NEW YORK TIMES, Monday, December 6, 1999
By Joyce Purnick, Metro Matters
Curious Case Shows Pitfalls Of Secrecy
When we in the news media complain about government secrecy, we get the general impression that the public is less than empathetic. It's more a "there,there" reaction -- placating parent to foot-stomping child.
The curious case of Stephen J. Powers provides a good example of why we need to get as much information from government as we can.
Mr. Powers, 31, is a noodge and self-promoter, one of those deliberately annoying characters whom most of us could do without. Except the Constitution explicitly protects people who want to be annoying. And sometimes the most irritating of them alert us to abuses by government and corporate powers.
Mr. Powers is the "graffiti artist," you should forgive the expression, whose Sullivan Street apartment was raided by six police officers last week. He said they confiscated about eight large and medium-size garbage bags filled with stuff ranging from art supplies to computer disks.
After the search, ESPO (his tag or signature, standing for exterior surface painting operation) was arrested for weapons possession because brass knuckles were found hanging on his wall -- a decoration, he said. He was jailed five hours and released; other charges are said to be pending.
Marilyn Mode, a police spokeswoman, justifies the search by explaining that Mr. Powers and others have been under investigation by the vandal squad for about six months. Mr. Powers contends that he was singled out because he was planning to participate in a protest against the mayor.
This sounds preposterous. Could the mayor or the police commissioner or an overzealous functionary hoping to please the boss have zeroed in on a minor troublemaker because he planned to ridicule the mayor? (And did, at a rather juvenile event in Washington Square Park on Saturday, where maybe 100 protestors threw faux dung at the huge Giuliani portrait.)
Mr. Powers's allegation of political motivation seems implausible. But stranger things have happened in this city, and here is the complication: officialdom will not provide some basic facts. And New Yorkers really should know everything about the Powers case; fundamental rights to free expression may be at risk.
Here is the outline of the story so far:
Last Monday, Mr. Powers discussed the protest on WLIB. He was supplying a portrait of Mr. Giuliani -- a parody of Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary painting, the one graced with elephant dung in the Brooklyn Museum exhibit that offended the mayor.
On Tuesday, Suzanne Mondo, a Criminal Court judge who was appointed by Mr. Giuliani, signed a broad search warrant. The search took place last Wednesday.
The Police Department asked the district attorney to draw up the search warrant about 10 days before the judge signed it, said Barbara Thompson, spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney, so it was unrelated to last Monday's WLIB interview. But neither she nor Ms. Mode of the Police Department would make available the original, dated police affidavit submitted to the district attorney. And the judge cannot comment because the matter is pending, said Mai Yee, a spokeswoman for the courts.
The details, especially the date, would help because Joey Skaggs, an artist who staged the protest, began sending promotional e-mail -- which cite Mr. Powers -- on November 16. He mailed fliers even earlier. So the vandal squad could have known about the protest and Mr. Powers's major role long ago.
"It was just do or die time for time," Mr. Powers, who specializes in covering metal door grates with graffiti murals, said yesterday.
Ms. Mode said: "This is an investigation that has been going on for several months. His tag is well know. There is no correlation between the demonstration and the search warrant, really."
That certainly seems likely, even politically. Why knowingly give a minor player a stage? Then again, why spend months and many a taxpayer dollar investigating someone who paints unattractive grates? Most of us hate graffiti. But six months? A police search? Confiscated paint?
More information would go a long way toward answering doubts caused by repeated assaults on First Amendment rights hereabouts. But information can be really hard to get, especially from a city administration led by a mayor who often tries to control who knows what, and when.
It comes down to this: short of filing a Freedom of Information request, which can take years to resolve -- no exaggeration -- the facts have to come from the people who may not want you to get answers.