Defending the right to share food: Skid Row’s community picnic
Themes of empowerment and social responsibility permeated a community picnic in Skid Row on Thursday, Sept. 30. The event was both a festival and a protest against the alleged rise in citations against charities distributing food to the homeless in downtown.
Groups from the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), Los Angles Catholic Worker, Food Not Bombs, World Agape Church, Hunger Action LA, Coalition LA and others gathered at Towne Avenue between Sixth and Seventh Streets to distribute food and supplies, free of charge.
Dozens of homeless and Skid Row residents filed into quiet lines while organizers rallied in defense of their community.
“They are directly targeting folks down here,” said General Dogon, organizer for LA CAN. “We got to stand up and get involved. It’s going to take all of us to do it.”
The event was the culmination of months of planning by the groups. Three months prior to the event, the World Agape Church food line, which had been in operation for over five years, was closed by the Los Angeles County Health Department.
Volunteers that participate in similar social outreach banded together soon afterward to protest this and the alleged rise in policing the distribution of free food.
Kay Chung, manager at World Agape Church, is looking into obtaining a permit to restart the food line. The church is lead by Korean missionaries with headquarters in Seoul, South Korea. Chung grew up during the Korean War. The help his family received from other countries during that time inspired him to help others.
“I was so young. I remember getting dried milk and corn from the United States,” said Chung. “Now the economic conditions are growing better … so now we can spread money to homeless people.”
The first organizers set up their supplies at 3 p.m. A wide variety of handouts were available and not limited to food. Toiletries, clothing and even healthy cookbooks were given out freely. For hungry attendees, the organizers provided ice cream, fruit, hamburgers, Acai drinks, doughnuts, soup, pasta and more.
Drum circles and a group of guitarists and singers entertained the crowds. Songs like “Let My People Go” and “Wade in the Water” wafted through the air, along with the scent of burning sage.
Mike Wisniewski, a server at the LA Catholic Worker, spoke about tangentially related frustrations regarding the LAPD’s Safer Cities Initiative (SCI). In 2006, the police department dispatched an fifty additional officers to the fifty square blocks of Skid Row.
“I think it’s demoralizing, inhumane, and really atrocious,” said Wisniewski. “All it does is have a demoralizing effect on everyone that’s affected by it, including us who serve.”
Along with perpetuating negative connotations, SCI is also described as ineffective. SCI has even come under scrutiny by UCLA faculty Gary Blasi and graduate student Forrest Stuart. In 2008, they released a report on SCI titled “Has the Safer Cities Initiative in Skid Row Reduced Serious Crime?”
“We found that, as to overall serious or violent crime, the reduction of crime in the SCI deployment area was not statistically significant from the reduction in the non-SCI area,” stated Blasi and Stuart in their report.
Event organizers frequently spoke in opposition to SCI. Dogon urged all in attendance to sign a petition against it. Taking up a mobile loudspeaker, he announced that a preliminary petition was delivered to LAPD’s Central Division before the event which included 3,500 signatures. Dogon hoped to get another petition organized at the event.
Michael Hubman of Watercorps, a water distribution charity, first brought the closing of World Agape Church’s soup line to the attention of LA CAN. Hubman maintains that SCI and the actions against the homeless of the area is less about the improvement of the area and more about a class war.
“We believe that sharing food with our brothers and sisters is a fundamental human right,” said Hubman. “We’re talking about our human brothers and sisters, not unwanted pigeons or pesky wildlife.”
Nevylle Flagg once worked at World Agape Church. Although he stopped volunteering in August of 2009, he decided to be a part of Thursday’s action as soon as he heard about the closure of the soup line.
“The red shirts would stop by and give us garbage bags, talk to us, help us,” said Flagg, referring to the uniform color of security hired by area businesses. “That’s why this is so weird. Somewhere in May or June the politics flipped and now they’re starting to attack us.”
Many of the attendees were grateful for the palatable variety available at the picnic, beyond just its quality. Many unanimously preferred food given by independent organizations over “bland” food given out at missions.
“Mission food? I feel like I’ve gotten more messed up on mission food than I have on the street,” said Skid Row resident Tony Johnson. “[Mission food] comes from food banks, and a lot of it is either expired or close to its expiration date.”
Bilal Ali, organizer for Coalition LA, performed a spoken-word poem for the event. The piece was entitled “Happy Anniversary” in reference to the fourth anniversary of SCI.
“Happy anniversary, for making it a crime to be poor, for making it a crime to sleep on a concrete floor,” read Ali. “Hail, hail to the new Rome, where you’re no longer welcome so take your poor ass to find a new home. …
They may beat us, they may mistreat us, but they ain’t never going to defeat us.”
Although police patrols frequently circled the event, no direct action was taken to close or limit the organizers’ activities.
Activists plan to continue having community picnics in Skid Row, however a future date has not yet been set.