like a picnic, only bigger, and with strangers

The squad car pulled up into the park, right onto the paving stones, and stopped eight paces from the planter. Not much of a planter, mind you. Two anaemic elms and a scrubby young Douglas fir, not so much tended to as prevented from dying by the parks department. They served mainly to frame two of the large Chinookan totem poles, carved by a local artist, at the centre of the triangular patch of woodchips and dirt. The totem poles are lovely—majestic even—and survived Occidental Park’s million-dollar facelift two years before by the skin of their wooden teeth.[i] But the planter itself was not much to speak of. A low stone wall bordered its north edge, and that’s where we stood. Lined up on the wall: our pots, pans, plates, cups, and cutlery. We stood behind them as people filed past for a free Sunday dinner that inevitably consisted of coffee, fresh fruit, baked-and-or-stir-fried vegetables (it was sometimes unclear, even to us, by the time we took them down to the park), an unpopular but ubiquitous salad, and if we were particularly on top of our game, dessert. Apple crisp was not uncommon. “We” in this case means the Seattle chapter of Food Not Bombs. This is all food that would have been thrown away by local markets, so we collect it, cook it, and hand it out weekly. I announced the menu and translated it into Spanish for the benefit of some of the diners—who had come all the way from Mexico, Guatemala, and further south for the privilege of joining Seattle’s casual labour pool and eating in the park of a downtown Sunday.

The officer walked purposefully up to the four or five of us serving food, and forewent any small talk whatsoever. “You are being audio and videotaped,” she said, resting her hands on her duty belt, “and I have warned you about this before.” It wouldn’t be too much to say she was being a bit surly. Not to mention redundant, in a way, because we were videotaping her as well. (This is why I know, for example, how many paces away she parked. I’m a decent ethnographer, but not that good.)

There’s some irony in the fact that both she and our rag-tag soup kitchen felt the need to document each other’s presence here in the park. In her mouth, it sounded like a warning—which she followed up by reminding me personally that she had already copied down my name and address on her last visit, a few weeks ago, and passed them along to the appropriate parties. For us, it was a kind of protection—we gathered that the city might be less vigorous about discouraging public food-sharing if we could publicly circulate images of them doing so.

The officer went on: “Right now, I’m going to—suffice it to say you are to step out of the planter.” (Her emphasis, not mine). “I already talked about this. This is a planted area; you cannot be in there. You cannot serve hot food in the park. You know that already.”

On her last visit, she had told us to pack up our stuff and vacate the park—which was, unsurprisingly, somewhat poorly received by a number of our diners. They spat jokes at her that I admit, I thought were funny, but would have been ill-advised to laugh at, given the circumstances. (“Calling all cars: felony feeding at Occidental Park,” or something to that effect.) Perhaps picking her battles, and preferring not to address a small crowd of understandably pissed off homeless people, she had ignored them and instead took the issue up with me, chiding us for stomping around in a planted area. Meanwhile, picking our battles, we had finished feeding the people in the line and packed up the remaining food before anyone else showed up.

Upon her return, she remembered me and addressed me directly. This time, she said, she wasn’t going to make us leave. Instead, she told us to get our stuff out of the planter.  “I won’t have you standing in there,” she said, and gestured concernedly towards the planter. “That I have a problem with.”

Not much of a planter, mind you. But her priorities can’t have been lost on the diners within earshot, most of whom were sleeping rough or paying five dollars a night to stay in the nearby rescue missions: The scrubby trees, such as they were, were framed as the hapless victims in all this.

Or, more properly, such were the priorities of City Hall. While she certainly seemed to take a personal affront to our little operation, this officer was acting in the service of a more concerted policy. This was the summer of 2008, and it was our fourth visit from the police in two months. (And our second visit from her.) One of them told us that the mayor’s office had asked parks department employees to “dial 911” whenever they saw anyone handing out food. (It wasn’t clear whether the officer had been speaking figuratively or not.) Mercifully, not all of the parks workers complied. Sometimes we offered them a few doughnuts and promised to be out of the park promptly. (And even when they did call, I imagine, the police sometimes found more pressing things to do.) Prior to that, downtown parks workers had carried copies of an open letter from Parks and Recreation informing would-be-do-gooders that the city allowed outdoor meal programs to operate in one place and one place only: Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street. They’d hand us a copy when they came through the park to empty the garbage cans. Privately, a few homeless advocates who’d spoken with Mayor Greg Nickels confided in me that he didn’t approve of outdoor meal programs. And between 2007 and 2008, on the heels of the city’s downtown parks “renaissance” in 2006 (read: expensive remodelling, designed partly to discourage ‘undesirables’—according to the firm contracted to design its new incarnation), the mayor’s office made a concerted push to channel rogue soup kitchens like us up to Sixth and Columbia. We received copies of the letter no less than five times from parks employees, other meal providers, and even emailed to us at the web site for the Seattle chapter of Food Not Bombs.

Having browsed the parks code, however, without finding any unambiguous prohibition of public food sharing, we decided to keep bringing dinner to Occidental Park. (“Events” required a permit, but a few of us reasoned it was more like a picnic than an event—only bigger, and with strangers.) Even now, despite its ambitious redevelopment and the subsequent anti-feeding campaign, the park is a place where people who are hungry or homeless often pass the hours on a Sunday afternoon. It has a long history, in fact, of such tensions between economic development and material privation. Situated at the bottom of the nation’s original Skid Road (so-named for the logs that skidded down Profanity Hill to the local saw mill), Occidental Park[ii] and the surrounding Pioneer Square neighbourhood were among Seattle’s very first neighbourhoods, supporting both the city’s burgeoning timber industry and a cut-rate economy of migrant labour, cheap taverns and other insubstantial housing. Since then, the winners and losers in Pioneer Square’s economy have often laid competing claims, formal and defacto, to the area. We imagined our meal as one small part of this history.

The official outdoor meal site, in contrast to Occidental Park, is subject to no claim at all. It is something of a no-man’s land: under the freeway, outside the metro buses’ ride-free zone, uphill and relatively distant from many of the city’s shelters and from downtown foot traffic. And although police crackdowns on unsanctioned meals were ostensibly intended “for safety’s sake and public health’s sake,” according to the Mayor’s office, the effect of deliberately concentrating under the same freeway pillars most everybody seeking outdoor assistance has not always been to create a welcoming, antiseptic dining experience. While most of the meal providers working there continue to make unimpeachable efforts (and unimpeachable food) and feed thousands of people every year, the space can be crowded and can force people into close quarters with others they might rather avoid—be it for fear of assault or for other reasons. One diner also told us the police sometimes patrolled the line of diners—sometimes looking for people with outstanding warrants—which might be a comfort to some diners, but not for others. (And not just the violent ones: in a city where camping in the park or sitting on the sidewalk is prohibited, it’s not hard for homeless people to acquire arrest warrants). And, of course, the shelter of the freeway accommodates diverse bodily functions overnight. It often smells like stale piss. All of which raises questions about the city’s criteria for “safety” and “health,” and from whose perspective they’ve been defined. Despite the relatively heroic efforts of meal providers and advocates who work at the site, its very existence is a trace of the bitter, fractious politics of hunger and homelessness in the city. And ultimately, that politics leaves out the voices of people who are homeless, hungry, and would rather eat elsewhere.

On her first visit, our afore-mentioned officer of the peace had in fact asked me why we hadn’t moved our operation up to the official site, to which I replied with the afore-cited reasons. Her solution: we should focus on providing transport to all the hungry people who were disabled or too ill to walk up to the official site. I think she knew she’d lost the argument on pragmatic grounds at that point, but she nonetheless (or maybe consequently) also threatened to issue me a parks exclusion ticket—which would have made serving trickier. Thankfully, she forwent that. (Although the next time I saw her she did try to suggest that I had provided her with false information on her previous visit—another reason it’s nice to have a videographer handy when you’re talking to the police).

In fact, that was the last we heard from the police for quite a while. Conceivably, in the shadow of the global financial meltdown later that summer—and its casualties, left in sudden need of shelter and food—the mayor’s office decided we just weren’t worth the hassle. A local journalist had also been kind enough to visit us and publish a photograph of one of our conversations with the police (see below), along with a decidedly even-handed article about the whole business, so that might have helped our case, too.

(from The Seattle Stranger, June 5, 2008. Photo by Jonah Spangenthal Lee.)

(The article seemed to get quite a lot of attention, in fact. People who knew nothing else about Food Not Bombs or homelessness in Seattle often knew about the article. They talked to me about the crackdowns even months after it was published.) Whether the city felt like the stakes of issuing parks exclusion tickets to us under public scrutiny were too high, or they simply had more important things to worry about after the “great recession,” they have more or less left the group alone since then. In the intervening years, Food Not Bombs has kept sharing our dinner in Occidental Park on Sunday afternoons. We’ve even been joined by a few other church groups. And the planter survives, unperturbed by our efforts, to this day.


This was, of course, not the only moment of discord between Food Not Bombs and the Seattle Police Department. Participants from several other phases in the group’s twenty-year tenure in Seattle have narrated to me similar periods in which the group’s presence provoked city agencies, local businesses, or both, to pressure them to move. Nor is Seattle unique in this respect. Food Not Bombs co-conspirators from chapters in San Francisco, New York City, Orlando and other cities told me the same kinds of stories, from different periods throughout the last thirty years or so. And while the group’s anarchist leanings incline it towards civil disobedience more than most other public meal projects, these stories have nonetheless been multiplied by homeless advocates and service providers around the country over the same timeframe. Dozens of cities, perhaps more, around the United States and in other market-centric nations, have used a variety of tactics, subtle and militant, ad-hoc and carefully planned, to restrict or discourage these efforts: Parks-use permits, health code restrictions, zoning laws, informal pressures, among others. Publics and policy makers, it is clear, have often reacted to growing crises of housing and homelessness by prohibiting and prosecuting the free public distribution of food.

These developments are part of a body of municipal laws and policies which homeless advocates have sometimes called ‘the criminalisation of homelessness.’ They range from ordinances outlawing ‘aggressive’ panhandling, loitering, and public urination to curfews in public parks and extrajudicial exclusion orders like Seattle’s “parks exclusion” tickets.  Strictly speaking, these advocates are spot on: In cities like Seattle where social safety nets can be spotty, ad hoc, and occasionally Kafkaesque affairs, where people without shelter sometimes have no other recourse than these prohibited activities, homelessness itself becomes a petty crime.

But these policies need to be understood, too, on a larger scale. Like homelessness itself, they represent transformations in the fabric of urban living which have been both cause and effect throughout these vexed decades of political and economic (neo)liberalisation. Cities like Seattle are perpetually globalising, investing in their economic and cultural footholds in the ever-shifting terrain of the global economy. And the cultural economies of these cities are constantly remade by and for that terrain. If, for example, prohibitions of free, public meals are proliferating from city to city in the United States and elsewhere, they are also remaking not simply the lives of people without reliable incomes or shelter, but the cultural economy of eating itself—and therefore of life. Mighty urban economies such as Seattle’s, I would like to suggest, produce waste and abjection in more or less direct proportion to the economic value they create, and yet to function they must keep each circulating away from the other. This is most poignantly true of eating, as the geography of food surpluses and scarcity, waste and want, are carefully managed. To remake urban life in such a way asserts a novel, globalised configuration of governmental control and sovereignty at the scale of the urban (rather than, say, the national or the international). But this urban life, remade, neither sits still nor does what it’s told. Its component elements—variously segregated, sanctioned, submerged, or subsidised—emerge from and thresh against each others’ edges in myriad ways. Homelessness, hunger, and survival itself are not only, in a sense, created by these policies; they also exceed every effort to manage them, and in turn, they unravel and reform the city, the state, and the social.

(This is an excerpt adapted from my doctoral dissertation, completed in 2013.)

[i] The Project for Public Spaces, contracted to reconceptualise the park, suggested “relocating at least a couple of the totems to allow for activities to occur in the space,” such as performances and games (p.17). Note also that the totems do, indeed, feature carved wooden teeth.

[ii]Note, that the land on which Occidental Park was later established was neither a park nor was it land, strictly speaking, at the time that Yesler’s saw mill began operation. It was swamp, later to be filled. Nonetheless, it supported camps of homeless people along its banks, including local Duwamish people displaced by Seattle’s growth.


About artnoiserhetoric

So much to say, so little time... Watch this space.
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3 Responses to like a picnic, only bigger, and with strangers

  1. Meg says:

    Like a picnic only bigger, and with strangers AND accordion music. I had a memory just days ago of dancing with, well I don’t even remember his name, at the park, while you played.

    Also, what sticks in my mind the most about that evening was the Asian tour group that approached her car after she’d returned to it. I remember them peering in the windows and taking pictures, seemingly amused or confused at a police car being in the middle of the park. Or maybe just wanting a souvenir picture with a SPD car? Anyway, adding another layer of redundancy. Did they make it into the video?

  2. Meg says:

    The last sentence of paragraph 9 seems odd to me: “We imagined our meal as one small part of this history.” Not sure about that, the we part that is.

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