Washington Square Park

At noon on Wednesday 8 December 1999, the Surveillance Camera Players once again performed in Washington Square Park, which is one of the few locations in Manhattan that is surveilled by cameras owned by the City of New York and operated by the New York Police Department. (The vast majority of surveilled locations in New York are watched by privately owned, privately operated cameras.) Indeed, the SCP have performed so many times at Washington Square Park that the group is becoming familiar to both the NYPD and the police officers employed by the Parks Department. But this, as we will see, may not mean that the SCP are more likely to be harassed, ticketed or arrested when the group performs in the park.

On 8 December, the SCP consisted of Bill and Kimberly, who divided the boards equally between them. They were assisted by potential new SCP-member Dennis and two of his friends, who handed out SCP flyers while the performances were taking place. Though invited, the New York Civil Liberties Union was unable to attend. The entire proceedings were covered by reporters for Capture Magazine and Here and videotaped by two teams -- Ali and Mau from Indieplanet, and Jed and Amanda -- both of which have videotaped every SCP performance in November and December 1999, as well as conducted in-depth interviews with its members. The performance was nominally part of Millennium Neighborhood, a week-long series of performances and actions (4 to 11 December 1999) curated by the Rev. Billy and sponsored by Judson Memorial Church. Including a couple of organizers of the Millennium Neighborhood (Tony and Peggy), approximately 25 people watched the SCP's performances.

The SCP performed two plays: You are being watched for your own safety and, for the first time ever, The Mass Psychology of Fascism. The day before its debut, the latter play was updated to take account of certain aspects of the events that had taken place in Seattle the previous week: after the board that shows the symbol for anarchism and the question "Why don't people revolt?" -- it being clear that sometimes certain people do indeed revolt -- a new board asks "Why do leftists turn in rioters?" and shows an anti-WTO protester pointing at and shouting "Shame!" at a masked, brick-throwing anarchist. (To read a more thorough denunciation of the anti-WTO "Peace Police," click here.) Both plays were performed without hitch or interruption.

Afterwards, as he was posing for photographs underneath the surveillance camera in front of which the performances had taken place, Bill was confronted by a pair of officers from the Parks Department who'd evidently wandered over from the ridiculous promotional raffle sponsored by Big Words that was going on (in the same part of the park) before and during the SCP's performances. The contrast between the two -- between the permitted and thoroughly commercial pseudo-event and the SCP's permitless and political protest -- was quite pointed, and worked well for the SCP, especially during The Mass Psychology of Fascism. One of the Parks Department officers -- a real cowboy, very much like the bellicose security guard who shut down the Berlin Wall performance in November 1999: white, short hair, thick-necked, stocky and powerful, aggressive, not very bright nor articulate -- demanded that Bill stop immediately or be served with a summons. Struck by the fact that this was a Parks Department officer and not a regular from the NYPD -- which meant that he was acting on his own, without instructions from the communications van -- Bill sensed a weakness, and so he didn't argue or complain, stopped posing, moved away from the camera and resumed chatting and hanging out with the others. Why fight when you've already won? This left the stupid Parks Department officer just standing there.

There then took place a truly comic scene, a real piece of unscripted street theater. The officer was quickly surrounded by several people, but especially Tony and Peggy, who questioned and argued with him loudly and without fear of receiving a summons. The cowboy was in an awkward spot: even in his eyes, the permitless activity was no longer taking place; you can't ticket someone for obeying the command to stop. Surrounded and not well-prepared for the role that he was playing, the hired goon stammered out a few stilted phrases, got overwhelmed by it all, and called for back-up. The call was quickly answered by a Park Department officer named Laurie, a distant but not unpleasant person with whom Bill has had personal contact several times before, as he has with the police officers who are stationed in the "communications" van that houses the monitors. Indeed, just a hour or so before the performances took place, Laurie had bicycled by and said hello to Bill and one of the video crews as they waited for the others to arrive: with the aid, no doubt, of the cameras, this Laurie is evidently able to match Bill's face with the name "Surveillance Camera Players."

After getting a sense of what was going on, Laurie pulled aside the Parks Department cowboy and had a "private" talk with him (if it is possible to have a private conversation in public!). When the talk was over, the cowboy announced that he'd decided that the SCP had every right to do what they were doing, even if the group didn't have a permit, because no laws were being (or had been) broken. Hip hip hooray! Though we'd like to believe that Laurie actually believes that freedom of speech needs no permit, and that she decided on her own authority to reign the cowboy in, it seems more likely that she was simply relaying the orders that she'd received and was following: leave these people alone; we don't want them getting any free publicity out of us; fucking with them will only popularize their cause.

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail e-mail:notbored@NOSPAMoptonline.net

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998

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