His may not be a household name here in New York City (unless it is the Bloomberg mansion) or in the Occupy Movement -- but for those who care for the exercise of our civil liberties, it should be and will be.
I'm talking about Robert Lederman, painter, printmaker, musician and video artist.
Long before a single Zuccotti protestor waving a cardboard sign decorated with protest art was ever arrested, Robert Lederman had been there, done that.
Long before Mayor Bloomberg's boys-in-blue cracked down on the Sidewalk Art of the Occupier, Robert Lederman had already skewered Mayor Giuliani and the illegal acts of New York City's Finest and its so-called "Park Service."
"I was actually the first to use cardboard for my art and my protests," Lederman says. "Because they were confiscating my art at the end of every day, and I could no longer afford canvas, I picked up bales of flattened cardboard from behind stores and used dregs of paint I found in cans lying about."
At this moment, Lederman has one active suit against the parks department and the mayor (Lederman et al vs. Parks Department) which is wending its way through the courts. Now that the Occupy Movement and police and park service crackdowns on its Artists have caught his attention, you can count on a few more.
The Artist As Criminal
A few years back, Lederman was handcuffed on the mayor's pet park, the High Line. He was issued five summonses, two of which were criminal. The criminal ones included disorderly conduct and failure to comply with directions of officers. The non-criminal summonses included vending without a park permit and failure to have his display comply with required permit.
For the past almost two decades Lederman has engaged in legal struggles... and quite successfully. Although the target of sustained attacks by two mayors and two park commissioners and being falsely arrested 44 times, he has won five federal lawsuits on the rights of free speech in public spaces.
And how was the "State" rewarded for those arrests? His successful lawsuits have made it legal to sell art on the street without a license, in NYC Parks without a permit, and to protest without a permit on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
I first heard of Lederman from another Veteran of the Wars, David Everitt-Carlson, a Union Square Occupier who has become the latest target of police "attention." In researching ways in which to defend himself, he came across Lederman's name and track record and immediately sought him out as a mentor and supporter.
As Lederman sees it, "David's situation is a microcosm of the macrocosm that the entire public -- and not just artists -- are experiencing in the parks. That is, a crackdown on free speech, on the right of assembly and on civil liberties generally by implementing severe new restrictions."
I asked Lederman why the parks are being sanitized, and his answer:
"The entire purpose of this is to make the public parks inaccessible and unuseable for constitutionally protected activities. At the same time, all public parks are being turned over to private corporate interests for advertising and promotional purposes."
A corporate-installed or sponsored piece of art will generate considerable monies for city and park coffers. Not so for the vagrant artist. (Chillingly, this is an extension of the "free speech" rights -- and unlimited money -- of corporations over the voices of the individual. Shades of Citizens United!)
Want more details? Robert Lederman can be reached on Twitter as @artistpres, on YouTube as NYC Street Artist Videos, and at the A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics).