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Is this art criticism?

By Keith D. Cummings
web posted February 21, 2005

Richmond performance Andy Coppola ran into a snag with his latest piece. Coppola, who fashions himself into what he calls "living sculpture," was performing his latest opus on the Second Street exit of the Robert E. Lee Bridge in Richmond on February 5 of this year, when he was first ordered, then threatened, then physically forced to stop en route to the Art6 gallery where he was headed.

Coppola explained that the piece he was performing, performing while in a psychedelically colored powermesh bodysuit, required that he look straight ahead, keep his arms crossed over his chest, and interact with no one. He says, in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, that his goal was to get people to "…take another look at the space" around them. To "…reawaken [people's] views of the environment."

Whether or not you agree with performance artists and their work. Whether you think Coppola is a crank and Christo wasted millions with saffron colored drapes in Central Park, the reaction of the Richmond Police must give pause. When Coppola refused to stop for a police officer as ordered, he was forced to the ground, unmasked and handcuffed. Eventually, he was charged with obstruction of justice for resisting arrest. Resisting arrest? Arrest for what crime?

Richmond Police claim that their initial response was prompted by calls from several concerned witnesses who thought that Coppola might be a jumper. When it became clear that he had no intention of jumping, Coppola was no longer on the bridge over the James River when confronted; the RPD cited an obscure law against wearing masks in public; a law with numerous exceptions that was written primarily to interfere with the Ku Klux Klan.

What's most disturbing about this story is that the RPD has said that, had they been notified of Coppola's intentions, they would have been, in the words of RPD spokesman Harvey Powers, "…disinclined to stop him." Disinclined? The RPD wouldn't necessarily leave him alone; they would simply be disinclined. As Coppola's attorney Steven Benjamin said, "It's offensive that if you want to act differently you have to get police permission."

For most of this country's history, it has been set apart from most of the world around it and the world that preceded it. In the United States, we have a long and honored history in law where those acts that aren't explicitly banned are considered legal. The whole reason for the Lawrence v. Texas case in the Supreme Court was a group of individuals who sought to have a law that banned a specific act eradicated. Whether or not you agree with legislation from the bench, the Lawrence decision proves the point that in the United States, that which isn't illegal is legal.

The other, and more important concern of the Coppola case is that it shows a growing attitude on the part of our government that we, all citizens, are inherently dishonest. What happened to Coppola proves that, more and more, government institutions are viewing American citizens as generally guilty of something.

In 2004, the United States Supreme Court, in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada upheld a Nevada law allowing law enforcement to arrest an individual when he refused to identify himself and reasonable suspicion – though not probably cause – exists that he has committed a crime. In other words, the police in Nevada need only be suspicious that a citizen on the street committed a crime. If anyone were within walking distance of a crime scene, this reasonable suspicion hurdle would likely be met.

In their defense of their actions, RPD has stated that they were concerned that they might have a jumper. Coppola's attire was certainly unusual, but a neon orange and white bodysuit hardly blends into the background on a sunny afternoon. Coppola was walking down a street in broad daylight. That street is in a city with a university that holds a reputation as a top college for fine arts. Nevertheless, the police chose to arrest rather than observe. Because Coppola was doing something unusual, though no illegal, they police decided to interrupt and demand answers.

It's easy to say that Coppola should have stopped his piece as soon as he realized the police were confronting him. He would have saved himself a lot of legal troubles. Instead, an American citizen who wasn't doing anything to anyone assumed that he had the right to walk down a street dressed in an unusual manner without being accosted by the authorities. The American people seem more and more willing to excuse over enthusiastic action on the part of police to ensure our "security" and "way of life." What part of our way of life is protected when innocent Americans are stopped, arrested and handcuffed just for being unusual?

Keith D. Cummings is the author of Opening Bell, a political / financial thriller. His website is http://www.keith-cummings.com.

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