The last two months have been a nightmare for Takeshi Miyakawa, a Japanese-born furniture designer based in New York City. The artist, who was arrested in May when his public art installations were misconstrued as bombs, is yet another victim of unchecked post-9/11 paranoia in America.
Incase you missed the headlines, Miyakawa was arrested on May 19 while hanging plastic “I love NY” shopping bags illuminated by battery-powered LEDs from lamp posts and trees in Brooklyn.
Miyakawa started hanging his light sculptures on May 18 as a tribute to New York City coinciding with the yearly International Contemporary Furniture Fair. In the early hours of May 19, while the artist was installing a sculpture on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Lorimer, he was approached by NYPD and promptly arrested.
An arresting officer informed him that residents had complained the day before of “suspicious packages” on Bedford Avenue, causing the evacuation of the entire neighborhood for several hours while the bomb squad determined if the packages were a threat.
“I didn’t expect this at all. I thought worse case scenario, maybe the police would ask me to remove the piece or something, but I didn’t expect the bomb squad,” Miyakawa tells me in a recent phone conversation.
At the time of Miyakawa’s arrest on May 19, authorities were already aware that the packages did not contain bombs, yet they still charged Miyakawa with approximately 10 felonies, including reckless endangerment and placing a “false bomb.”
After spending five days on Riker’s Island, a judge ordered Miyakawa released without bail, although he still faces charges and must appear again in court on July 19.
Miyakawa attributed his release from Riker’s to an outpouring of support from the public.
“I kept on receiving so many emails from many of my friends, and also some people I don’t know at all. They wrote me character references, so that they could give them to the judge. I received so many of them, and that helped a lot.”
Because his case has gotten so much positive attention, he and his lawyer are cautiously optimistic. They hope prosecutors will drop all of the charges against him at his next hearing on July 19.
Indeed, mainstream media coverage of Miyakawa’s case, such as this article in the New York Times, has generally been sympathetic to Miyakawa, citing his good intentions and positive references from friends and colleagues.
While this coverage is helpful to Miyakawa’s case, it treats it as an isolated example of a “stupid mistake,” a situation where the artist should have known better and “asked permission” first. However, his experience is not a one-off incident, it is further evidence of our disturbing slide into an American police state, where even non-political artistic expression is considered a criminal activity.
Remember the Boston bomb-scare of 2007, when illuminated LED Mooninite signs found hanging around the city were thought to be bombs? Or in 2006 in Ravenna, Ohio, where five teenage girls were arrested after they hung Super Mario question blocks around town-apparently it required the bomb squad to determine if the blocks contained mushrooms, flowers, stars or bombs.
In all of these cases, the parties implicated admitted fault. But when being charged with a list of trumped-up felonies that threaten to take away your freedom for decades, caving in and copping a plea to a “lesser” charge is often the only option available. In this way, justice is replaced by the path of least resistance.
It’s this heavy handedness and fear mongering that we should really be afraid of.
“Taking the subway every day, they say ‘If you see something, say something.’ So unconsciously people are sort of scared of a terrorist attack in the back of their mind,” says Miyakawa.
The chilling affect on freedom of expression is obvious.
“After this incident, I will never think about this kind of public art without a permit,” says Miyakawa.
Ultimately, lack of a permit is just a legal technicality. The issue remains that Takeshi Miyakawa and others before him have been accused of placing “bombs” when authorities knew that was not the case. Even when permission has been granted, paranoia can lead to dangerous confrontations with authorities. Just look at the actor whom police almost killed when a passerby mistook a low-budget film shoot occurring on private property for a convenience store hold-up in Long Island.
How many other artists will now have to worry that displaying their work in public (permit or not) will bring the very real risk of hard prison time or worse? One thing is certain: the real terrorists out there no longer “hate us for our freedoms”-we don’t have many left.
Before hanging up the phone, Miyakawa recites a Benjamin Franklin quote that someone had written in a letter of support:
“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”
So it would seem.