Sunday, July 21, 2013

Chalking it up to age and...

Chalking it up to age and... love of our civil rights.

Sira meets Julia, 1984
It could all just be chalked up to my age, a love of democracy and an infatuation with civil rights. Our constitutional  rights exist to make our lives, culture and neighborhoods, civil. Gotta love that!  Yet, it was more.  I felt compelled to do my crazy and ill-timed ( for my  schedule) project for many reasons. One was to mark many decades of trying to find an effective way to be an artist and add something to the ongoing struggle for human dignity, justice and peace. Another reason was purely sentimental. My first ever Arts Grant was a teaching project in 1984, where I took a group of kids out on the sidewalks of Central Square Cambridge and taught them some drawing basics as we moved through the neighborhood, creating art in unexpected places. At some point during the 4 week project, WGBH covered our proceedings and the clip of us working in early July, 1984 was aired (or repeated?) on September 8th. This also was the day our 2nd daughter, Julia was born. A maternity ward nurse recognized me and said, "Who would have thought you'd be out drawing on the sidewalk and having a baby the same day?" I was confused but she explained and we sorted it out. Back in the day, we did not have a TV and I was too busy before and right after Julia was born to be able to track down and see that video.

4:15 am Jul 18, 2013
Through the years I have marked my birthday by asking my family to cut me some slack and take care of business so I would have the time to do something nutty like chalk drawing from dawn to dusk. I find the process of chalk drawing delightfully ephemeral, completely impracticable, a bit challenging and totally enjoyable. I am not even very good at  it at this point - so woefully out of shape am I. Not only is squatting difficult but I have not been drawing regularly for over 8 years. When you were never very gifted to begin with (like me) you'll find that your rendering chops fall away like a towel at a pool side. Still, it seemed like it would be too much fun not to at least try.

But in my 60th year, chalking had a new element; First Amendment Rights. A few weeks ago,  I had read about the then pending case of a young man being charged with 13 counts of "disorderly conduct" for chalking the following message "Corbett [Gov of PA] has health care and we should too." [see above] His fines could be as high as $13K and his sentence as long as 13 years. I was amazed. I was incredulous. Mostly, I was deeply affronted by this attack on our civil rights.

5:00 am Jul 18, 2013
A friend showed me several instances of similar cases and this moved me to include a political statement in my artsy-fartsy birthday plans. Here is one of the cases that especially piqued my interest: "A jury Monday acquitted a 40-year-old man of all charges connected with writing protest messages in chalk on the sidewalk outside branches of the Bank of America.  Deliberating for only a few hours, the jury...declared Jeff Olson not guilty on all 13 misdemeanor counts filed by Goldsmith’s office. Olson never denied writing the slogans.
One slogan said, “No thanks, big banks.” Another, “Shame on Bank of America.” And in yet another, the bank was portrayed as an octopus grabbing at cash with its tentacles. “It’s chalk,” Filner told reporters last week in an exasperated tone. “It’s water-soluble chalk. They were political slogans.”But courts have held that graffiti remains illegal even if it can be easily washed off, Goldsmith said. That the Bank of America contacted the city attorney’s office to reportedly urge prosecution has become part of the dispute. 
6:35 am Jul 18, 2013
Really? Corporations telling a DA who to prosecute? Faster than you can say "David and Goliath" I had chalk in hand and a full head of steam. I was pissed. BUT... instead of rushing headlong into this contested arena I decided to check my natural rash impulses and read the Town By-Laws. Finding no explicit rule against chalking on sidewalks,  I found a copy of a Brookline Rec Department flyer that invited citizens to participate in sidewalk chalk art. Then I also dug up a 9 year old article about me drawing in chalk on my birthday.  Thus prepared I called Town Hall the next day to see if drawing in chalk, in Brookline,  required permission. My first encounter was with the Building Department, which seemed like the wrong town agency but in fact, all signage and public space in Coolidge Corner are under the Building Inspector's jurisdiction.  Mike Yanovitch said that as long as my work was not "political or offensive" it should be fine. I bristled and my sub-clinical Tourette's kicked in and I blurted that I was not asking for a critical opinion on my art, just the legal stance of the Town of B on chalking sidewalks. Mr. Yanovitch immediately changed tacks and so did I. Within hours I had sent him an email thanking him and giving him tons of "background" information. And I waited.

6:55 am Jul 18, 2013
After 5 days I wrote again asking if Mr. Y had received my information. He had and said he was fine with the project and, he freely offered, without any prompt from me, that permission is not based  a "content thing" but that I did need to talk to Department of Public Works. So, I journeyed on.

I called Peter Ditto at the DPW. Mr. Ditto said the main issues were about space - I must not block traffic and I must leave a 4' wide for handicap access. I explained that I had taken some pictures of where I wanted to work and would send them. I added that I try to work before rush hour, 5AM - 8AM and likely would need more than one day due to my day job schedule.
7:00 am Jul 18, 2013
Mr. Ditto asked me to send the info I sent to Mr. Yanovitch and add to it locations of the sidewalks I was interested in, which I did in a neat pdf proposal. He said I should check in with the Police Department too. Only too happy to, said I BUT suggested that someone might issue a letter of permission just in case. What if not everyone on the BPD force gets the word of mouth that my actions have been authorized? In the past I have been stopped and challenged by officers of the law and always found it useful to have a document on my person. Mr.Ditto promised he would get back to me.

So, I waited. And waited.  On July 10, I received this email [below]… denying me permission.  This is where my story may have taken a very different turn if not for my fortune to count as a friend and colleague an ace, 1st amendment lawyer.  Enter (stage left) Michael Anderson.
A civilized exchange

Michael Anderson is a prestigious attorney, a wonderful storyteller and a fabulous Shakespearean actor as well. Michael's bio and tagline, which I have typed into many a program note ends with:

8:01 am Jul 18, 2013
"There is no such thing as free speech if you do not use it." It seemed like I was getting no where, fast, so  I wrote to him for advice on finding a pro-bono lawyer. He offered his service, a winning strategy and we hit the sidewalk - um, road, running. In no time Michael had cases, examples of chalk art on Town sidewalks and a very comprehensive letter formulated. When permission was officially denied, my lawyer ( sounds impressive, no? ) sent the letter to the Town Counsel. I believe there was a quick response by phone and after a conference between Michael and Jennifer Dopazo Gilbert, verbal permission was granted. And we waited some more. Finally, on July 15th I received my permit for 4 hours on July 18th of chalking in the areas I requested.

It is a victory. I know. But seriously folks? I thought that the Bill of Rights protected us average citizens who normally cannot afford a consigliere. Did I really need to explain myself so extensively, then lawyer-up and persist just to do a few chalk drawings? Apparently, the answer is yes. But my lingering questions are, should this be? And, if so, what are we going to do about it ?
Rosie takes a snap for me @ 6:55 am Jul 18, 2013