Climate Activists Gathered at the Met to Protest the ‘Unjustifiably Harsh’ Charges Facing a Pair of Fellow Demonstrators

The group painted their palms, wore tape on their mouths, and encircled a Degas sculpture. 

Members of activist groups Extinction Rebellion and Rise & Resist protesting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 24, 2023. Photo: Graham MacIndoe.

Last Saturday, June 24, 20 environmental activists gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a demonstration against the increasingly harsh punishments facing climate protestors.  

The group, made up of members from Extinction Rebellion and Rise & Resist, painted their palms red and black and formed a circle around Edgar Degas’s bronze sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878–81)—effectively recreating a protest staged by activists Joanna Smith and Tim Martin at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. 

Smith and Martin, who belong to the Declare Emergency climate group, were arrested for splattering paint on the protective plexiglass surrounding a wax version of the same Degas sculpture at the NGA on April 27. The duo’s demonstration was among the first staged in an American institution after waves of similar protests rocked European museums last year

The action caused $2,400 worth of damage, but the artwork was not harmed.  

Smith and Martin were indicted last month on charges of conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and injury to a National Gallery of Art exhibit. Each charge carries a maximum prison sentence of five years and a fine of up to $250,000. 

For the groups involved in last weekend’s protest, the charges levied against Smith and Martin belong to a larger trend of “unjustifiably harsh (and possibly illegal) measures taken against climate activists,” according to a joint statement. 

“If Joanna and Tim had been graffiti artists using fingerpaint to tag plexiglass, they wouldn’t be facing the prospect of lengthy prison sentences,” said Stu Waldman, an organizer with Rise & Resist. “Their indictment is not based on their actions, but on their motivations. It is an indictment of intimidation, rather than a pursuit of justice.” 

Members of activist groups Extinction Rebellion and Rise & Resist protesting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on June 24, 2023. Photo: Graham MacIndoe.

At the Met, protestors also covered their mouths with black tape bearing words like “Famine,” “Floods,” “Glaciers,” and “Wildlife”—symbols of the “suppression faced by activists,” the statement explained. Some held signs with slogans that read, “Earth is the Treasure No Art Has Harmed” and “No Art on a Dead Planet.” No damage was incurred as part of the demonstration, according to representatives from the Met.

The demonstration is part of a larger #FreeTheDegasTwo campaign launched by Declare Emergency, Extinction Rebellion, Rise & Resist, and a fourth activist group, Scientist Rebellion Turtle Island. They recently launched an open petition calling on Assistant U.S. District Attorney Cameron A. Tepfer to drop the charges against Smith and Martin. So far, the document has 430 signatures. 

“If our government still possesses any remnants of democracy, it must not permit climate criminals to elude accountability, while simultaneously punishing citizens who dare to challenge their wrongdoing—citizens who themselves are victims of the actions of these climate criminals,” said Georgia B. Smith, a member of Extinction Rebellion. 


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