By Baylen Linnekin
In parks around the world, people are free to feed themselves, pigeons, squirrels, and even rats. So why are local governments increasingly preventing them from feeding other people?
In 1921, in Boston, an activist named Urbain Ledoux—going by the moniker Mr. Zero—happened on an idea to help unemployed veterans and their families. Ledoux, leader of what he called the “Church of the Unemployed,” would “auction” off the veterans in public parks. He hoped that the stark image of such auctions—which brought to mind horrific slave auctions that some still alive at the time would have witnessed in person—would galvanize the public and help find people work.
In Boston, where one such auction took place on the Common over several days, Ledoux and the veterans were overwhelmed by public support:
Small sums of cash were given daily; free food was delivered by restaurants and bakeries; an experienced cobbler set up shop to repair the shoes of the jobless; several women volunteered to sew and clean the bed linens; furniture was donated; a local dentist announced that he would take care of any toothaches that occurred among the unemployed; and…. scores, perhaps hundreds, of Ledoux’s followers obtained jobs as a result of the auctions.
Ledoux and his supporters met a different fate in New York City—at least initially. City police refused to let Ledoux’s group serve food. When his supporters served food in Bryant Park, police moved in and beat “forty jobless men who had gathered about six elderly women distributing sandwiches, cakes and crullers in the park.” The American Civil Liberties Union launched a complaint.
And, though Ledoux stepped into the spotlight from time to time, this was largely the end of his auctioneering days.
Ninety years later, however, the issues raised by Ledoux are again making headlines and prompting litigation, even if the tactics of volunteers, police, and regulators may be a bit less stark.
Starting in about 2006, several cities began arresting, fining, and otherwise oppressing private individuals and nonprofits that feed the homeless and less fortunate