Signs of the Times:
REPOhistory Scores One for the People
Revolutionary Worker #969, August 16, 1998
Iris Baez held the ladder while Tom Klem securely attached the metal sign just above the "No Parking" warning on the lamp post in front of her house. On the sign, the names and faces of three young men-- Nicholas Heyward Jr., Anthony Baez, and Kevin Cedeno--all killed in cold blood by New York City police. The sign marks the site where Iris Baez' son Anthony Baez was choked to death by New York City cop Francis Livoti after Anthony's football accidentally hit Livoti's car in December 1994.
It is a victory for the people that the sign went up at all. It is one of 20 exhibited around the city by public arts group REPOhistory in a show called "Civil Disturbances: Battles for Justice in New York City." The signs commemorate public interest lawsuits "in defense of the rights of the city's politically and economically disenfranchised." "I'm so happy it's finally going up," said Nicholas Heyward Sr.--who had joined Iris for the posting, and now has a copy of the sign in the back window of his car.
On May 19, the day these signs were scheduled to be hung around the city, the Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) refused REPOhistory a permit for this show. Since D.O.T. has given this group permits in the past, and since they routinely allow the city's lamp posts to sport all manner of ads and announcements, this was clearly a banning based on content--undisguised political censorship.
The idea for the embattled show originated a couple years ago, according to Joan Vermeulen from New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, "when Congress enacted a series of draconian restrictions on what Legal Services lawyers could do." This was one of those attacks on the people which had slipped by with little public outcry. So NYLPI lawyers joined up with REPOhistory artists to create a project which would dramatically present these injustices to the public. In the recent period, budgets have been slashed for Legal Services, which is one of the few legal resources available to poor people, and they are no longer able to bring class action lawsuits which in the past have helped change laws for whole groups of people. (The signs celebrate 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.)
Apparently, under the rule of Rudolph Giuliani, even the small artistic reminders of legal victories for the people were not to be permitted. The censoring of the REPO signs in May occurred in close proximity to the high-volume attacks by the City government on taxi drivers (whom the administration called "terrorists") along with attacks on sidewalk food carts, artists selling their work on the sidewalks, and book vendors. The press began to note this increasingly broad array of targets. Then, up popped the scandalous news of Giuliani's "bunker" (a secret multimillion dollar emergency command post currently being built downtown). REPOhistory artist Tom Klem remarked to the RW: "Here he is discriminating against all these people who are not white, and then we hear he's building himself a bunker. I think they were beginning to see a gigantic PR problem."
As press coverage sympathetic to the REPO project started piling up--in the New York Times, New York magazine, NPR radio, WBAI, etc.--the authorities may have summed up that an alliance unfavorable to them was in the making, and taking on a major First Amendment lawsuit was not the road they wanted to travel at this time.
In any case, the city backed off and the beautiful, quietly incendiary signs have gone up--though not entirely without incident. After only two days, annoyed Housing Authority bureaucrats in Brooklyn tried to take down one sign which exposed their biased rental policies. REPO put the sign back up.
The sign in front of Iris Baez' home was created by artists Jenny Polak and David Thorne and features pictures of several youth killed by New York City cops. On the sign the label "¡Presente!" symbolizes the roll call at the meetings of Parents Against Police Brutality--where the names of those killed are read aloud and family members call out "¡presente!" (which means "here" in Spanish). REPO also hung copies of the sign at the site of the killing of 16-year-old Kevin Cedeno in Washington Heights and in the Gowanus Projects in Brooklyn--where 13-year-old Nicholas Heyward, Jr. was killed by cops who claimed his bright orange plastic toy was a gun.
Jenny Polak: "David and I have worked with the families of some of the people who have been killed by police for awhile and I thought it was important to have their ongoing struggles come out in this context. To have them among some of these great landmark legal victories where people have won brought some hope to the ongoing police brutality cases, I felt. [We also wanted to expose] something the city has always been trying to hide. They're always trying to pay off the families so nothing comes out--everything is kept as secret as possible. So the idea of having public signs ...was almost like a commemoration as well as an information source."
Posing for pictures in front of the sign, Iris Baez told reporters, "This is not just about police brutality, but social brutality, system brutality." On one side of the sign it reads: "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 three officers were convicted of committing any crimes. Zero 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. Call 1-800 NO BRUTALITY."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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