SANTA MONICA, California -- Axis of Justice, the activist organization founded by Tom Morello and Serj Tankian, handed out food to dozens of homeless people Friday in defiance of a new city ordinance.
The Audioslave guitarist and System of a Down singer also took part in a protest march and spoke at a press conference held by the National Lawyers Guild, which filed a lawsuit hours earlier against the city of Santa Monica challenging a new ordinance that places severe restrictions on food distribution programs.
"When Axis of Justice first heard of this law, we said the first day it goes into effect, lunch is on us," Morello said during a break from distributing sack lunches to homeless people in a park near Santa Monica Pier. "We'll continue to do it in defiance of the law. I'm not worried police are going to show up and arrest us, I'm worried homeless people are going to be hungry tonight."
The ordinance being contested, passed by the city council in October, requires charitable groups to abide by restaurant codes when handing out food in public places.
"We would have to have sinks and refrigerators and ovens set up in the park to legally hand out lunches like we did today," explained James Lafferty, director of the National Lawyers Guild. "The rules are impossible to follow for organizations that don't make a profit."
Those opposed to the ordinance believe it was constructed as a way to drive the homeless out of Santa Monica.
"I don't understand. The homeless have never been a problem," Tankian said. "Businesses want the homeless out of the way because it doesn't look good. This is Los Angeles -- it has to look good. In reality, it's not stopping business. Their sales are at record highs. It doesn't matter. The truth of the matter is it's going to leave these people starving."
After distributing food paid for by Axis of Justice and passing out protest signs, Morello and Tankian marched up to the Third Street Promenade shopping strip with about 30 homeless people and a dozen representatives from groups such as HOPE (Helping Other People Eat) and Food Not Bombs.
Chanting slogans like "feeding the homeless is not a crime" and "leaders not laws," the marchers attracted large crowds of shoppers, including several teenagers who shook hands with Morello and Tankian. A couple fans even joined the march, which ended with the press conference.
After Lafferty and other lawyers explained the ordinance and how his group has fought and won against past efforts by the city of Santa Monica to eradicate the homeless, Morello took the podium. He told a story he heard minutes earlier about a generous homeless woman "with more kindness in her pinkie than the entire city council." He ended by saying he did some research and then listed what each member of the council who voted for the ordinance had for dinner the night before.
"This is a tremendously cruel law that criminalizes compassion," Morello said before the march. "In a city as wealthy as Santa Monica, there's no reason everybody shouldn't have a home and enough to eat, along with the appropriate job training or mental heath services or drug or alcohol rehabilitation, whatever they need to get back on their feet. Those are the things the city council should be focusing on, not trying to deny hungry people food."
None of the city council members, nor the city attorney, was available for comment on Friday.
Axis of Justice will continue to fight the ordinance, according to Morello, who encouraged musicians in other cities to organize similar food banks. "Think globally and act locally, that's our motto," he said. "Distributing food is not a crime. The real crime is the poorest of the poor not eating for the comfort and convenience of the people who are shopping at the stores."
Morello and Tankian formed Axis of Justice last year and distributed information packets on Ozzfest and other rock tours. For more about Axis of Justice, visit the group's Web site.