REPOhistory: Banned Art in New York City

By C.J.

Revolutionary Worker #959, May 31, 1998

It was lunch hour on May 19, one of the first hot days in New York City. As secretaries, lawyers and jurors on recess milled about, an exhibition of 20 beautiful metal signs suddenly sprouted on the massive steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Building. They were held aloft by the artists who had created them. The New York Times and National Public Radio showed up as a crowd gathered.

This was a banned art show. The event had originally been billed as a "walking tour" of the signs--which were to have been attached to lamp posts around the court buildings and in other parts of the city. But moments before the 1 p.m. press conference, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a letter to "REPOhistory," the art group organizing the show, denying them a permit to mount the signs. They cited "Section 10-119 of the Administrative Code... prohibiting use of City property for hanging signs."

All this was a highly unusual development since REPOhistory is an established progressive public arts group which, since 1992, has regularly obtained permits to do year-long exhibits of such signs marking important events in people's history. They even have a letter of commendation from the City in their files.

So what was up this time? Why can't the City government live with these particular signs beautifying the streets over the coming year? The show is called "Civil Disturbances: Battles for Justice in New York City" and the signs "document pivotal legal battles in defense of the rights of the city's politically and economically disenfranchised." They commemorate public interest lawsuits against sex discrimination, housing discrimination, AIDS discrimination, lawsuits which won legal rights to public health care, building access for disabled people, the right to shelter, the right to a hearing for welfare recipients, the right to sell art in the streets, children's rights, battered wives' rights, school desegregation, and so on.

One sign which may have caused special trauma with the authorities was created by Jenny Polak and David Thorne. It features pictures of some of the youth killed by New York City cops and informs the viewer that: "From 1994-1996, 75 people were killed (shot in back, shot in head, pinned face down and shot, choked, hog-tied and crushed, beaten to death, etc.) by New York City police officers." Below, splashed across 12 empty juror chairs the sign reads: "Only 3 officers were convicted of committing any crimes. 0 for murder." On the other side, the question "How do we protect our Communities?" is answered with: "Parents Against Police Brutality, the Stolen Lives Project and the October 22nd Coalition. 1-800 NO BRUTALITY."

REPOhistory's plan is for a second set of the signs to also be posted near various "scenes of the crimes" around the city. For instance, the sign documenting the suit that challenged the all-male policy at bars is slated to go up in front of McSorley's Pub in the East Village (the case: Seidenberg v. McSorley's). The anti-police brutality signs are to be erected near the sites of the killing of Anthony Baez, Nicholas Heyward and Kevin Cedeno.

City officials will not say exactly what flipped them out about the "Civil Disturbances" signs. "It's simply not permitted.. that's the end of the story..." said the city lawyer David Goldin, echoing the shut-the-fuck-up style of his mayor Giuliani (who during that same week was calling cab drivers terrorists for staging a one-day strike). Since officials have allowed past REPOhistory signs--not to mention endless banners advertising everything from the local merchants association to Fashion Week--this new prohibition is clearly a censoring of content. It is another instance of a government body acting as the ultimate art critic.

"It's not as if these signs are false advertising," said Nicholas Heyward, who was at the unveiling. Nicholas is the father of one of the youth killed by the NYPD, and his son is pictured on one of the banned signs. "They tell the truth and people need to see them."

Besides being a plain outrage, what the city has done is illegal. They're violating the artists' First Amendment rights, a fact which has caused serious concern among public interest lawyers. Many of these folks, who were on hand in large numbers for the sign unveiling, have been involved in the project from the beginning as resource people for the artists. A suit to force the city to let the signs go up is currently being filed by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

Assembled on the court steps that day were artists, lawyers, community groups, activists, as well as the protagonists in the various lawsuits--like the woman on welfare who won the right to a hearing for all people on welfare, members of Parents Against Police Brutality, disabled activists motoring up in their wheel chairs... It's an unusual and exciting cast of characters which REPOhistory has brought together with this provocative art project.

This has to reflect the fact that there's a good bit at stake in this undertaking even beyond the important art censorship issue. Apparently, as far as the city's concerned, even these 21"x62" artworks are just too emphatic reminders that the poor still do not have a right to housing and health care, the disabled still can't get into most public buildings, racial discrimination remains the rule not the exception, and on and on.

Such matters are not to be publicly debated these days, as Giuliani continues to rampage against the people with his Quality of Life campaign ("Murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes, but they are part of the same continuum of disorder"--from his recent Create a More Civil Society). One is reminded of a comment by art critic Guy Brett about the situation in Chile in the years after the notorious CIA-backed Pinochet regime came to power via public massacre of citizens: "It is a chilling experience to stand in the new Santiago metro or one of the manicured public gardens... knowing the murders, tortures, mass evictions and harassments that lie behind them."

This is the power of these REPOhistory signs: the stories of great suffering, and heroism, that lie behind them. As Iris Baez, mother of Anthony Baez who was killed by the NYPD, told the New York Times reporter: "It's going to be in their face, that's why the city don't want it. We deal with reality. That's what has to come out. Things can be all pink on the outside, but it's murder on the inside."

The drama is sure to intensify as the battle unfolds to get these signs seen, to get the truth out.

To see the signs, to learn more about REPOhistory, and to send messages of support to the artists visit their website:

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