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Arrested While Driving the Illuminator Van: My Story

Project-O-Van

Recently I was arrested in Brooklyn while driving a van outfitted with a projector. Long story short, it was pretty horrible; friends and fellow activists have encouraged me to set down precisely what happened and put it in the public record.

If you don’t know, there is a van with a heavy duty projector that comes out of the roof like a turret. It was created by an OWS offshoot with funding from Ben Cohen, and was named The Illuminator. Some months ago, ownership and control was passed on to a campaign called the Stamp Stampede, created by Ben Cohen, and was referred to as the Project-O-Van.

A month ago, Animal New York, a website that covers culture and politics, arranged to carry out a joint action with the Stampede campaign, using our van.. Together, we visited a number of locations throughout the city to project images highlighting the problem of money in politics corrupting our democracy. We visited the offices of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, Trump Tower, some walls in Soho and the LES, and…. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s home on 79th Street.

It was exciting to get a picture of a ballot box being stuffed with money projected onto Bloomberg’s 3rd floor. As the residence is protected by police, our team was approached by cops who chatted with Animal New York folks and filmed our van. I stuck around for about one minute – just long enough to take a few photos.

The next evening I got called at 11pm by police from the NYPD’s Intelligence Division. They wanted my address so they could visit me at home and ask a few questions. It turned out they were researching the ownership of the vehicle and trying to track me down for many hours. An entire team was active on this ‘case’ which included sending two officers to Ithaca (4 hours away) to track down whoever lived at the address on our registration form. (This was the head of a nonprofit used briefly as a fiscal sponsor of the nonprofit that actually owned the vehicle.)

My concern was having some cop cars with lights flashing show up at my apartment building and then getting arrested in full view of the neighbors. So I persuaded them to meet me at the nearby police precinct (the 90th). I spent an hour answering questions about the van, it’s history, ownership, how it operates, and the absence of any ongoing threat to Mayor Bloomberg. They explained that the order to take such drastic measures (midnight interrogations & a trip to Ithaca) came from very high up, and they simply had to make sure that any and all questions could be answered. Their immediate superior in this was Mohammad Newaz of the Intelligence Division – the same unit that engages in counter-terrorism.

Fast forward to last Friday. Our van had spent 10 days at a garage for repairs. I was driving in a light rain for two blocks, when an unmarked SUV pulled me over. A plainclothes officer told me I was driving with my lights off in the rain – very unsafe. A few minutes later I was arrested for driving with a suspended driver’s license.

The arresting officer? Mohammad Newaz of the Intelligence Division. Did I mention there were three unmarked police vehicles that were part of this operation?

[Side note: perhaps a year ago, I was given a summons for riding my bicycle on a sidewalk in Bushwick. Stupidly, I neglected to take care of the matter. This was the reason why my license had been suspended, and I wasn’t aware that this had happened.]

There are many things that could happen at this point. For example, they could have allowed me to leave the vehicle where it was (I pulled over into a legal parking spot) and given me a ‘desk appearance ticket.’ Instead, they impounded the van ‘for evidence’ and sent me to Central Booking. I ended up spending 36 hours in jail. When I appeared before the judge for arraignment, attorney Yetta Kurland helped me to plead guilty to a violation, amounting to a $75 fine.

Many of my friends have been arrested before, usually with other protestors engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience, or for things like stepping off the sidewalk during a demonstration. I’ve been arrested before, mostly in Israel, where I once spent two months in prison for refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. If you haven’t been arrested, please know this: it can be traumatic. The facilities in Brooklyn are filthy beyond belief, the food is disgusting, some of those detained are pretty ripe, and folks have to arrange themselves on the floor with no bedding or bunks. On the other hand, most of the cops behaved decently towards the detainees. (Yes, that surprised me.)

Thinking about what happened to me, the first thought that keeps rattling around in my head is how stupid I was to have allowed my license to become suspended. And then there are some other questions:

  • Was I or the van being tracked closely by police from the Intelligence Division because of our one minute projection on Mayor Bloomberg’s home?
  • If so, were they tracking it for a whole month, or did they wait until my license was suspended (this happened in that last few weeks!) so they could lie in wait for me?
  • Is there any justification for the massive expenditure of resources on ‘The Case of the Project-O-Van’?
  • Was I and/or the vehicle targeted because of the relationship to Occupy Wall Street?
  • Why did the police choose to arrest me and send me to booking, given my profile? (Employed, stable residence, no prior arrests in NYC, living with my family, etc.) Was that decision influenced by my political activism?
  • Not sure if this is the end of the story. Some say, there are grounds for – at minimum – demanding some answers from the NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg. What do others think?

PS: I mentioned Yetta Kurland briefly. Knowing that she was out there working on my behalf was part of what kept me sane in jail. She is a fighter, a friend, and a leader. And she refused to take a dime for her services. God bless her.

PPS: At the start of the video embedded above, you can hear me say "this is of dubious legality, but fuck it!" Folks should know that was part of a conversation about parking, not about the operation of the Project-O-Van.

Video

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