Artists & Freedom

By Robert Lederman.

No country on earth is more vocal about freedom than the United States of America. We hold freedom up as the single highest value of our culture and as the primary reason for our nation existing.

On this nation’s 235th birthday, let’s take a moment as street artists to consider what freedom means to us, specifically in light of the recent legal developments involving the park rules.

Before these revised rules were put into effect artists were totally free in NYC Parks.

We could come and go as we pleased. We could set up a display almost anywhere, limited by only a very few rules about the size of a display and where on the sidewalk we could place it. Every area of every park was available to us, so long as we observed these few simple rules.

There were no numerical limits on artists.

If you got to a park very early in the morning, you might be able to pick the most desirable spot to sell in, but regardless of when you arrived, there was always someplace open in that park where you could legally set up a display.

Today, that freedom is completely gone.

We are subject to a curfew, a curfew that in practice is applied to no one other than street artists. While homeless people, gamblers, drunks, addicts, skateboarders and tourists freely use the parks round the clock, PEP (Park Enforcement Patrol officers) stand guard in the early morning just to prevent any artist from even walking into a park.

The potential areas where we can legally set up a display have been reduced by more than 95%. Getting a vending spot in a park has become so difficult that many artists have simply given up trying.

A severe limit on the number of artists allowed in each of the 4 most popular parks (Union Sq, High Line, Central and Battery Park) has turned artist against artist as we struggle to obtain one of these few “medallion” spots.

Adding insult to injury, most of the medallion spots are located in the very least desirable areas of these 4 parks. Some medallion spots are sprayed with water every day, they are almost all outside of the actual parks, most are where they cannot be readily seen by the public and many are located along curbs with fast moving traffic just inches away.

As the Parks Department has recently showed us, even this handful of available spots supposedly “reserved” for artists cannot be depended on. In the past two weeks they showed a willingness to sell a special event permit to use these spots to anyone with a few thousands dollars. The rules themselves state that the medallion spots are void whenever a special event is scheduled, and the Parks Department has plans to deliberately schedule many such events in the medallion areas.

Among the many things revealed during the depositions of 10 City officials that were just conducted in our lawsuit, it came out that the Parks Department intends to decrease the number of medallion spots as soon as possible. It was stated by a top Parks Department official that they actually want NO street artists in any NYC Park.

During the exact same time the Parks Department was eliminating street artists from these 4 parks they were soliciting for hundreds of new food trucks, vendors, vending concessions, Christmas tree concessions, Holiday Markets, private parties and corporate promotions to buy permits to take over the exact same areas we artists have now been banned from.

Street artists have gone from enjoying total freedom to having no freedom at all in the space of a few months.

How is it that First Amendment protected artists now have fewer rights in NYC’s public parks than homeless people, vendors, food concessions,
corporations, gamblers and tourists?

The Mayor, the Parks Commissioner, the BIDs (Business Improvement
Districts), the park conservancies and high society groups like The Municipal Arts Society have conspired to destroy our rights, evict us from public parks and then take over these exact same areas we were previously entitled to for their own profitable uses.

Freedom has been taken from us by people who wrap themselves in the flag, march in parades and make speeches professing a great love for everything America stands for, especially freedom.

The wealthiest New Yorkers - the same people who fund museums, own art
galleries as a hobby, collect the most expensive art in the world and pose as history’s greatest art benefactors - have taken away our rights.

A media tycoon Mayor whose 11 billion dollar fortune was made using free speech, stole our rights and gave them to his wealthiest friends. This same Mayor is locating hundreds of corporate sponsored art exhibits in these same parks, as is the Parks Commissioner, while they both pose as the city’s greatest art benefactors.

The media is so manipulated and intimidated by this Mayor’s wealth, that it does not dare to depict the reality of this story, instead pretending that it is all being done to improve public safety and enhance park aesthetics. Having no freedom itself, the corporate owned media cannot tell the true story of how “The Arts Administration” has spent it’s entire 9 years in office conspiring to destroy the rights of artists.

SEE: NY Times, “The Arts Administration”

The City’s thousands of arts institutions are likewise completely silent, bought off by money that comes directly from the billionaire Mayor’s pocket.

Before our lawsuits are even filed in court, the Mayor publicly announces on his radio show that the court will rule in his favor. Was that just a good guess, or does he have a reason to be so certain of the outcome?

Most artists feel powerless, depressed and beaten. How can we possibly stand up against all this power, money and prestige?

The answer to winning back our rights is in vigorously exercising the rights themselves.

The freedom we celebrate on July Fourth is the freedom to speak, to express our opinion and to use public space. As artists, we are already experts at using images, sounds, colors and words to emotionally move the public. And, even more importantly, we are experts at using public space to express ourselves in.

When the Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment, it was not envisioned as a way to help artists sell their work in a park.

It was meant to help the general public; the poor, workers, artists, farmers and independent newspaper publishers to resist the power, money and influence of the wealthy property owners that would inevitably consolidate power and run the nation.

The First Amendment is a weapon for winning your freedom. It is the great equalizer. Free speech is what those in power most fear, and what those without power most need to use if they hope to prevail.

If artists will use the public space to fight back against the “Arts Administration;” if we will use our art to expose the theft of our rights and the grievous inequality that we have recently been subjected to, we will win.

If you are interested in fighting to regain your rights, here’s some specific information on how to do it in NYC Parks.


This is America. You are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Rights like muscles must be EXERCISED. Use it or you lose it, as the saying goes.

Other than filing a lawsuit, there are three ways you can actively resist the park rules.


Civil disobedience is an American tradition. This nation was founded on civil disobedience. Among our more famous practitioners of civil disobedience are George Washington, Ben Franklin, the Quakers, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. They are considered American heroes.

It was from their acts of civil disobedience that Americans won their rights.

There is a beautiful statue of Gandhi in Union Sq Park which Commissioner Adrian Benepe mentions regularly as one of the monuments artists are supposedly “obstructing.”

Gandhi became famous for his many acts of civil disobedience. By those acts he freed the entire population of India from colonial subjugation.

It is a time honored feature of US, military and world court rulings that you are not required to obey an illegal order.

The medallion marked spots illegally violate our First Amendment rights, as will eventually be proven in our Federal court lawsuit. Until then, why tolerate being abused and humiliated and having your most fundamental rights illegally violated by the Parks Department on a daily basis?

It is time for artists to take back the South Plaza in Union Sq Park, Fifth Avenue East along Central Park, Wein Walk, the High Line and Battery Park.

One possibility, is following the rules exactly as they existed before June 2010.

In other words, do not block benches or paths; do not lean anything on trees or walls; do not damage any parks property; keep your stand to an exact legal size (8’X5’X3’); only set up a stand on a sidewalk that is at least 12’ wide, and do nothing to cause congestion or pedestrian inconvenience. Be a well-behaved street artist acting in disobedience of the new rules only.

This is not China or Iran. No artist will be shot, beaten or imprisoned just for being outside of a medallion vending spot.

The very worst thing the police can do is issue you an ECB summons and ask you to move. If you refuse, the worst they can do is arrest you for a few hours. If they confiscate your art, the NYC vending law is that your art has to be returned on demand, which means, when you ask for it back, regardless of any outcome in your summons case.

While doing civil disobedience, display many protest signs. Make your message explicitly clear: “I’m here to regain my rights, not just to vend.”

The Parks Dept has no enforcement ability to deal with even a handful of artists refusing to follow the rules. They are very afraid of our protest signs and they are shocked that no one is even trying to re-occupy any of the desirable vending spots in these 4 parks. You are passively assisting them in your own destruction by giving up so much territory without even attempting to re-occupy it.

Make sure you have a working video camera or tape recorder with you and use it from the very first second of any confrontation with NYPD, PEP or park officials. That's the evidence you will need to win in court and the video can be sent right to the media.

It’s best to always have at least one partner to do civil disobedience with. Three or four artists doing it all at once in the same location is ideal.

The media is patiently waiting to cover the story of actual artists being summonsed or arrested in these 4 parks. Every reporter I talk to wants to know just one thing; has anyone been arrested or summonsed yet?

As you can see from the Villager article at the end of this email, my getting one little ECB summons last weekend immediately rated a news story. This is the Mayor’s nightmare; that artist arrests will once again be on the front page.

The Parks Dept is hoping artist resistance will never happen; that we all remain passive and sheep-like. Are you an artist-sheep?

In order to win this in the court of public opinion, we must turn to non-violent civil disobedience.

Do you think the world would have ever heard of Martin Luther King or Gandhi if they played it safe and never risked anything?

To win anything, you must take some reasonable risk. The risk here is minimal at worst and if you organize a few friends to do it with you and have video cameras, there will likely be no risk at all. A few weeks ago I sold all weekend in the South Plaza of USP right in front of the PEP and they did nothing but make phone calls about it.

To read the Park rules as they existed before June 2010 click here.

If we win the lawsuit, these are the rules that will remain in effect.

No stand vending is not civil disobedience. It is 100% legal. It will also defeat the entire purpose of the revised park rules.

No stand vending means to hold your art in your hands and sell it without the use of any stand, table, easel, cart etc. You can stand in one place during the time you are making a sale, but you cannot stand in one place all day or for a long period of time (a PEP enforcement memo says no more than 15 minutes).

The revised park rules, the Federal judge in our lawsuit, the Parks Department legal staff and the NYC vending laws all recognize no stand vending (by artists and other First Amendment protected vendors ONLY) as being legal throughout the entire Parks system and legal on all but 2 streets in all of NYC (the block around the World Trade Center and 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues).

You can do no stand vending anywhere in all NYC Parks, but still make sure you have a working video camera or tape recorder with you and use it from the very first second of any confrontation with NYPD, PEP or park officials. The value of no stand vending in this context is that you can assert your rights, take back the good areas of these parks, make sales and do it with no risk at all.

To see no stand vending documentation click here.

Display only means to show art but not offer it for sale. Only First Amendment protected vendors can legally engage in this type of activity. It is recognized in the revised park rules and by the Federal judge in our case. The PEP officers may try to intimidate you into not doing this but they will not summons you so long as you are not offering anything for sale.

If you are just displaying art, you can do it anywhere, on any street, in any park, with no other vending restrictions at all. A real artist can make a career out of just displaying art, if they use their imagination.

Better to just display art than to completely give up your rights, don’t you think?

As with no stand vending, The value of display only in this context is that you can assert your rights, take back the good areas of these parks and do it with no risk at all.

Make sure you have a working video camera or tape recorder with you and use it from the very first second of any confrontation with NYPD, PEP or park officials.

I’ve practiced civil disobedience, no stand vending and display only vending for 18 years, most recently in Union Sq Park and on the High Line. Most of the time, they did nothing but make threats and try to intimidate me. Eventually, they won’t even bother to approach you.

It is time for NYC’s street artists to fully embrace their rights, not time to abandon them. If we’d all been more appreciative of the fantastic freedom we previously had, it might still be here – but, it is not too late to reverse the course of events.

Until the court case is won, how about standing up for yourself, for what America is really about and for the freedom that all humans cherish and all artists have a right to enjoy?

Articles on civil disobedience

Civil disobedience on the High Line, Sunday 6/12/2011
Robert Lederman refuses to use the medallion spots,
gets a summons for unauthorized vending.

6/4/2011 Lederman told by Supervisor of Union Square Park to relocate to medallion spots. Lederman refuses. (the first 48 seconds were only recorded as audio. The remainder is video)


Civil disobedience in Union Sq Park 7/3/2010
Lederman arrives at 5:30 AM. Artists are being forced to line up outside park by PEP officers, while 100 drunks and homeless people sleep on benches, gamble, and drink inside the park. Lederman refuses to leave park and sells art despite PEP officer's pressure to stop and his attempt to grab Lederman's art display.


Mayor Bloomberg tells Lederman there are too many artists, too many illegal vendors and that the police refuse to summons them so new rules are needed.


This adds to what is now a large amount of evidence we have that that the Mayor is directly behind the revised park rules. (the conversation with the Mayor is about halfway through video. The first half is Lederman negotiating with City Hall NYPD security)

Questions, comments, want to help out on this effort?
Robert Lederman, President of ARTIST