About a dozen people people in El Cajon, California were arrested Sunday afternoon and face misdemeanor charges, reports the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Their alleged crime? Feeding the homeless at a city park.
In October, the El Cajon City Council unanimously passed an ordinance making it illegal to hand out food to homeless people on any city-owned property.
To protest the ordinance, a group called Break the Ban gathered in Wells Park. Mark Lane, who helped organize the protest, told the Union-Tribune that 12 to 15 people were passing out food and toiletries in the park when police showed up.
Some 40 others, including several lawyers, were also at the park, but were not actively distributing supplies. Some of them carried signs bearing slogans such as “Feeding the hungry is not a crime.”
City officials contend the ordinance is a way to protect the public from hepatitis A, since the city of San Diego recently dealt with a major breakout of the disease. However, critics say the ban criminalizes and dehumanizes homeless people without doing anything to help their problems.
“It was absolutely necessary to break this law until they were willing to enforce it, and now that they have, we will continue this fight in court,” event organizer Shane Parmely told the Union-Tribune. Parmely posted a video on her Facebook page in which a police officer explained that sharing food on public property had been banned by the city council.
“This park is part of city property so you aren’t allowed to food share,” the officer is heard saying in the video. “ … If you guys continue to food share, then you guys are subject to arrest, alright?”
Police eventually arrested everyone who was handing out food — including a 14-year-old child — and gave them misdemeanor citations and court dates before releasing them. No one was taken away in handcuffs.
The officer in the video can be heard explaining that the citations resulted from protesters’ failure to obey a municipal ordinance and a recently-passed city emergency order.
Sunday’s event was apparently the second that Break the Ban had held, and Lane said protesters would keep feeding the homeless, even in the face of legal consequences.
Break the Ban has also partnered with a second group called Food Not Bombs, which has hosted similar food-sharing events. The next one is planned for Jan. 27, back at Wells Park.