Parks, permits, and riot police: San Francisco Food Not Bombs and autonomous occupations of space

Sean Parson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Mayor of San Francisco Art Agnos (1988–1991) ordered the arrest of Food Not Bombs activists for distributing food without a permit in August 1988. A campaign of arrests and harassment continued throughout Agnos’s administration as he and the activists continually butted heads over the City’s homelessness politics. Central to this conflict was the role of permits in regulating public space and Food Not Bombs’ refusal to accept the City’s legitimacy in limiting public meals. This article contends that Agnos used health and parks permits to force “negotiated management” between Food Not Bombs activists and police and City officials in order to regulate their public meals of the homeless in order to moderate the group’s politics and remove them from contested public space. Food Not Bombs refused this negotiated management and instead occupied public space and provided free meals daily. In response, the City and Mayor Art Agnos used police to exclude the group from public space in an attempt to force the group to negotiate. Expanding on Margaret Kohn’s theoretical work on political space by examining the role of autonomous claims in public space occupations, this case highlights the dialectical way that different conceptions of space— sovereigntist, representational populist, and autonomous populist—can come into conflict and open up new political opportunities to make marginalized voices audible, hidden bodies visible, and state coercive power apparent.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)346-362
Number of pages17
JournalNew Political Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 3 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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