Last I heard, New York City was kind of an artsy town. We have some of the best art museums and galleries in the world, there are concerts, readings, and performances every night of every week, and even the streets are covered with paint. We are the city of Laurie Anderson, Andy Warhol, drum circles, guerilla art, and Neckface. All this creativity — what attracts so many artists to this city in the first place — is constitutionally protected. In theory. As we all learned around 3rd grade, the First Amendment prohibits congress from making laws that hinder freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. A nice idea.
But it seems that the New York City Police Department may have a looser interpretation of the First Amendment than was originally intended. Now, it goes without saying that the NYPD has its share of honorable men and women committed to protecting and serving our city, but there are some cases — and some stories — that would probably make any self-respecting New Yorker wonder what’s really going on. What follows are five of those stories.
The Accidental Activist: Joyce Lin
Joyce Lin’s story goes beyond Joyce Lin, photographer and environmental activist. It piggybacks off the history of tension between Critical Mass (a leaderless bike ride that meets at Union Square on the last Friday of every month) and the NYPD. One of this past summer’s viral YouTube videos features rookie Officer Patrick Pogan body- checking a Critical Mass cyclist off his bike and sending him skidding across the street. This tension is real, and people are getting hurt.
But this wasn’t the first documented clash between Critical Mass and the NYPD. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, a protest bike ride resulted in the arrest of 264 bikers. In February of 2007, the NYPD established the new parade permit laws that actually seemed to target Critical Mass. The city now required a permit for a gathering of 50 people or more. The March 30, 2007 Critical Mass bike ride marked the first occasion during which the police could ticket and arrest under this law.
Joyce Lin was present at the event — she’d been photographing the entire ride, and was documenting it for her personal archives. She was taking pictures of another biker being arrested when the trouble with the police began. An officer approached her from behind and asked for her identification. Because Lin knew it was within her rights to refuse to provide identification and walk away, that’s exactly what she tried to do. According to Lin, the officer was having none of that.
She turned her back, but couldn’t just walk away. Instead, she felt one cop, then two, then six holding her down, grabbing at her camera, and trying to pry things out of her hands. She screamed to attract attention, and she screamed so that the cops would let her go. A crowd of bikers and photographers gathered around her and began chanting, “Let her go.” They didn’t.
That day, Lin was arrested along with several other bikers, photographers, and videographers. She was taken to the small police station in the middle of Times Square, where she was held in a cell with other women who had been arrested during the ride or in the area. After a few hours she was taken to a larger police station with the other Critical Mass arrestees. She was forced to stay overnight in prison, and was eventually charged with six assorted felonies and misdemeanors.
In case you’re wondering whether Joyce should have been arrested for taking photographs of an arrest, the law states that anyone may photograph police in action as long as they don’t interfere. If you’re still doubtful, try searching for this incident on YouTube, then try to tell yourself Lin was in the wrong.
By the way, the charges were eventually dropped. Just like 95 percent of Critical Mass cases taken to court.
The Pro-Photogs: Clayton Patterson and Simon Lund
Clayton Patterson and his wife Elsa Rensaa have amassed the largest archive of photographs of the Lower East Side ever taken. If you frequent the neighborhood, you may have seen him: a bear of a man with a long gray beard, camera permanently slung around his neck. For nearly three decades Patterson has taken thousands of photographs and videos of the mundane and the extraordinary happenings of one of New York’s freakiest thriving neighborhoods. He was one of two people who was able to take video footage of the Tompkins Square Riots in 1988, and was subsequently arrested for refusing to give the NYPD the original copy of the video. He spent ten days in jail.
On July 16, 2008, Patterson decided to take some pictures of police officers and fire fighters in action, responding to an alarm on Ludlow Street, where he had shot for years without problems. The police claim that Patterson didn’t comply with their orders to keep his distance, and that because he was unable to produce a press pass, they had the right to arrest him. Patterson sees it differently. Because there was no frozen zone, and he wasn’t in the way of any action, Patterson maintains that he was simply doing what he’s always been compelled to do. Patterson was eventually released, and his latest statement pleads that we all ask, “What are our rights to document?” and that we become the guardians and watchdogs of our own communities.
An arrest like Patterson’s is not the only way the NYPD can infringe on photographer’s rights. Intimidation is another tactic favored by some officers. Simon Lund, a professional photographer on his day off, was one such artist who was intimidated into surrendering his film. Lund was taking an afternoon walk around Coney Island with his wife, documenting Coney Island’s “final summer” (version 3.0). Suddenly, a female beachgoer (who remained nameless) ran up to Lund demanding to know why he was taking pictures of her child, and asked that he destroy the image immediately. Unfortunately, Lund wasn’t working with a digital camera, and destroying one picture would have meant destroying the entire roll. Eventually, the woman became frustrated and called for the attention of some nearby cops.
The mother, some of her male friends, and a police officer all pressed Lund to give up his film. He knew it was within his rights to take pictures of the rides, the booths, and the beach, so he tried to reason with the police officer. That is when the officer began to threaten Lund, stating that if he didn’t give up his film “things would get much worse for [him]”.
Lund gave up his rights then and there. He handed his roll of film to the woman with the promise that she could develop it, get rid of the offending pictures, and send the film back to Lund, all on his dime. This never happened. Lund took his complaint to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), where he was told that the case did not warrant their attention.
More information about Clayton Patterson and Simon Lund can be found on their respective websites: patterson.no-art.info and simonlund.com.
The Performance Artist: Yazmany Arboleda
Yazmany Arboleda is a performance and visual artist with a provocative style and political subject matter. Inspired by the press coverage of the upcoming election, Arboleda created a show called “The Assassination of Hillary Clinton/The Assassination of Barack Obama” that he planned to set up at a vacant storefront at 264 W. 40th St. Though the title is, without question, shocking, the show focused on the character assassination of the two candidates by the press. According to Arboleda’s artist statement, there was no intent to harm either of the candidates. The pictures on Arboleda’s website clearly illustrate his intention to explore the press’ jibes at the candidate’s reputations. Take, for example, Arboleda’s faux Vogue spread about the hideousness of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. For the purposes of this exhibit, it was clear that he was interested in exploring what it means to live in a society where we are quick to castrate anyone attempting to ascend to a position of power.
Imagine Arboleda’s surprise when he found himself detained and questioned by NYPD detectives and Secret Servicemen. They appeared within the first hour of Arboleda’s exhibition going up. They asked him whether he was a violent person, whether he had ever been institutionalized, whether he was a threat to the candidates. He answered no to those questions, and was free to go in a few hours.
Though the exhibit was only supposed to last one day, even 24 hours was too long for the police. The NYPD and the Secret Service required that Arboleda take down the exhibit early. In place of the storefront installation, the Leah Keller Gallery now has the exhibit available for viewing by appointment only. You can also see a slideshow of Arboleda’s work on his website: yazmany.com
The Musicians: Rebel Diaz
Rebel Diaz’s slogan is: “If Hip Hop organized the Whole World Would be in Trouble.” The group has come to represent the potential for change in their Bronx neighborhood. One of the causes they champion is policing the police — they call it “police terrorism.” Rebel Diaz formed in 2006 after being invited to perform at an immigrant rights march. They claim that they have seen the police behave inappropriately, unfairly and unconstitutionally towards members of their community one too many times.
On the morning of June 18, 2008, Rodstarz and G1, two of the three members of Rebel Diaz, were showing a friend around Hunts Point. They came upon two police officers hassling a fruit vendor. Since the vendor only spoke Spanish, the brothers asked for permission to translate for the officers. When they were granted permission, they came to understand that the fruit vendor had no idea why the police officers were “stealing his fruit.” As tensions rose, Rodstarz and G1 took pictures of the officers in action, and asked for the officers’ names and badge numbers. The situation quickly became physical, escalating into a violent arrest. (A video of the scene can be viewed on Rebel Diaz’s website: rebeldiaz.com.) Eventually, the brothers were taken to the 41st precinct where they were held for ten hours and charged with resisting arrest and obstruction of justice.
This incident alone would be traumatic enough, but, at 2am on June 24th, four police officers burst into Rebel Diaz’s studio/apartment. No warrant. No warning. No explanation. The police claimed they were looking for a fugitive. The members of Rebel Diaz still have no answers, and are waiting to hear back from the N.Y.P.D.
The Street Artist: De La Vega
I first meet James De La Vega sitting outside his eponymous St. Mark’s store, chain smoking cigars, tattoos crawling up his arms. He’s pretty intimidating. In between puffs he explains to me that he wants to inspire kids from underprivileged neighborhoods to become more than cogs in the capitalist system. His graffiti pieces can be as simple as the messages he writes, such as “realiza to sueño” (become your dream) and “You are your best investment”, though they are usually accompanied by De La Vega’s chalk drawings.
De La Vega’s first arrest was a few years ago (he can’t remember the exact date). He was arrested for graffiti, and pleaded guilty in order to lessen the sentence. He explains that he never would have pleaded guilty had he been made aware of the legal definition of graffiti: “The etching, painting, covering or otherwise placing a mark upon public or private property, with the intent to damage such property.” The “intent to damage” part of the definition didn’t fly with De La Vega, which is why he pleaded “not guilty” when he was arrested again in 2003 for painting a mural on a blank wall in the Bronx. De La Vega maintains that in creating his art he does not intend to damage anything, and that the wall was usually covered with graffiti anyway. The courts ultimately sentenced De La Vega to fifty hours of community service.
During the course of our interview, De La Vega and I get into a little… disagreement. Though he is willing to be included in this article he doesn’t agree with its theme — specifically, the problematic relationship between artists and the NYPD. He understands graffiti laws as a protection of private property, and he doesn’t think the NYPD necessarily did anything wrong by arresting him. I concede his first point, and ask him whether he considers it a violation of freedom of speech to be arrested for making impermanent marks in a public place. He says that not every idiot should be allowed to express himself freely: “What if they say something I don’t agree with?” Though I’m still intimidated, I say that freedom of expression extends to response. That one has the right to question what is written and what is said. One has the right to demand explanation and accountability. After all, freedom of expression creates a space for dialogue and thought, exactly what he is trying to inspire. He tells me to chill out, and hands me a bag of pork rinds.