Anonymous, Others Threaten to Boycott Fort Lauderdale Because of Homeless Laws

Underneath a beautiful photo of seashells on the beach with a sunrise-splattered ocean in the background, angry comments are spewed all over the "Visit Fort Lauderdale" Facebook page.

"Feel free to add my name to the rapidly growing list of those who will not visit due to your Mayor arresting the gentleman who was feeding the homeless."

"After what you did to that man feeding the homeless, I wouldn't visit Fort Lauderdale if it were the last place on earth."

"You people seriously need to contact your Mayor and ask him to stop persecuting people for feeding other human beings. He has seriously damaged your city's reputation."

The Facebook comments came after 90-year-old do-gooder Arnold Abbott made international headlines last week. He purposely broke a new, now-infamous Fort Lauderdale ordinance that places restrictions on sharing food in public spaces without abiding by certain restrictions, such as providing portable toilets. The City Commission developed a series of laws this year -- one limits panhandling; another outlaws "camping" on city property -- largely out of concern for business owners, some of whom have complained that dirty, drug-addled, and/or mentally ill homeless people drive away paying customers. But churches and activist groups say the restrictions are cost-prohibitive. They also, some argue, interfere with a first amendment expression of religion via feeding the poor.

But what might be good for a few local businesses could be bad for the greater Fort Lauderdale area. Despite the mayor and city commissioners trying to temper the outrage, the city is getting some backfire from its new laws. Some are even calling for a ban on visiting the seaside city.

A video on YouTube that claims to be affiliated with Anonymous, the activist hacker group, urges people to stop spending money in Fort Lauderdale.

"Mayor Jack Seiler said 'just because of media attention, we don't stop enforcing the laws here in Fort Lauderdale,' " says a person wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. "Well, Mayor Jack Seiler, you must have forgotten that we the people of Fort Lauderdale are hard-working taxpayers, and we will see how you feel when we the people stop spending our money in the city."

Whether the reaction to the ordinance will have any real effect on tourism remains to be seen. Nikki Grossman, head of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

But there's no doubt that images of an elderly man getting ticketed by burly police officers for doing nothing more than providing food for the needy has damaged Fort Lauderdale's image. Even comedian Stephen Colbert chimed in, mocking the controversial law by saying, "I George Zimmerman fed a guy in a hoodie, he'd be in jail." See also: Stephen Colbert Blasts Fort Lauderdale's Homeless Laws, Mayor Jack Seiler

The negative publicity has been so bad that the Broward Sheriff's Office put out a statement differentiating itself from Fort Lauderdale Police and made it clear that it has not been involved in enforcing laws against giving food to hungry people.

"[T]he police agency involved was NOT the Broward Sheriff's Office," the agency said. "Rather, it is the city's police department being directed to enforce the city commission's newly adopted ordinance."

The BSO also posted a video showing how it helps -- instead of punishes -- people feeding the homeless.

"The homeless are not problem people," Sheriff Scott Israel says. "They are people with problems."

Despite all the negative attention, city officials don't appear to be backing down from their ordinance. Seiler insists the city is enforcing the ordinance only for health and safety reasons and points out that there are many city programs for the homeless.

But that argument isn't being heard over the viral din of Abbott getting accosted by police for feeding the homeless.

After saying she will no longer recommend a vacation in Fort Lauderdale to her friends, one Facebook commenter said, "Trust me, not all publicity is good publicity... and Fort Lauderdale just went global. #blackeyeforflorida."

Follow Ray Downs on Twitter:

E-mail him at Ray.Downs@browardpalmbeach.com.

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