion almost as soon as Cotter founded her Food Not Bombs chapter. Inspired by an offhand comment Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry made about how funny it would be for a Food Not Bombs chapter to share in front of a fast-food restaurant, Cotter and her chapter—originally consisting of only three or four people—began sharing vegan breakfast burritos every Wednesday afternoon in front of the Long Beach McDonald’s at 7th Street and Long Beach Boulevard.
“Our idea is to bring awareness to people who are going into McDonald’s and give them a healthy choice,” Cotter explains. “Or even people who are coming out of McDonald’s and giving them a snack for later and being like, ‘Hey, this is a healthier meal than what you just ate.'”
Apparently that practice didn’t sit well with McDonald’s management, who complained to police about Cotter and company on multiple occasions. Typically responding officers found nothing actionable. But one Wednesday afternoon LBPD Officer Armand Castellanos saw things differently.
“The minute he came on, he grabbed my wrist, and he said (I think this is his favorite line), ‘We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way,'” Cotter recounts. “And because I remained silent and wouldn’t answer any of his questions, it pissed him off. He’s very aggro, very macho.”
Cotter was cited for blocking the sidewalk/block access to a business, a charge she vehemently denies.
“We never do that,” Cotter says. “We’re always to the side. And we’re not even aggressive with our language. We’re just trying to share with people ideas about healthier eating, and also the idea of free culture. Because a lot of people are so consumed by our money exchange. And so being able to give homemade food for free is really very special.”
Ironically, the LBPD’s own photos of the incident contributed to the city prosecutor’s decision not to file charges against Cotter.
But that didn’t clear up the matter of Cotter’s arrest for an alleged offense that typically garners only a citation. Cotter petitioned the court for a finding of factual innocence. And despite the fact that the City Prosecutor’s Office attempt to argue that “the intent as to why they were there in the first place” should be a factor in the court’s denying Cotter’s motion, Judge Dennis W. Carroll found more than enough reason to grant Cotter’s finding.
“This does not seem to be a close case to me,” said Carroll. “It’s Constitutionally-protected speech, however unhappy McDonald’s might be with it. […] According to the photograph, even if they linked arms, they couldn’t block the sidewalk, even if they wanted to. […] The nexus of this kind of offense has to be a physical obstruction And based on what’s before me, I find it simply wasn’t possible and would be happy to find a factual finding of innocence. It seems to me the People exercised their discretion well in not taking this case to a jury, where they probably would have had their head handed to them. And this is just the next step. I don’t think it’s fair to Miss Cotter to stick her with a criminal arrest record for non-criminal conduct.”
About a week later, the same LBPD officer was caught on video subjecting a member of Long Beach’s other Food Not Bombs chapter to similar treatment, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car, before being released a half-hour later without charge.
“I had my camera and began filming, and the officer rushed he pulled my arm and said, ‘Gimme that. What do you think you’re doing?’ says Elliot Gonzalez. “I was forced into the car and told to shut up when I asked why this was happening.”
Although both Long Beach Food Not Bombs chapters say they have not experienced a repeat of the August incidents (and Food Not Bombs as a whole says arrests are rare these days), they serve as reminders of the opposition anti-establishment organizations may face from the establishment even when engaging in non-criminal conduct.
A trace of such opposition could be seen in the hearing that led to the finding of Cotter’s factual innocence, when Heng Lim, speaking on behalf of City Prosecutor’s Office, argued that “the intent as to why [Cotter and her group] were there in the first place” was part of the probable cause for Cotter’s arrest, a notion Judge Carroll dismissed outright.
Food Not Bombs was once regularly subjected to persecution. Beginning in 1988, a quarter-century to the month before Cotter’s arrest, San Francisco police embarked on a decade-long campaign to stop one of the original Food Not Bombs chapters from sharing food in Golden Gate Park. Ironically, the 1,000+ arrests that took place transformed Food Not Bombs from a few people sharing food in just two cities to tens of thousands of food-sharers in over a thousand locations worldwide.
“Each wave of arrests would inspire other people to start Food Not Bombs chapters,” says McHenry, who was arrested over 100 times. “And that’s really why it’s a global movement today. Other cities would suffer arrests, and that would inspire another wave of interest. It went on and on like that. It was really incredible. […] We would probably not be a global group today if it wasn’t for the arrests.”
Strictly speaking, not all Food Not Bombs activities may be legal (although as Health Department spokesperson Jackie Hampton admits, interpreting regulations pertaining to freely giving food to the general public “gets a little tricky”). But like any Food Not Bomber, Cotter is unconcerned about whether she is committing such infractions, since doing so fulfills a higher moral purpose, saying that even if authorities attempted to crack down on the group from this angle, Food Not Bombers would persist in their work.
“We are technically breaking the Health and Safety Code, because we are distributing food without a permit,” Cotter says, noting that the Health Department gave her chapter a notice to this effect the day of her arrest. “[But] it’s like sharing a picnic. If people don’t want the food, they won’t take it. It’s not like we’re forcing it upon anyone. And what, are you nervous to go to a potluck and not eat that food? […] I think it’s important to be able to cut the fear that people are trying to instill in us not to communicate and share with each other.”
Additionally, Cotter feels it is important to upset the capitalist paradigm of food distribution in the United States, a system so deeply flawed that even the U.S. Department of Agriculture admits that over 30% of the food supply typically goes to waste.
“I would definitely say that Food Not Bombs is an anti-capitalist organization,” she says. “We’re trying to reuse the waste of the gluttonous society that we live in currently.”
Cotter is also brining a civil-rights action against the City of Long Beach for false arrest.
“It is my belief that it is important for people to stand up for their rights, especially in the courtroom, where there is a lot of fear around legal repercussions,” she says. “I felt scared and stressed out after I was arrested, even though I knew that I had done nothing illegal. That fear is what keeps the current police state we live in place.”
Challenging the establishment is a central tenet of Food Not Bombs, as the organization makes clear on its national Website:
Even though we provide meals and groceries to thousands of people[,] we are not a charity. Food Not Bombs is trying to inspire the public to participate in changing society and focus our resources on solving problems like hunger, homelessness and poverty while seeking an end to war and the destruction of the environment. We are also showing by example that we can work cooperatively without leaders through volunteer effort to provide essential needs like, food, housing, education and healthcare. When over a billion people go hungry each day[,] how can we spend another dollar on war?
It’s just that kind of debate that Cotter says her chapter’s activities help spark locally.
“Some of the most interesting conversations are with people you wouldn’t expect to take [the food],” she says. “The idea is to share with everyone, no matter where they are within our economic system in society. […] We’re just trying to share with people ideas about healthier eating, and also the idea of free culture. Because a lot of people are so consumed by our money exchange. […] I think it’s important to be able to cut the fear that people are trying to instill in us not to communicate and share with each other. […] For Food Not Bombs activists, it is critical to shift our oppressive society in a new direction, and speaking truth to power through legal means is part of the same battle as giving access to free, healthy food to our community.”
(Photo: Cotter (left) and Food Not Bombs members on the day of Cotter’s arrest.)