Activists to fight citations for feeding homeless in El Cajon

EL CAJON, Calif. -- A dozen activists arrested in El Cajon for violating a municipal ban on feeding the homeless in public spaces will ask to have the cases against them dismissed, and they expect to file lawsuits against the city, one of the arrestees said today.

"The law is unconstitutional and infringes on our freedom of speech,'' Mark Lane, an organizer for Break the Ban, told FOX 5 News.  “Why is it sanitary for you to have a birthday party and feed them in the park, but it’s unsanitary for me to have a food share in the park? It’s ridiculous. It’s them scratching at whatever they can to back up their bad ordinance."

Members of Break the Ban give out food In Wells Park in El Cajon.

The arrests occurred Sunday afternoon at Wells Park on East Madison Avenue next to El Cajon Valley High School during an event organized by Break the Ban, according to Lane and Shane Parmely, another organizer. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that a second group, Food Not Bombs, and other activists were also involved in the event.

Break the Ban was created in response to an emergency ordinance unanimously approved by the city council in October that banned the distribution of food on city-owned property. City officials said the ordinance was a response to the deadly hepatitis A outbreak.

But advocacy groups like Break the Ban said "the law is unconstitutional and discriminatory'' and promised to "continue to fight to have the ordinance overturned.''

“It violates the first amendment rights of the people who went there to provide for them and feed them and I believe it violates the homeless people’s rights by putting them into a class when if you’re not homeless you’re in a different class and you can go and get the food without getting a citation,” said Attorney Scott Dreher. “So the next step is going to court get the charges dismissed, if not we’ll go to trial and then we’ll turn to the civil courts.”

El Cajon city spokeswoman Monica Zech issued a statement Monday afternoon defending the arrests and saying the city has worked with community groups that have historically fed the homeless and "took strides'' to inform the public of places where food can be served and distributed legally.

"The city simply enforced the urgency ordinance, as it indicated it would, subsequent to substantial warnings over the past several weeks,'' Zech said.

None of those arrested Sunday were taken away in handcuffs, but everyone seen by police handing out food was arrested, given a misdemeanor citation with a date to appear in court and released, according to the Union- Tribune. Included in that group was a 14-year-old.

Several dozen other people supporting the group but not seen actively passing out food were not arrested or cited.

Break the Ban organizers defended the group's action by quoting in part from a letter Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from jail which reads, "There are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all.''

"Yes, we have a problem with Hepatitis A but we don’t battle that by not feeding the homeless,” said Mark Lane. “You battle that by giving them proper restroom facilities, proper hand washing facilities and vaccinations, education. You battle that by giving them services.”