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Artist Tackled, Pepper-Sprayed, and Arrested While Selling Art in Washington Square Park

Oriel Ceballos was arrested for not using a table to display his artwork at the park.

Artist Oriel Ceballos arrested by park patrol and NYPD officers at Washington Square Park, New York (courtesy Washington Square Park Blog)

New Yorkers who frequent Washington Square Park would be able to recognize Oriel Ceballos, an artist and art professor who regularly sells his art in its plaza. On Sunday, October 6, a crowd of park-goers witnessed Ceballos being tackled, pepper-sprayed, and arrested by Park Enforcement Patrol (PEP) and New York Police (NYPD) officers. The reason? The artist displayed his artwork on the ground instead of using a table.

According to the Washington Square Park Blog, which was the first to report on the incident, Ceballos was displaying his art near a fence west of the Washington Square fountain when he was approached by three PEP officers who asked him to remove his paintings. New York University’s (NYU) student newspaper Washington Square News added that the artist declined the request and asked for a ticket, as he said he has in previous cases. Instead,  the officers tackled the artist to restrain him and pepper-sprayed him in the process. NYPD officers then arrived at the scene and arrested Ceballos after a long altercation, as seen in a video that a bystander posted on YouTube.

“I’m a professor, teacher, and I’m expressing my art,” Ceballos said to the officers.

His resistance drew sympathetic interventions from the crowd. “Treat him with respect,” one person said moments before the officers forced the artist to the ground. “He was sitting, minding his own business,” another bystander cried at the officers. “None of this was necessary,” a third park-goer said. Ceballos was eventually handcuffed and taken into police custody. He has since been released.

“Three of the patrol officers tried to remove me, literally pull me off my bike without telling me anything,” Ceballos told Washington Square News. “If I wanted to be violent, I could’ve easily gotten all of the officers off of me,” he continued. “I [was] actually in a state where I had to protect myself […] they were trying to hurt me.”

Ceballos claims the officers never explained the reason for the arrest. “They kept shouting ‘stop resisting, stop resisting,’ and I kept reiterating, ‘why am I under arrest?’” he said. “No one said yes, no one read me my Miranda Rights, I was disturbing the peace in no way. This is not an arrest, this is an assault.”

“No question that the park personnel escalated this whole thing unnecessarily,”  Elissa Paskin, an eye-whiteness at the scene, wrote in a Facebook comment. “It was so stupid, violent, & ridiculous,” she added.

In an email sent to Hyperallergic, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks) said, “This defendant has received multiple summonses and 311 complaints in recent months.” It follows: “On the day in question, officers asked him for identification to issue another summons for violating parks regulations. He refused to provide identification and the officer attempted to arrest him. This individual resisted arrest and began to choke the officer.”

NYC Parks’ statement continues:

The individual, who was not following our expressive matter rules, was told multiple times that he could not have his artwork displayed on the ground, and was asked to turn off amplified sound, for which he did not have a permit.

[…] The individual became aggressive and uncooperative; would not provide identification when instructed, and failed to comply to the direction of the officer, which led to the attempt to arrest.

The initial anticipated charge was failure to comply, though he were subsequently charged with criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation; resisting arrest; attempted assault in the third degree; harassment in the second degree.

“Our Parks Enforcement Patrol officers’ first course of action is to educate parkgoers to our rules,” the department concluded. “If not followed, the next step would be to issue summons, and only in extremely rare circumstances would we effectuate an arrest.”

 

Ceballos is a visual artist, curator, and educator who holds degrees from Brooklyn College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Teachers College at Columbia University. In April of this year, he co-curated the exhibition NY State of Mind at One Art Space gallery in Lower Manhattan.

City regulations that date back to 2013 prohibit displaying artwork for sale in parks without a table. But enforcement of these rules has been typically lax, according to Cathryn Swan, editor of the Washington Square Park Blog. “PEP historically never arrested people, so this is shocking,” said Swan in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “They never even give summons, they give warnings.”

Swan says that the strict park regulations encourage a more commercial type of artists, in contrast with Ceballos’s impromptu style. “It used to be an exchange, not a sale,” she said. This incident, she added Swan, marks another shift away from what once used to be a community-minded city policy in New York’s parks.

“It seems arbitrary,” she said, “There had to be some other way to deal with this.”

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