tampabay.com

The enemy was hunger, until city hall stepped in

Members of a socially conscious group learned they had to beat bureaucracy before they could help the homeless.

By DAVID KARP
Published July 12, 2004


TAMPA - At some point, while her boyfriend was sitting in the back of the police cruiser, Denise Aguero thought: This is crazy.

After all, Aguero and Mark Parrish had simply volunteered to help a group feed the homeless in downtown Tampa.

Within 30 minutes of arriving at a park, Aguero and Parrish were facing down a police officer. They could not serve food without a permit, he said. And a permit would cost at least $225 and require $500,000 in liability insurance.

The officer ordered them to leave. Words were exchanged, and Parrish ended up charged with criminal trespass.

Over March and April, four more people would be arrested for feeding the homeless downtown. Police said they violated a city ordinance that forbids people from giving out food without charging money for it.

The headline over a column by Daniel Ruth in the Tampa Tribune summed up how ludicrous it seemed: Don't You Even Think About Helping Others.

That Sunday in the park was just another skirmish in a long-running battle between the city, which wants to spruce up downtown, and the homeless and their advocates. But for Parrish, it was a signal moment.

He could not fathom it. How had an act of charity become a crime?

He and his friends had little power, a pittance of money and no clue how City Hall worked. But they had a cause, and they were determined to prove the city wrong.

* * *

Parrish and Aguero had never volunteered before. But in March, when they saw a flier from a group called Food Not Bombs on campus at the University of South Florida, they decided to step forward.

That Sunday afternoon on March 21, members of Food Not Bombs - mainly college students in their 20s - laid out a lunch of cheese pizza, stir fry and salad for the homeless at Herman Massey Park, a block of brick and asphalt in a boarded-up sector of downtown.

About 1:30 p.m., Tampa police Officer Gary Balkcom pulled his cruiser up to the park. He told the crowd that they didn't have a permit to feed the homeless.

Parrish, 25, knew the city had designated Massey Park as a picnicking spot. "You don't have to have a permit to picnic," he told Balkcom. They were just having a picnic - they were not feeding anyone.

"Don't play word games with me," Balkcom said, according to Parrish.

The officer ordered them to leave.

"Why is that?" Parrish asked. "This is a city park."

Then he asked, "Am I under arrest?"

All of a sudden, both sides agree, Balkcom threw Parrish against his police car.

"How does that make you feel?" Parrish said Balkcom asked him.

Balkcom declined to discuss with a reporter the details of the arrest. In his police report, Balkcom explained the use of force by saying Parrish had raised his fist "in an offensive motion." No one else interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times saw Parrish do this.

Parrish said something about the ACLU, about how this violated his rights.

"The ACLU is full of it," Balkcom said, according to Parrish. "They get you to come down here and do their dirty work."

A few minutes later, Balkcom's supervisor, Sgt. Donny Peters, arrived along with a lieutenant. They decided they didn't need to take Parrish to jail. He had a valid ID. They handed him a summons to appear in court on a criminal trespassing charge.

Started in 1980 in Cambridge, Mass., Food Not Bombs describes itself as an international revolutionary movement dedicated to the principles of non-violence, consensus, and the idea that food is a right, not a privilege.

In San Francisco, members have been arrested more than 1,000 times for giving food to the poor.

In Tampa, the group had never been bothered by police before. But after that March day when police arrested Parrish, Food Not Bombs decided to make a political statement. They would return to the park in an act of civil disobedience.

On three weekends in March and April, police arrested five people for returning to the park. One weekend, they deployed members of the Quad Squad, an undercover drug unit, to handle the protesters.

Another time, two protesters were secretly videotaped after they had been placed in the back of a police cruiser. The tape is part of the court record in their case. "There may be a point in each of our lives when you have to take a stand. You have to pick your battles wisely because it is a fascist society," said one of the protesters.

* * *

In his too-big T-shirt, Parrish looks like a drifter. He's rail thin, with tattoos on bony arms and uncombed hair. At night, he washes dishes at a Tampa Palms restaurant. During the day, he takes the bus to Atomic Tattoos, where he works as an apprentice. He served in the Army for about four years, has a GED and no interest in getting a college degree. But in the apartment that he and his girlfriend share near the USF campus, he has books. Lots of books.

The Oligarchy, Global Disorder, A People's History of the United States, The Buying of the President 2004.

On weekends, Parrish and Aguero watch documentaries on the Discovery Channel. They set their computer home page to the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Web page. They talk about the World Trade Organization.

"Everyday people don't talk about these things," said Aguero, 21. "I can't stop thinking about them."

On the day he was charged at Massey Park, Parrish decided he had to do something about the city's homeless feeding policy.

In late April, he showed up at police headquarters. He wanted to speak to the chief, he said. Maj. George McNamara came to meet with him.

The conversation did not go well, at least as far as Parrish was concerned. He felt McNamara was talking down to him.

"I'm 40," McNamara told Parrish at one point. "I'm old enough to be your dad."

He suggested that Parrish work with the Salvation Army or Metropolitan Ministries.

Parrish said no. He had a right to share food in the people's parks, he said. Food Not Bombs viewed churches as exclusionary and hierarchical.

McNamara asked, why not apply for a permit?

It was a matter of principle. People should be able to eat food in public parks, Parrish said. Besides, a permit would cost hundreds of dollars and could only be obtained a few times a year, not every Sunday. And the permit actually required groups to charge money for food.

Parrish could see he was getting nowhere with the police. * * *

He decided to take his case to city hall. He collected signatures on a petition seeking to change the anti-feeding ordinance. He took it to the City Council in April.

He waited for about three hours for the end of the meeting, when the public is allowed to address the council on any issue.

"I'm a little new to this, so sorry," Parrish said when it was his turn to speak.

The council members were in business suits and blouses. Parrish was in camouflage pants.

"We have petitions signed," he started.

Council chairwoman Gwen Miller interrupted him. She noticed that the TV was broadcasting Parrish's remarks even though this part of the meeting was not supposed to be televised.

"Please cut the cable off!" Miller said. "Please cut the cable off!"

Parrish went on.

"If we wanted to have things like this (ordinance) rescinded, how would I go about doing that exactly?" he asked.

The council members stared at him.

The council could change the ordinance, the council attorney said.

Stares again.

Parrish said he had sent council members lots of e-mails but had received only one response. He wondered how long it would take for them to write back.

"Is there a certain amount of time that these take?" he asked.

His speaking time was up.

* * *

And what about Pam Iorio, the mayor nicknamed "Mary Poppins" for her ability to defuse tense situations. How did she end up being the mayor who stopped college students from feeding the poor?

Iorio wants young people to get involved in civic affairs. She has set up a "youth core" to get students interested in government. As a graduate student in history, Iorio wrote admiringly of civil rights leaders who got arrested to protest laws they considered unjust.

In elementary school, she led a boycott of the cafeteria to protest poor food quality. In high school, she took on her principal by speaking out about school issues before the Hillsborough School Board.

But now, as mayor, she was the authoritarian. She fell solidly behind the police.

"I am responsible for the parks in this city," Iorio said.

As mayor, she said she had to make sure that groups did not infringe on the rights of other people. She had to protect people who did not want to be surrounded by the homeless.

McNamara warned the council that there would be chaos if the feeding continued.

"Imagine what type of society we would have if law enforcement were simply to turn their eye and say we are not going to enforce this regulation or this rule or law today," he said. "It simply cannot happen."

* * *

And then, as quickly as it happened, it was over.

In May, prosecutors dropped the charges against Parrish and the others at the mayor's request.

What had happened to change things so quickly?

A law professor at the University of Florida had heard about the case and volunteered to help the protesters. Joseph S. Jackson persuaded city lawyers that the park restrictions were so broad they would be struck down in court as unconstitutional.

Under the ordinance, people applying for a permit had to explain how the event would reflect positively on the city. Applicants had to give city officials copies of any literature that would be distributed.

That gave the city the ability to permit certain messages but not others.

Even as the city dropped the charges, the mayor did not change her stance. The city would pass a new ordinance, Iorio said, although so far, her staff hasn't presented any new plans.

Parrish, meanwhile, has returned to his two jobs. He still rides the bus to work. His girlfriend is taking another course this summer at USF. On Sundays, they go with the group to Massey Park and put out trays. Fewer than 10 people usually show up. Sometimes, people give away blankets and shampoo, too. After about an hour, they clean up and head out.

The park, usually empty, returns to quiet again. No one seems much to notice, or care.

* * *

In June, the City Council named Gary Balkcom - the officer who had the confrontation with Parrish that Sunday in March - officer of the month.

Balkcom has been on the force about 15 years. He was lauded during the ceremony for having an exemplary arrest record. But his career has had some ups and downs.

In 1998, he was reprimanded for pointing a gun at the head of a woman and threatening to shoot her. Police said she was resisting arrest but decided that Balkcom should have used pepper spray instead.

In July 2003, a homeless man complained that Balkcom beat him up while arresting him at the Tampa Convention Center. Witnesses said Balkcom ordered the man to stand against a wall, then kneed him and struck him with a nightstick. Balkcom said "he would throw the guy in the river to see how good he could swim," one witness said.

Internal affairs investigators cleared Balkcom of wrongdoing.

"Gary can be rough around the edges," said Peters, his supervisor.

Asked about the complaints filed against him, Balkcom said his job policing the streets is tough, and sometimes he has to be forceful if people don't cooperate. He cheerfully shared with a reporter a Chris Rock video - "How Not to Get Your A-- Kicked by the Police" - that he has downloaded onto his cruiser's computer.

He works hard, Peters said. Balkcom comes in at 6 a.m. when his shift doesn't start until 7. He has hired homeless men to do construction work for his side business, Peters said.

When Balkcom was named officer of the month, council member Rose Ferlita cited his efforts helping the homeless.

"Gary has gone over and above to try to resolve at least part of (the problem) as much as he can," she said.

They handed him a golden statute of a police officer. It's dedicated to Gary Balkcom, for his "dedicated professionalism to the citizens of Tampa, Florida."

- Times staff writer David Karp can be reached at 813 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com

THE PLAYERS

THE COP: Officer Gary Balkcom arrested the first volunteer at Massey Park. He can be gruff, his supervisors say. In his police cruiser, he has downloaded a Chris Rock video, "How Not to Get Your A-- Kicked by the Police."

THE MAYOR: As a student, Pam Iorio once led a boycott of her elementary school cafeteria because of poor food quality. But as mayor, she didn't tolerate civil disobedience.

THE PROTESTERS: Mark Parrish and Denise Aguero didn't support what they read about government's far-reaching power over civil liberties. Then, they went to feed the homeless - and felt what it meant to challenge the state.

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