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Jan 30, 20

Atlanta, GA: Police & Management at Complex Owned by Billionaire Trump Supporter Tries to Shut Down Free Grocery Program

Report from Atlanta Food Not Bombs on ongoing organizing efforts at Park 35 apartments which has been met by management and police with harassment and arrests. 

Food not bombs Atlanta does three free grocery giveaways a week. On Tuesdays it’s been at Park 35 apartments in Decatur since September, where we have been enthusiastically welcomed by tenants. Originally, management welcomed us as well, but all that changed after they got hold of one of the fliers we were also giving out, about tenant organizing. In late October 29th, Fonda Pittman, the property manager, told us that we were no longer allowed to distribute groceries because we had “inappropriate fliers” that were “talking about landlords, telling people not to trust landlords.” She immediately claimed that she would call the police, and we immediately ignored her and continued with the distro. However, that time, she ended up not following through on the threat of police.

Food Not Bombs free grocery program threatened by property manager.

We knew we would not simply follow management’s order to stop the distro, and when we showed up the next week nothing happened and we did the giveaway as usual. But the week after, on November 12th, she was back, and called the police on us. Fonda angrily approached residents and told them to “step away from the food,” that it was “not authorized” and threatened them for participating in the giveaway. We later witnessed her yelling at tenants out of her fancy car to not go near the distro. Several tenants spoke to being concerned that they would be evicted for getting food. She said their reason for kicking us out was that they had not granted permission and we had not complied with their demand to meet with them, but she refused to meet with us then and there. Police made us break down the giveaway and leave early.

Apartment property manager calls police on free grocery program which leads to an arrest.

The next week, November 19th, we were back again, and management was quick to call 911. A resident of the complex said that we were all her guests and told the police that she had invited us. This time the police arrested one of the people trying to distribute groceries, who was explaining that we had the right to be there given the terms of the lease. Tenants are allowed guests, and tenants and guests are supposed to be able to use common spaces of the apartment complex. However, everyone there who wasn’t a resident was told they were criminally trespassed from the property, at management’s request. The arrested volunteer was charged with criminal trespass and obstruction of an officer and released 25 hours later.

Food distro sets up on sidewalk outside of apartment complex on November 26th.

The next week, November 26th, we were back, but we set up on the sidewalk outside the apartment complex. It’s a busy, 40 mile-an-hour road with a small sidewalk, nowhere to pull over, and a long hike from the nearest apartment.  To our surprise, a maintenance man came out and told us that management had set aside a small area in a back parking lot on the property from which we could do the giveaway. They had gotten a call from the Texas office of the company that owns the apartment complex. The designated area was much closer to the apartments than where we had just set up, but tucked away out of sight (management had repeatedly claimed that the food distro made the apartment complex look bad). They had set up traffic cones around two parking spaces, an area too small for our six tables and dozens of boxes of produce. But we were told that we could expand the area as needed, so we set up in a few parking spaces.

We were not visible from the central location that we had previously used, so one person went down with a sign to stand in that area and direct people to the new location.  But the apartment security guards were there waiting to tell us to leave. One of them said she had worked a shift the previous night and had been called in to work just from noon to 2PM that afternoon, and then was due to work again that night. They had been instructed not to let a single person stand in that area, so they called the police again after we explained that we needed to have somebody there with the sign in order to let people know about the new location. We were concerned that residents would look out their windows and see only a pair of security guards, and believe that the distro had been successfully canceled.

Recorded interaction between Food Not Bombs volunteers, management, and police

After the cops showed up, we accepted a meeting with management, who were adamant about not allowing cameras into the office but two Food Not Bombs members were able to go in. Three cops also joined in the meeting to continue to harass FNB and bolster the power of management. One FNB member secretly recorded the audio. We explained the problem of accessibility and the need to bring boxes of food to residents with mobility issues, but management prohibited it. We explained the concern about visibility but they refused to allow anyone outside of the designated area. Management said that we had been “defiant” and that “you can’t have it all your way.” Then management and police began justifying the harassment of the grocery giveaway. The officer who had made the arrest said, “I’m pretty sure everyone out here is fed … They’re not going hungry.” (38:06). One of the managers said “They probably get food stamps”.(38:15). When we said “people are going hungry” The arresting officer said, “but they can afford rent out here” (38:10). The lieutenant said, “I have not responded to any death investigations involving starvation” (38:20). The police and management appear to be in complete agreement that if no one is dying of starvation, it is fine that they are denied food.

Back outside, several police officers surrounded the food distro, approaching uncomfortably close to any residents who showed up. Attendance by residents was much more sparse than in previous weeks. Police had a demeanor that was off-putting and threatening. Lieutenant King was approached several times and asked to explain his comment about starvation, but he stonewalled. When people began following him with cameras he suddenly decided that he needed to be elsewhere, so he and another officer left. People ended up staying with the sign (which had never been moved from the original distro site) and telling people about the distro up the hill. One cop stayed to hover menacingly at the giveaway site. One resident did not want to be filmed but gave an audio interview about how police had crowded her when she was approaching the food distro.

The company which owns the holding company (Related Park 35) that owns the apartment complex, Related Companies, is owned by a multibillionaire, Stephen Ross, who was recently in the news for hosting a Trump campaign fundraiser at his mansion that sold $100,00 and $250,000 event tickets. Ross has been a gentrifier, slumlord, and real estate developer since the 70s and currently has a net worth of over $7 billion. Park 35 apartments is a part of Related Company’s Simply Better™ marketing scheme that presents the apartment complex as an elevated way of living. The SimplyBetter website claims that their focus is “providing our residents with a SimplyBetter Way* living experience. We want our residents to benefit from simply smarter conveniences, simply healthier apartment homes, and simply greener lifestyles. At SimplyBetter, we care about you, your family, and your pets and we have friendly, approachable leasing professionals dedicated to serving your needs.”

However, these claims of friendly management and better living are simply false. In reality, tenants at the apartment complex are consistently faced with hostile management who are quick to evict, criminally trespass guests/former tenants, and penalize tenants for a list of petty shit, while being slow/unresponsive to maintenance needs that affects the health and well being of tenants. 

Over the past few weeks, we have gathered a number of testimonies that speak to the shitty management and poor living conditions. A 17-year-old who had lived here as a child but had been evicted along with his mother gave an interview about the conditions in the apartments and the way he and his family had been treated. He spoke about false accusations against youngsters, and the impossibility of reaching management to request repairs. Another resident gave an interview inside his apartment and showed the hole in his kitchen floor, which is larger than a foot in diameter and inches deep. Several tenants have also spoken about how they advertise a pool on their website, and yet, even in the heat of the summer, tenants cannot actually access this amenity that the complex advertises because it’s always closed.

Unfixed floor in need of repair

Another tenant, who has joined local organizing efforts, is seen on the arrest video attempting to talk to management who refuses to shake her hand. She explains the reality of tenants living on a fixed income at the apartment complex and the general economic inaccessibility of fresh produce. This tenant has lived at the complex for two years and has never once spoken to the property manager. On one food distro occasion, we witnessed several US marshals and sheriff department vehicles roll up to evict a family. This was the fourth eviction that week.

In the weeks following November 26th, we realized that trying to accommodate the managers in order to do the food giveaway on the apartment property was not going to work. As inconvenient as it was, the best solution we could come up with was to do it on the sidewalk outside of the apartment complex.  It’s a 40 mile-an-hour road and a regular sized sidewalk with a few feet of grass on the other side. So we ran the giveaway on tables outside of the complex in December and January.

On January 21st, 2020, about an hour into the give away a code enforcement officer showed up. Code enforcement is a division of the police department. She asked if we had a 501c3 (non-profit license) and asserted that we could not give away food without one and without a permit. We knew from a previous fight in 2017 there is no law prohibiting giving away free food without a permit. The city of Atlanta had taken us to court over it and ended up dropping our charges. So we told her as much and she got back in her car and got on the phone for a while and then drove away.

We continued serving for the amount of time that we are normally out there, and as we were beginning to pack up and leave, we were approached by a local pastor who offered us food left over from another grocery giveaway that he runs. We went and got the food and were in the process of packing up, planning on saving that food for the next grocery giveaway a few days later. But about an hour after the first code enforcement officer had approached us, her supervisor showed up, and made the same assertions, that we are not allowed to give away food without a permit. Both officers had objected to being filmed and asserted that we did not have their consent to film.

From previous legal battles involving Copwatch we knew that we did not need permission to film someone in a public place. So in both cases we continued filming. The supervisor began saying that it looked like we had packed up for the day and were about to leave, but we said we’re about to set back up and give away the rest of the food. He said he would call the police, to which we replied that would be great. We began setting the tables and food back out, and the officer walked back into the apartment complex from which he had come out of and drove away. We served for another 40 minutes, and no other police showed up. When we were just about out of everything, we packed back up and left. We’ve made a call to everyone we know to show up Tuesday, January 28th, and there were no cops and we got rid of a lot of food.

It is unsurprising that management and landlords, who profit off a basic need for shelter, are trying so hard to shut down a free food project especially one that offers tenant rights info and emphasizes solidarity and mutual aid, not charity. The food distro is a place where tenants and non-tenants can come together, share food, access information, get to know each other, and talk shit on landlords and cops. Management is threatened by the possibility of tenant power that could come from this distro.

From mid-level management like Fonda, to a billionaire slumlord like Ross, the existence and actions of managers, bosses, and owners are all the same: to maintain a system of oppression and stifle rebellion and mutual aid. But try as they might, they cannot control us all, and they cannot truly stop the waves of revolt that have been crashing against these systems for thousands of years. 
Wanna bug the big shots of the Related Companies? Here’s a list of some of their corporate offices and phone numbers:
  • NYC address: 60 Columbus Cir, New York, NY 10023  Phone: (212)-801-1000 (dial “0” to speak to a receptionist)
  • Chicago address (Related Midwest): 350 W Hubbard St, Chicago, IL 60654 Phone: (312) 595-7400 
  • San Francisco address: 44 Montgomery Street, Suite 1300 Phone: (415) 677-9000
  • Los Angeles address: 333 South Grand Avenue Suite 4450 Phone: (213) 984-4110
  • Miami address: 315 S. Biscayne Boulevard Phone: (305) 460-9900

Phone Zap Script: 

Demand that charges dropped, remove the threat of criminal trespass, management must pay any legal fees, and must stop harassment and threats of the eviction of tenants.

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