Broward News

90-Year-Old Arnold Abbott in Court Today Over Homeless Feeding

Update, 10:15 a.m.: Arnold Abbott's arraignment on his first summons for violating Fort Lauderdale's food sharing ordinance was postponed this morning by Judge Kal Le Var Evans.

Original story: Exactly one month after Fort Lauderdale police ordered 90-year-old Arnold Abbot to "Drop that plate" in exchange for handing him a summons, a Broward County judge yesterday ordered the city to drop its enforcement of an ordinance which has Abbott and about a dozen other homeless advocates facing jail time for sharing food with hungry and homeless people.

Judge Thomas Lynch ordered a 30-day stay on enforcement of the ordinance which first took effect on November 1, and ordered both parties to mediation in advance of issuing a permanent ruling on the ordinance's status. Such a ruling would be necessitated only should the mediation fail. Any mediated agreement would have to go back to the city commission for ratification.

Enforcement of the ordinance, one of five homeless criminalization measures passed by the city commission in the past seven months, has sparked international outrage against the city and in particular Mayor Jack Seiler, who has made the claim that the ordinance had actually expanded food sharing options throughout the city. That claim has been debunked by a mix of local media, homeless advocates and even by the mayor's colleague, Commissioner Dean Trantalis.

Calls seeking comment on the ruling to the offices of the mayor, city attorney and public affairs manager were not returned.

Abbott's attorney, John David, who filed the motion two weeks ago which led to yesterday's ruling, is ultimately seeking enforcement of an injunction stemming from a case he fought on Abbott's behalf over twelve years ago, which established the right of Abbott's non-profit, Love Thy Neighbor, and other faith-based groups to share food in public based on Florida's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That original ruling mandated the injunction's validity in lieu of the city providing a food sharing alternative that imposed the "least restrictive means" on groups which share food in public space. A task force established by the city in 2009 with the aim of finding such an alternative saw its proposals repeatedly rejected by neighborhood groups subscribing to a 'not-in-my-backyard' philosophy, and was ultimately disbanded.

"I'm excited. I think it's great," David said about the stay. "It shows we're in the ballpark," he said, adding that he felt the ruling "bodes well" for his client.

Abbott, unable to be reached for comment on yesterday's ruling, has repeatedly stated in recent weeks that he would continue his Fort Lauderdale beach food sharings no matter what. When interviewed several years ago about the prospect of the homeless task force's creation of an alternative, Abbott swore that before that happens, "I'll die on the sand."

Abbott's legal fight continues this morning as he and David go before another judge to be arraigned on the first of his three food sharing citations. Based on yesterday's ruling, "I'll be asking the judge to put off the arraignment," David said.

While Abbott, 90 years old and slightly hunched over in his standard white chef's tunic, a WW2 infantryman and fighter for civil rights, has become a natural poster boy in his clash with a city which many have now dubbed 'Fort Haterdale,' he is hardly fighting alone.

On Friday morning, the two clergymen who were cited for food sharing with Abbott on November 2 will seek to have their separate cases against the city joined with his. Both Reverend Canon Mark Sims of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, and Reverend Dwayne Black of The Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, seek to bolster Abbott's case based on grounds of religious freedom. They will appear before Judge Lynch at 10 am. Both will be included in the mediation with the city irrespective of Friday's ruling on unifying their cases.

William Scherer, one of two high-powered attorneys representing Sims, expressed hope that the mediation, or a final ruling from Lynch, would resolve the matter before Christmas and Hanukkah. Quoting Hindu, Islamic and Christian text, he noted that sharing food is commanded by all major religions, especially at this time of year when giving to the poor is more than a mere suggestion.

"It's not an option for my client," said Scherer about the notion that Sims might put food sharing on hold. Like Abbott, Sims has been sharing food with the homeless for at least 20 years, if not in a public park.

On the prospect of a good outcome from the impending mediation, Scherer chided the city's intransigence. "They need to get some flexibility here," he said.

Sims was equally adamant about the terms of the mediation.

"We won't be willing to give up public sharing of food with hungry and homeless people until they provide an adequate space downtown with full facilities," the reverend stated.

Faced with the city's long history of failure to provide that option, Sims chose to withhold judgment on where the mediation would lead.

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Jeff Weinberger