On the afternoon of June 8, the activist group Food Not Bombs delivered free vegetarian meals to the homeless and other Downtown visitors in Market Square -- as it has been doing for years. The only thing that made this weekend's meal notable was what happened the week before.
Volunteers with the Pittsburgh chapter of FNB, a nationwide antiwar/antipoverty group, say the group has been serving free food to people of all income levels every Sunday in the Downtown area for the past 14 years. But on Sun., June 1, a book fair was slated for the Square's stage area at the same time, and a fair organizer told the group that since they had no permit, they had to leave.
"We ignored her, started serving our food, then the police came ... and pushed us all the way to Forbes Avenue. We weren't able to see or read a permit," says James Robinson, an FNB volunteer.
The book fair was sponsored by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization representing Downtown businesses and dedicated to making the area more vibrant.
"Our goal has been to program the space in Market Square to make it a positive place," says PDP spokesperson Hollie Plevyak. Plevyak says that FNB's amorphous, grass-roots structure made it hard to negotiate with the group. "Because there was no leader for FNB, there were not many other things the [book fair] could do but call the authorities."
Plevyak says that, until the June 1 incident, the Partnership had been unaware of Food Not Bombs' activities in Market Square.
"We've given their safety ambassadors and clean-up people food, and we've given them contact information as well," counters Brian Johnson, another FNB volunteer. The only way the PDP could be surprised by his group's activities, he says, is if "they don't talk to their own people."
Plevyak says the Partnership's concern is purely a matter of legal liability. If something harmful happens or refuse is inadequately disposed of while a separate event is being held simultaneously, she says, the group holding the permit can be held responsible. That said, Plevyak adds, the PDP's scheduled activities and permits through Sept. 15 all take place in the morning -- which shouldn't conflict with FNB's early-afternoon lunch service.
"As an organization, we are not going to stop them," says Plevyak. "We are nonprofit and we do not have the authority. I see it being a non-issue."
It wasn't an issue on June 8, anyway. Food Not Bombs set up, fed its guests and dismantled its two-hour feeding operation without a hitch. And for their part, volunteers say they can relocate temporarily for events like a "Berry Festival" slated for June 29.
But it's clear that the June 1 incident sparked misgivings in some quarters. According to the PDP, flyers began appearing Downtown on the morning of June 8. The flyers claim that the Partnership wants to "displace homeless people by kicking them out of Market Square," and wants to re-route Downtown buses to "make black and poor people unseen." No author is identified on the flyers though the PDP suspects that they're the work of Food Not Bombs members -- an allegation FNB denies.
In the past, Food Not Bombs has repeatedly rejected suggestions to join forces with city-sponsored homeless-outreach programs, citing the advantages of a more grassroots approach that avoids the stigma of accepting charity and promoting a sense of community.
"If we came as individuals giving somebody food, is that prohibited?" asks Johnson. "Who is allowed, who isn't, and how do they determine it?"