Sidewalk war over civil freedom

29 March 1998

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Since 1993, more than 500 street artists have been arrested for not having a vending licence. After the arrests began, the artists formed A.R.T.I.S.T., whose purpose is not only to protect the rights of street artists but to protect everyone's First Amendment right to free expression on public property.

In the October of 1996 they won a second circuit federal court case against Mayor Giuliani, the Police Department and the Department of Parks. The ruling states that "the city's requirement that appellants be licensed in order to sell their artwork in public spaces constitutes an unconstitutional infringement of their First Amendment rights."

However, despite winning the case in court the city, the Parks Department and the real estate interests who instigated the policy to arrest artists in 1993 continue to seek ways to illegally impose a licence or permit system on artists.

On Feb 11, Giuliani officially turned over Central Park to an elite group, The Central Park Conservancy (New York Times, Feb 12 story of "Management of Central Park's Going Private, and Daily News, Feb 12 story of "Central Park's Going Private").

Privatizing public property is a key goal of the Giuliani administration and the real estate interests that put him in office. The Conservancy, which the Daily News describes as a private group that "gets the bulk of its money from foundations corporations and wealthy individuals, many of whom live near the park" uses the Park's concession money to promote its pet projects, among which is the elimination of unionized workers in the park's system.

The Conservancy uses the Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum for cocktail parties society weddings and elite fundraising activities. The general public is never invited to these events, yet both Central Park and the property on which stands the museum are public property.

After the Conservancy took over Central Park, the Parks Department announced that, beginning from March 1, artists, who have been selling their works in front of the Met for more than 100 years without a permit based on freedom of speech, would be forced to apply for a permit and compete in a monthly lottery for one of 24 spots.

By taking away the artists' constitutional right to be in front of the Met for free and replacing it with a US $25 (RM100) permit, the Parks Department intends to gradually introduce a system of bidding for consessions.

According to Parks commissioner Henry Stern who said in an article in the Feb 26 issue of the New York Newsday, "These are extremely valuable spaces and people who sell hotdogs there pay US $150,000 (RM 600,000) a year for the privilege and may not like having to set up next to an artist who is there for free."

The Metropolitan Museum is the only major New York city art museum that has refused to join the street artists' federal law suit and still refuses to publicly acknowledge that artists have a First Amendment right to create, display and sell their art on public property. The museum spends millions to present elitist shows like the tribute to Gianni Versace.

Artists, not art collectors, create the value inherent in the world's art. If Americans as a people are going to treasure famous art collections, how much more should the value living working artists?

The history clashes between the Guiliani administration and street artist has threatened to become an unpleasant issue between the Met and its neighbors City Hall has long battled with street artists over when and where art can be sold on the public sidewalks in the Big Bagel. The battle seemed to
have subsided for a while but it flared up again a month or so ago when police issued summonses and confiscated work from the street artists near the Met, accusing them for congregating in unsafe numbers and failing to apply for permits.

The Met, which the artists have attacked, has now come out to say that it views the artists as a tourist attraction and says that patrons (of the Met) have never complained about overcrowding, obstruction or unruly behavior

One point that the street artists, and I, like the Met agree with is that the artists, the calligraphers and booksellers are not a nuisance or obstructionists. However, the law enforcers think otherwise and
dismissed the museum's views as irrelevant, insisting that a permit is needed to control the number of artists who occupy the plaza and to insure that those who do business there pay sales taxes.

The artists insist and argue that their work is protected by the First Amend meet, as are books, and no licences are required. The New York Times says the artists see the crackdown by City Hall at the Met as a form of revenge against their court victory.

An editorial in the influential newspaper sass that given the Federal Court's ruling that art deserves the same protection as books, pamphlets and treaties, the city must take care not to abridge the First Amendment Freedom, adding that the Met surely knows how much traffic it can tolerate on its doorstep and the value those artists represent to the neighborhood

"Unless sidewalk congestion truly becomes a safety hazard, the city ought to lean towards preserving both free expression and the festive atmosphere the artists bring" the editorial concludes.

I could not agree more.

This is my unsolicited advice to Mayor Giuliani: The city has improved a lot since I arrived here two years ago and I believe the best is yet to come. Drop this harassment against the artists who bring much curiosity, colour and gaiety to this otherwise "stern" Upper East side.

Thi,, the price a civilized society which you strenuously want to foster in New York has to pay; it is a worthy demand to meet.

Datuk Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )