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‘No stopping New York’? Park performers condemn police crackdown on artists’ rights | New York

On what seemed to be an otherwise unremarkable July day, performer Kanami Kusajima was dancing in New York City’s famed Washington Square Park, just as she had since the city began its long journey into post-Covid lockdown recovery.

Kusajima, who had become the face of the city’s resilience when mayoral officials used her photo in a widespread “NO STOPPING NEW YORK” ad campaign, was shocked when police issued a ticket for her use of a tiny speaker.

Although police and park rangers had tried “over and over” to shut down Kusajima over the low-decibel device at various points over the years, they generally left her alone after she explained the ad campaign and directed them to speak to the local precinct.

But something had changed on 20 July. They were intractable.

“They just were not willing to listen … and then they gave me the [ticket],” Kusajima recalled.

As if to comfort Kusajima for the encounter, an officer said: “We could take the speaker. We’re not going to do that.” The ticket, which Kusajima described as “unreadable”, was deemed “dismissed” in an online portal weeks later.

Artists and performers in Washington Square Park – who have the first amendment right to sell their art and perform in public space – claim the incident is part of a recent, ramped-up enforcement effort targeting creatives in one of New York’s best known urban landmarks, celebrated in literary and movie history.

Sometimes, they claim, it takes the form of capricious haranguing. At other times it has included an iron-fisted enforcement of codes.

This can include municipal codes, such as in Kusajima’s case, where she was ticketed over a prohibition on amplified sound without a permit, or stringent enforcement of city park regulations that bar artists and performers from setting up a table within 50 feet of monuments. Artists claim that this activity has increased in recent months.

J Eric Cook, like Kusajima, is among the artists leading the charge against enforcement activity with protests and social media posts.

“The police will tell you they are not over-policing right now, that everything they do was within the law,” said Cook, who is among the organizers of the Washington Square Park Artists Collective. But, Cook said, “I have seen and heard them do things that are not within the rules and stretch credulity.”

On one windy day, Cook said, his stand was slightly wider than the maximum 8ft width, so it wouldn’t blow over. “They started nitpicking on that one day [when] I was 9ft wide rather than 8ft wide,” Cook recalled.

He has posted several videos to Instagram involving officers’ encounters with Washington Square Park artists. In one video, an officer tells an artist he can’t set up near a bench because it’s not an “expressive matter park”. When the artist points out that New York City public parks can have “expressive matter” – court decisions allowing artists to sell their wares have affirmed this – the officer claims his display is within 50ft of a monument and thus not allowed.

The artist says he measured and was not within 50ft of a monument. The officer disputes that; the artist then asks for a measuring tape and the officer reiterates that it’s not a “designated expressive matter park” and that the artist cannot be there.

In another video, a police officer says that he will ticket Cook for ringing a bell, which the artist uses around officers as part of his protest.

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Some artists believe the shift is because illicit marijuana dealers had recently been posing as artists in the park, displaying paintings as a front to surreptitiously sell drugs, and that they’ve been swept up in the dragnet. The Guardian witnessed one dealer who appeared to be doing this on a recent day.

Robert Lederman, a painter who has advocated for artists’ rights for decades – and who was arrested more than 40 times before a federal court ruled that artists can sell their wares in public parks – said increased enforcement came amid quality-of-life complaints unrelated to artists.

During the pandemic, Lederman said, police pulled back on law enforcement in Washington Square Park, especially against non-artist vendors. This enabled an influx of them in the park, and set the stage for an open-air marijuana market. It also set the stage for flagrant use of hard drugs such as heroin.

“The pressure to do something about Washington Square Park increased very significantly,” Lederman said, but “the complaints are not mostly about artists.”

But, Lederman said, that’s a minor part of what’s really going on. “If you’re the police and you want to get rid of drug dealers, why are you summonsing artists for umbrellas?” Lederman said. “It’s very simple: the reason that the enforcement is directed at artists is because that’s the real agenda of the parks department.”

The Washington Square Park Conservancy, which maintains the park and provides programming, insisted it was not responsible for any ramped-up interactions between artists and officials. The organization said it has “been an active part of the dialogue with artists, buskers, elected officials, the community board and agency stakeholders as they come together to discuss a path forward to a vibrant future for the iconic open space we all cherish”.

Asked for comment on artists’ concerns, the parks department said: “Washington Square Park is a bastion of artistic expression. We support expressive matter vendors performing in parks, following longstanding related rules.” The department said officers’ first step in addressing vending issues is to educate vendors and insists “there has been no crackdown in enforcement or change in our policy”.

Asked for comment on artists’ concerns, the New York police department said: “In response to community complaints regarding illegal vending and drug activity in Washington Square Park, the NYPD continues to address the condition.” ‘No stopping New York’? Park performers condemn police crackdown on artists’ rights | New York

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