Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
Seven activists from groups representing the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States were arrested today, October 21, outside of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan. The protestors blocked the entrance to the museum and interrupted traffic on 53rd Street to demand the removal of MoMA trustee Steven Tananbaum, a hedge fund manager whom they accuse of profiting from Puerto Rico’s intractable debt crisis. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former speaker of New York City Council, was among the protestors arrested.
MoMA was supposed to officially reopen its doors to the public today after a months-long hiatus to expand and rehang its galleries. But in a surprise decision that was announced over the weekend, the museum opened to the public on Sunday, October 20, and offered visitors free admission all day. More than 10,000 visitors went to see the museum’s new $450 million galleries, according to the New York Times. Was the decision made in response to the announced protest today? A spokesperson with the museum declined to comment on this morning’s protest, but said: “Sunday was a special celebration and free day for all – we did not reschedule the public opening of the museum. Our opening to the public is today, October 21.”
This is the second protest to be staged outside MoMA in less than a week. On Friday, October 18, a larger group of activists disrupted a private event at the museum to oppose Larry Fink, CEO of the investment firm BlackRock, which owns major stakes in the country’s two largest private prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic. The protestors entreated Fink and MoMA to divest themselves from private prison companies and to reinvest their money in the community.
Around 10 am today, a group of about 50 activists stormed at MoMA’s main entrance on 53rd street, blocking it to visitors while chanting “MoMA, get off it, put people over profit,” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down.” They carried banners that read “#CANCEL THE DEBT” and “#4656 Puerto Ricans” in reference to the number of citizens on the island who lost their lives to Hurricane Maria.
A long line of patrons trailed outside the museum, as the museum’s security and the New York Police Department (NYPD) barricaded and guarded the scene. Many of them were tourists who appeared perplexed by the spectacle. “That’s a lot of press for a small group,” said a visitor from Switzerland, commenting on the dozens of photojournalists behind the police barricades. The press was mostly there to cover the museum’s public unveiling before the protest erupted.
Two visitors from Paris noted: “We don’t have this problem in France because museums are funded by the government.”
Police held the line as the protest continued, and no guests were able to enter the building.
In October of 2017, MoMA PS1 in Long Island City held a star-studded relief fundraiser for Puerto Rico. The event was organized by the museum’s former director Klaus Biesenbach, the Center For Popular Democracy, and New York City council member Van Bramer. (MoMA PS1 has not responded to Hyperallergic’s repeated requests for comment.)
“Steven Tananbaum has made major profits off of our community’s pain,” an activist from the group Cancel the Debt said. “MoMA, who claims to be a friend to community organizations […] should make sure that Steven Tananbaum is off of their board of trustees.”
“Is this the kind of man you want on your board?” asked Gina DeJesus, an organizer with New York Communities for Change, the nonprofit that led the protest today, in her address to MoMA. “Do you not stand for integrity? Or is it that you’re just as shameless as Steven Tananbaum?”
“MoMA, you cannot accept this blood money that Steven Tananbaum has presented to you and claim to be a friend to Puerto Rico,” said Mark-Viverito. “There’s global unrest against austerity measures that put profit over people,” she said in reference to ongoing protests in Lebanon, Chile, and Haiti, among other countries.
Tananbaum is the founder of GoldenTree Asset Management, a hedge fund that activists accuse of preying on Puerto Rico’s plummeting bond prices while the island was in the devastating throes of Hurricane Maria. According to New York Communities for Change, GoldenTree is currently one of the top three holders of the archipelago’s debt, with holdings that amount to more than $2.5 billion total in sales tax revenue bonds issued by the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA). The hedge fund, the nonprofit says, has made hundreds of millions in profit from these assets while the island’s economy still suffers from crushing austerity measures that include the closing of public schools, reduced funding for universities, pension cuts, and the elimination of workers protections.
GoldenTree has a hand in imposing these austerity measures on the island’s population. The hedge fund has reportedly spent $1.43 million on lobbying in Congress to target bills that attempted to alleviate the island’s debt at the expense of creditors of its kind. The hedge fund’s efforts were successful. In 2018, a group of Congress members led by presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote a scathing letter to the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (FOMB), a body set up by the 2016 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), criticizing it for a plan to reduce spending on education, pensions, and healthcare.
“Congress never intended PROMESA to be used to grant Puerto Rico’s creditors a priority, yet your fiscal plans would appear to do so, which is a clear contravention of Congressional intent,” the letter reads. “Siphoning federal funds intended to benefit the people of Puerto Rico to creditors would be simply unacceptable,” it continues. “The oversight board was established to help shepherd Puerto Rico back to financial health, not to protect the interests of Wall Street investors. We urge you to fulfill that mandate.”
A spokesperson for GoldenTree declined to comment.
After a series of addresses at the museum’s entrance, the protests staged a sit-in on 53rd street, blocking the street for traffic. NYPD officers warned the protesters that they would be arrested and charged with disorderly conduct if they don’t move to the sidewalk. Seven activists who refused to disperse were handcuffed and taken into a police car.
Two protesters who were on the sidewalk spoke with Hyperallergic after the arrests. “Tananbaum went on a buying spree from October 2017 to April 2018 when we were in our recovery crisis directly after the hurricane, and purchased the majority of those distress bonds,” Inaru Guara, a member of Cancel the Debt, said. “He knew exactly what he was doing and he’s profiting from it till this very day.”
Judith DeFour-Howard, a volunteer for the New York Community for Change told Hyperallergic: “I’m not from the island but I’m here to support Puerto Rico. Climate change does what it has to do, but we as a nation have to take care of our own citizens. We’re trying to call on the people in power to do something about it.”
Activists from Decolonize This Place and Take Back the Bronx, who participated in the protest on Friday, vocalized their criticism of Mark-Viverito’s participation in today’s act of civil disobedience and accused her of “coopting [the activists’] tactics” for political gain.
“The people of East Harlem and the Bronx know her well,” said Shellyne Rodriguez from Take Back the Bronx. “She manipulates a non profit with a base to carry signs and brings a camera crew in tow to manufacture her street cred.”
“She did the same with political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera. Instrumentalizing him for the aesthetics of the radical left while at the same time she voted for the hiring of 1,300 more cops at the height of the black lives matter protests in New York in response to the murder of Eric Garner,” Rodriguez continued. “She forced the East Harlem rezoning through and opened the floodgates of city sanctioned gentrification on East Harlem. And she is in favor of building new jails in New York City and has been known to boast about coercing councilwoman Diana Ayala to do her bidding which includes voting in favor of building new jails.”
“While it is absolutely true that Tananbaum and many others located in New York City who are milking this illegitimate Puerto Rican debt must be held accountable, Viverito’s performance is more about her trying to secure the vacant congressional seat of the 15th district which represents the Bronx,” Rodriguez concluded.
Mark-Viverito has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.
After the protest at MoMA ended, few of the activists held more roadblocks on several intersections along 6th Avenue with the help of members of the group Extinction Rebellion, who joined the protest as an act of solidarity. The protester chanted “cancel the debt” and “this is a climate emergency” to the car honking of impatient New York drivers.
“The benefit of being in the diaspora is that we live right here,” said Guara, promising to return for more protests against Tananbaum. “We’re not going anywhere.”