Local groups looking to amend or repeal the law, City drops charges against man for blocking sidewalk
Local groups have organized, pushing for the amendment or repeal of an Orlando city ordinance that was passed last week banning people from blocking sidewalks.
The nonpartisan, grassroots organization REAL Orlando has been at the forefront of the movement, saying the new ordinance could be used to violate first amendment rights and disproportionately target people experiencing homelessness.
REAL Orlando held a “letter writing” event Wednesday at the North Quarter Downtown CREDO on Orange Avenue. Open to the public, they wrote letters to City Council members and commissioners, urging them against the ordinance.
The group has also invited local organizations and all members of the community to join them at the Jan. 22 City Council meeting, where they said their efforts will focus on raising awareness and voicing their disapproval of the new ordinance.
Adopted on Jan. 8, Ordinance No. 2023-55, to amend Section 43.06, of the city’s Code of Ordinances, Relating to Disorderly Conduct, states that anyone who walks, stands, sits, lies, or places objects on the sidewalk, with the intention of blocking people from walking through, could be found in violation, facing fines of up to $500 or 60 days in jail, or both.
According to the new ordinance, the purpose is to ensure pedestrian safety, citing that 8% of traffic-related deaths in Orlando involve pedestrians getting hit by cars. However, City Council members cited different reasons for the ordinance in last week’s meeting, with Mayor Buddy Dyer saying it would not be used against the population of people living in homelessness.
Yet less than two hours after the ordinance was adopted last week, a man living without shelter was arrested for blocking a sidewalk in downtown Orlando, according to Orange County Clerk of Courts records. The charges were dropped three days later.
Albizu Marighella, head of media for REAL Orlando, said protesters could be next.
“We have to understand that this ordinance does attack homeless people automatically, and we saw that happen within the same day that they passed it. The most marginalized were affected immediately. But we also cannot forget that this comes in the wake of mass protests,” Marighella said.
Did the ordinance already exist?
During last week’s council meeting, there were nearly 20 public comments against the ordinance. One recurring concern that afternoon was that “this law already exists," with dozens insisting that the ordinance's verbiage is already codified.
“There are so many things we could be doing for our community members and spending our time and spending our money on. But instead, we're trying to codify something that, for one, we've all clearly discussed here today already exists, and that just further criminalizes a houseless problem that the city has failed to face,” one Orlando resident said in public comments on Monday, Jan. 8, during the City Council meeting.
Chapter 43 of Orlando’s Code of Ordinances encompasses “miscellaneous offenses.” Its Section 43.06 addresses matters of “disorderly conduct” — the part lawmakers amended with the new ordinance, outlawing sitting or lying on sidewalks.
However, also in the same chapter is Section 43.88, titled, “Sitting/Lying on Sidewalks in the Downtown Core District Prohibited.” Furthering redundancy, this section, too, emphasizes the need for pedestrian safety.
But that’s where the similarities end.
The new amendment to 43.06 makes the sidewalk ban citywide, unlike 43.88 which is limited to the downtown Orlando region.
Also unlike the new ordinance, Section 43.88 lays out a series of “affirmative defenses,” or acceptable reasons which could cause an Orlando resident to violate without malice or intent. These include medical emergencies, age, illness, disability or special mobility needs, as well as individuals with valid permits for selling, marketing, or for those attending outdoor events and gatherings.
In almost painstaking detail, 43.88 also includes anyone who might be blocking the sidewalk because they’re waiting in line to gain entry or acquire goods somewhere. With a nod to residents who live in homelessness, the verbiage specifies that the establishment could be a shelter, food pantry, or social services building. Lastly, it explicitly protects protesters, as long as they have valid permits.
The fact that the amendment adopted for 43.06 lacks these protections yet includes undefined language outlawing the free use of sidewalks based on intentionality to block them, is what Marighella said concerns people. He said the language is purposely vague, assuming intention, so that it can be used and abused widely to fit the city’s interests.
“We know this is a smokescreen. Regardless of where you are in the political aisle, this concerns you. It's not a partisan issue. It is a human issue. It is a freedom issue,” Marighella said.
Demanding accountability and clarity
REAL Orlando is joined by several politically active and community outreach organizations, all of different backgrounds and missions.
Community Organizer Sam Delgado said this is a time where the people of Orlando need to come together to push back and demand answers from city leaders.
“I think it’s really important to hold the Council accountable,” Delgado said. “There really needs to be a conversation about what are the considerations that the Commission is making, when they're adding to the powers that the police already have to arrest people and to place punishment upon the residents in the city.”
City Council members last week all gave different reasons for the ordinance, none of which referenced "pedestrian safety."
Commissioner Patty Sheehan of District 4 said it was to protect people walking late at night in downtown Orlando; Dyer said it was to prevent drunk people from congregating on sidewalks outside bars and establishments; and Commissioner Regina Hill of District 5 openly said she wanted the ordinance used on people experiencing homelessness camping outside neighborhoods, saying they threaten violence and unsafe conditions upon residents, visitors, and families.
This incongruency and lack of transparency is why Delgado said he decided to join in the efforts — to demand clarification and accountability.
“They all said different things about what the intention of this was and what problems this ordinance was trying to solve,” Delgado said. “And we saw just how vague what was written in the ordinance is, and how many different interpretations of it could be used. And I was like, ‘Okay, this has some pretty powerful implications for people's civil liberties.’”
Since the ordinance was imposed, several transient Orlando residents have been charged under violation of 43.06, disorderly conduct, but it isn't clear if it's related to this ordinance, as not all arrest reports were made public yet.
Marighella said REAL Orlando is looking into legally filing an appeal against the ordinance.
He encouraged any and all concerned members of the public to join them and get involved.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.