Letter: Saving street artists’ rights

Dear Editor:

You may find Robert Lederman’s point of view of some value.

It’s timely and persuasive by my judgment.

Roger G. Jolley
St. Augustine
Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer
The International Chamber of Justice Inc.

By Robert Lederman

We use the word freedom a lot in the context of street artists’ rights. Sometimes due to economic pressures, harsh weather, competition for choice vending spaces or because of harassment by police, it is hard for us to fully appreciate our freedom.

The events now playing out in Egypt are a reminder of just how valuable and necessary freedom is. People are willing to risk everything, even their lives, to obtain the freedom we in America take for granted.

Whatever our political viewpoint about the protests now raging across the Middle East, and whatever the outcome will ultimately be, certain facts are worth our attention, particularly in the context of our local struggle for freedom.

The protests that already toppled a dictatorship in Tunisia and that appear to have ended a 30 year long dictatorship in Egypt began when a police officer slapped a Tunisian fruit vendor and confiscated his merchandise. The vendor became so incensed at this latest act of mistreatment that he set himself on fire in protest.

A seemingly insignificant incident, a vending confiscation, the kind of thing that happens on the streets of NYC hundreds of times a day without anyone noticing, caught the public imagination, led to the end of a 30 year political regime and inspired protests throughout the Muslim world.

Repression of people’s freedom inevitably leads to a reaction. Like steam trying to escape from an enclosed container, at some point there is nothing that can hold it back. All of human history is leading towards greater and greater freedom.

Today we street artists are under a great deal of pressure from the Mayor, the Parks Department, the BIDS and the various park conservancies. Like any corrupt political regime, they want to consolidate their power by increasing control over the basic resources of society.

In this context, the ultimate resource is public space. They want us eliminated from the places we sell, or failing that, severely restricted in our freedom so that they can totally dominate and exploit these spaces for corporate profit.

In trying to achieve their privatization of public space agenda, our freedom as street artists is seen as a major obstacle. As a result, they are engaged in a legal and political war against our freedom that has gone on uninterrupted for almost 20 years.

Yet today, the average person walking past the hundreds of artist stands and art vending displays that can be found in NYC, even in the winter, would never guess that anything was happening with us other than selling. Most street artists do not seem to be engaged in anything other than economic activity.

We will not win this struggle by being invisible, by being silent, by attending to business as usual or by just passively waiting to see what happens next in court. Everything we do in ARTIST has a legal and a political context.

Legally, the process is steadily moving along and will gradually work its way through the court system over the course of this year. However, regardless of the legal outcome, we will still have to deal with the political reality.

There is no question that regardless of the legal outcome, the city officials who are conspiring to eliminate us will simply take another path to their goal if we win in court. To prevail in the long run, we must always press forward politically.

Political action includes anything we do to influence public opinion.

Displaying your own homemade protest signs at your stand, participating in protests, writing letters to the media and to elected officials, organizing and educating street artists about the real dynamics of this controversy and supporting the goals of the ARTIST group are political actions.

Raising the consciousness among artists about respecting public space and its relationship to their rights is a key element of this. If artists are themselves seeking to privatize public space exactly as the BIDs and conservancies do, we will all suffer an inevitable defeat, regardless of the outcome of our court battles.

What we are seeing in Egypt is a clear example of the power of protest and of protest signs and even more importantly, of the importance of public space as a forum for people to express themselves. Without having access to a giant public square in Cairo, none of the events that we see unfolding would have been possible. This is why our struggle in NYC to defend the fullest degree of First Amendment rights in similar public spaces is so significant.

For political actions to be effective in our context, artists have to do something themselves rather than just wait for others to do it all for them. These kinds of actions are only effective and legitimate if they are seen as coming from you.

Your stand is a highly visible advertising billboard. Right now, it has no coherent message of any kind, other than, “buy my art.”

That’s a reasonable message from a business standpoint, but it is a non-message, politically. In fact, it is an anti message, in the sense that it gives a false appearance of everything being fine when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

The squeaky wheel gets the oil.

We cannot expect the public, the media or City officials to care about our fate if we are not even willing to passively display a sign on our vending stand. We cannot expect city officials to think twice about harassing us if the only message we seem willing to convey is business as usual.

Lawyers cannot do this political work for us. Neither can the ARTIST group do it all over the internet. For it to have any real effect, you have to take action yourself, on the street at your very visible stand.

The Mayor, the BIDs and the park conservancies are quietly watching you while you sell. In fact, they are also videotaping you.

What message do you think an exclusive focus on money and selling rather than rights sends to them?

Are we sending a message of resistance to privatization; a message of artists standing up for freedom; or a message of us being so passive and money focused that we will allow our rights to be taken away while busily making sales.

If we totally win the lawsuits against the new Park rules that are now taking place, the city will immediately get started on their next effort to eliminate us. That has been their response each time we won in the past. The only way we can have a lasting success is by winning politically as well as legally.

Lawyers and judges cannot do this for us. The power to determine your fate as a street artist with substantial rights is totally in your own hands.

Before taking action, you have to first understand the need for action.

Can you see the need?

If so, make a sign and start displaying it every single time you set up an art stand. Celebrate freedom.

Show your support for everyone’s freedom to use public space, not just your own. Show the world that you are proud to be a street artist and that your rights are at least as important to you as your profits.


Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer

Share your thoughts with our readers >>