Illuminator Art Collective Arrested for Daring Museum Protest Sues NYPD

It's just like when the British seized American printing presses in the 1700s.

Illuminator Guggenheim Gulf Labor
The Illuminator's projection on the Guggenheim Museum. Courtesy the Illuminator.

The Illuminator Art Collective, known for its dramatic light projections at protests, is suing the NYPD for wrongfully arresting its members and seizing its property. The suit names Jessica Corey, Central Park Precinct commander.

“The suit is for First Amendment retaliation and prior restraint—a concept we don’t hear about much since we fought a revolution against it in the late 18th century,” said Sam Cohen, of New York firm Stecklow Cohen & Thompson, which is representing Illuminator, in a phone interview.

The collective participates in demonstrations in support of causes like the movement for a $15 minimum wage and the Carry that Weight Coalition, which supports survivors of sexual and domestic violence (see Columbia Student’s Performance Art Catalyzes a Full-Fledged Protest Movement). It also projected an image of Edward Snowden in a Brooklyn public park after police confiscated a guerrilla artist’s statue of the NSA whistleblower (see Guerrilla Artists Celebrate Whistle-Blowers with Edward Snowden Statue).

“The British government used to put restraints on people’s speech by seizing printing presses and placing limits on where and when certain people could speak,” Cohen said. “The NYPD did this by seizing the Illuminator Art Collective’s largest projector shortly before the People’s Climate March.”

The Illuminator Art Collective's projection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo via Illuminator.

The Illuminator Art Collective’s projection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo via Illuminator.

The NYPD arrested the members of the collective—Kyle Depew, Grayson Earle, and Yates McKee—on September 9, 2014, as they protested at a Metropolitan Museum of Art gala honoring conservative billionaire and climate change denier David H. Koch, for whom the museum’s renovated plaza is named (see NYPD Detains Activists for Anti-Koch Light Graffiti at the Met).

The People’s Climate March took place September 21.

“They were charged with unlawful posting of advertisements for projecting images critical of Koch and the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Cohen explained. “Even someone who’s not a lawyer can tell that there are two problems with that charge. The statute defines ‘posting’ as sticking to something. Images and projections don’t stick, and no advertisements were involved.”

“The charges were ridiculous and incoherent, and they were dismissed by the criminal court for legal insufficiency without any real effort on my part,” said Cohen.

While the suit aims to stop the police from violating demonstrators’ First Amendment rights, Cohen said, the city will likely simply reach into its coffers to make the case go away without changing police practices.

“The city, frankly, prefers to give money to people it has wronged rather than train its officers to adhere to the Constitution,” said Cohen.

The press office of the NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


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