Masked and socially distanced, a group of about 40 people gathered outside the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) 33rd precinct in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood yesterday, May 25, to protest last month’s arrest of the 67-year-old author and journalist Jill Nelson. The protesters demanded to expunge Nelson’s record and to cancel her summons for a court appearance in August.
On April 16, Nelson was arrested by four NYPD officers after scribbling “Trump=Plague” in washable pink chalk on a boarded-up building on Broadway and 162nd Street, not far from the precinct’s building on 170th Street.
Nelson told Hyperallergic that she was cuffed and searched aggressively and was then taken to the precinct, where she was kept in a jail cell for more than five hours. Nelson also said that the officers prevented her from telling her husband about her whereabouts in a phone conversation.
“It was an awful, abusive, and petty experience,” she described the day of arrest in an interview with Hyperallergic.
Nelson was charged with a class A misdemeanor for making graffiti and was given a desk appearance ticket (DAT) for August 14. According to the journalist, one of the officers threatened her by saying, “If you don’t show up, we’ll come to your house and arrest you.”
Nelson, who is now represented by the lawyer and former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Norman Siegel, is demanding an apology from NYPD and a meeting with the commanding officer of the 33rd precinct and the four officers that arrested her together with community leaders, in addition to dismissing the charges against her and expunging her record.
Since the arrest, an anonymous person has recreated Nelson’s “Trump=Plague” graffiti at the same plywood board on 162nd Street, adding “SILENCE=DEATH” (a phrase borrowed from a 1987 poster project to raise awareness of the AIDS crisis) and “VOTE!”
At yesterday’s protest, participants held signs that read “TRUMP=PLAGUE”; “TRUMP=DEATH”; “No to racist arrest of Jill Nelson”; and “33rd! apologize to Jill Nelson,” among others. The action was organized by friends and neighbors of Nelson’s, who is being called “graffiti grandma.” They were joined by New York State Senator Robert Jackson, former New York State Assembly member Keith Wright, and dozens of supporters.
Addressing the crowd of spread-out protesters, Dave Dubnau, a neighbor from Nelson’s building, said, “Not only does the brunt of this terrible epidemic fall heaviest on people of color, on Black and brown people and Native Americans across the whole country, but symbolically, the arrest of Jill Nelson shows that the burden of expressing free speech and opinion falls on a 67-year-old African American grandmother.”
Dubnau, who is white, added, “I have a very strong feeling that if my wife or I, who are also grandparents, had out in chalk ‘Trump=Plague’ on a billboard, we would not have been handcuffed and dragged into the 33rd precinct.”
“They pounced on a 67-year-old gray-haired woman and arrested her without a warning, here in the middle of a pandemic,” Mary Louise, another neighbor from Nelson’s building, told Hyperallergic at the protest.
“We can’t allow the trampling on our dignity,” Louise continued. “The police are too aggressive in communities of color, particularly Black people, who have not only been disproportionately hit by the COVID illness itself but also by the police response to it. It’s unacceptable. Those guys were basically arresting their grandmother.”
Priscilla Bassett, who celebrated her 92nd birthday yesterday, was a special guest at the protest. She was the wife of Emmett W. Bassett, the pioneering Black microbiologist after whom 162nd Street, also called Emmett W. Bassett Way, is named.
“It’s absolutely absurd to arrest a Black woman in her upper 60s for chalking on a vacant building,” Bassett told Hyperallergic. “I happen to agree that Trump equals plague, death, and destruction of democracy and our society, and it’s time we spoke up.”
“They should drop all the charges,” Bassett said about the NYPD. “It’s ridiculous. Have they nothing else to do?”
Nelson herself was not present at the protest, following the advice of her lawyer. Speaking with Hyperallergic, Siegel said that he is working to dismiss the charges against Nelson before her court appearance in August.
“I’ve known Jill for 50 years,” Wright said in the following address. “She is an author, a journalist, an activist, an intellectual, and a grandmother.”
“The facts are not in dispute: Yes, she wrote ‘Trump=Plague’ in chalk,” he continued. “It wasn’t a permanent magic marker or the spray paint they used for graffiti on the subway back in the 80s, it was chalk … very biodegradable.”
“She wrote the truth,” Wright added and led the crowd in the chant: “Tear up the DAT [desk appearance ticket].”
Two NYPD officers who were on site allowed the peaceful protest to continue without interruption, interfering only to regulate car traffic.
José Jimenez, a community officer who stepped out of his office to speak with Hyperallergic said that the protest was lawful but refused to comment on Nelson’s case. Jimenez then listened to the protesters’ complaints but declined to answer their questions about Nelson’s arrest.
Frustrated, Louise approached one of the other officers, asking to deliver a personal message to him and to his colleagues.
“Would you take your grandmother, grab her arms behind her back, throw her in the back of a car, and bring her here?” Louise asked the officer, who remained silent. “Would you want your grandmother to be treated like that?”
“You’re here to protect and defend us, so why are we treated this way?” she continued. “We don’t see you as our enemy, but we don’t want to be seen by you as the enemy either. What was done was wrong. It’s shameful.”
The NYPD has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.