- Subhash Gatade
Whether serving food to the homeless is a crime?
Ask Arnold Arbott, known as Chef Arbott, a 90 year old man from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who along-with two other members of a Church charity faces potential jail term for at least six months for the same ‘offence’. In fact his name finds prominent mention in the police records in the past week for breaking the new city ordinance which has come into effect recently which characterises his act as breach of law, according to reports.
Talking to a newsperson he said:
“These are the poorest of the poor. They have nothing. They don’t have a roof over their head. And who could turn them away?”
Report published in ‘Independent’ tells us that he has been a campaigner of sorts who had sued the City of Fort Laurderdale when he was banned from feeding the homeless on the beach. (1999) and the court vindicated his stand and declared that the rule was against the constitution.
It may be mentioned here that starting in about 2006; several cities began arresting, fining, and otherwise oppressing private individuals and non-profits that feed the homeless and less fortunate.
Las Vegas happened to be the first city which banned feeding the homeless (2006) under the ostensible reason that ‘..[g]iving food to people already in the public park violated statutes requiring permits for gatherings of 25 or more people. “When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nevada took issue with this interpretation of permit laws, the City took a more direct approach: “it explicitly outlawed the sharing of food with anyone who looked poor.” Another reason given by the city Mayor to enact such a regulation was to “push all homeless feedings indoors where it would be safer” but according to civil liberty activists it was not to protect the health of the homeless but “to protect city’s image in a tourist area”.
Coming back to Fort Lauderdale, Florida the new regulations – which has come into effect or is planned to in Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, and Philadelphia – ‘[r]equire groups to be at least 500 feet away from residential properties and food sites are restricted to one per city block, but charities have criticised the rules as forms of implementing social cleansing.’
It is possible that the international coverage which this case has attracted may deter the law authorities there to send Chef Arbott and his colleagues to jail, but the pertinent question remains how the state itself is keen not only to criminalise the destitute, the homeless, vulnerable sections of our society but also all those people who are genuinely concerned about their plight and want to do something about it.
For example, sometime back one heard of members of a group of women called ‘Women’s Institute’ were stopped from distributing flyers for a charity show. According to another report, Liza Day, 68 who was part of the group was confronted by a council litter warden, who warned her that ‘it was illegal to hand out the charity adverts.’ They were asked to ‘secure a licence from the council to legally hand flyers to passers-by.’ It was for the first time in six years they were told that they must not hand out flyers.
Question arises why the powers that be are keen that ordinary people’s concern towards plight of fellow human beings or their zeal to engage in voluntary action to do something about it is contained under a rubric of law, regulations, talk of order etc. Why they are worried about any unleashing of such concern?
Such disciplining of ordinary people helps establish the hegemony of the ruling classes and their ideas and helps defang any possible resistance to it. People are told that rules are sacrosanct and should be followed because they are in the broader interest of the society and they rarely learn to question the basis of rules themselves.
Look at the question of corporate tax dodgers and the treatment they receive at the hands of establishment.
Interestingly just when the news about Chef Arbott’s possible prosecution hit the headlines, reports of an investigation done by a consortium of Investigative Journalists which has collaborated with reporters from more than 25 countries became public. It found that more than 340 multinational corporations have avoided paying billions of dollars in taxes by obtaining secret deals in Luxembourg. The journalists obtained nearly 28,000 pages of confidential documents which reveal that some of the world’s largest companies, including Pepsi, IKEA, AIG, Coach and Deutsche Bank, have channelled hundreds of billions of dollars through Luxembourg — a small country in Western Europe known as a “magical fairyland” for corporate tax dodgers. Some firms have secured effective tax rates of less than 1 percent.
‘[o]ver the past decade, multinational companies have funnelled more than $2 trillion in profits out of the U.S. and parked it overseas. Much of it is labelled “deferred taxes” and invested to make more money. They keep it overseas to evade paying our 35% federal corporate tax. Meanwhile, they’re lobbying fiercely in Washington for a huge one-year tax reduction to only 5% before they’ll agree to repatriate their money.’ He further adds that ‘Pfizer alone saved $11 billion with it, then turned around and reduced its workforce by more than 40,000, according to David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who routinely exposes corporate tax abuses.’
Anybody can gather from her/his experience that none of these corporate tax dodgers would ever be punished for their act unless and until ordinary people in the United States of America are able to raise their voice unitedly. Possibility is that – thanks to the Republican dominance in both houses of the Congress – they would be granted amnesty. Ten years back the then federal government had granted such a bonanza under President George W. Bush
One can see for oneself that if you dodge taxes i.e. ‘steal’ monies which are meant to go for the government coffers, then forget prosecution, you will be rewarded but if you try to go the Chef Arbott way, helping those very people who are living on the margins of society because of the structural inequalities, you would be sent to jail.
Welcome to USA, the strongest democracy in the world.
Subhash Gatade is a New Socialist Initiative (NSI) activist. He is also the author of 'Godse's Children: Hindutva Terror in India' ; 'The Saffron Condition: The Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India' and 'The Ambedkar Question in 20th Century' (in Hindi).