After a relatively calm protest last week, members of the “Strike MoMA” campaign returned to the Museum of Modern Art this Friday, May 14, for an impassioned gathering marked by a tense encounter with law enforcement. Drawing a record number of over 300 attendees, the protest centered the human rights of Palestinians and culminated in the arrest of one protester, who was tackled by police. Five members of the International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (IIAAF), a coalition of activist organizations that have been staging weekly protests against the museum since April 9th, have been permanently banned from MoMA.
Under the slogan of “All Eyes on Palestine,” protesters waved Palestinian flags at Urban Plaza across from MoMA on West 53rd Street and hosted teach-ins about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Speakers also highlighted the alleged investments of MoMA trustees like Larry Fink and Leon Black in companies that supply weapons and equipment to the Israeli military.
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“The wealth of these [trustees] was built on the oppression of Palestinians,” one speaker said. The crowds chanted slogans like “Free Palestine,” “Resistance is Justified When People Are Occupied,” and “There’s Only One Solution, Intifada Revolution.”
Before the action began, one of the activists was informed by MoMA security guards that she had been permanently banned from the museum following the events of a “Strike MoMA” protest on April 30, which culminated in a standoff between the two parties. The artist-activist, a former educator at the museum, says they were assaulted by a security officer while attempting to protest inside the museum. The museum instead says that three of its security officers were injured when a group of five protesters, including the former educator, attempted to breach the museum via its staff entrance at 11 West 53rd Street. In an email to staff on May 3, MoMA director Glenn Lowry repeated these allegations, describing the protest as a “harrowing day at the Museum.” The activists denied the museum’s accusations, calling Lowry MoMA’s “Gaslighter-in-Chief.”
In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for MoMA said the former educator, along with four other protesters, are “are no longer welcome at the Museum.”
“While MoMA respects the rights of all to make their voices heard, we have a zero-tolerance policy for individuals who endanger staff, visitors, artwork, or any Museum property,” the spokesperson said, adding that the protesters “repeatedly harassed and assaulted security officers there, in direct violation of our visitor code of conduct.”
The museum has previously refused to provide any evidence of the alleged assault of security guards by the protesters.
One of the banned activists, a young woman of color who works at a nonprofit and requested her identity remain anonymous, told Hyperallergic in response: “I won’t miss a place that never welcomed me in the first place.”
This feeling of exclusion carried over into the events on May 14 when a large force of New York Police Department (NYPD) officers and MoMA security personnel fortified the museum while Urban Plaza was swelling with protesters.
“It saddens me that after a major global pandemic that has decimated communities, we even have to have a conversation about basic human rights,” Evan Lenox-Samour, a New York-based artist of Palestinian descent who attended the protest, told Hyperallergic. “We want peace, not apartheid.”
Around 4:40pm, two protesters in a car blocked traffic in front of MoMA on West 53rd Street for several minutes. The driver, Saada Mansour, climbed atop the car to wave a large Palestinian flag at the cheering crowd. A few minutes later, five NYPD officers who arrived at the scene followed Mansour to a parking facility beside the museum on 53rd Street and arrested him after forcing him to the ground.
Mansour’s brother Modran, who shared a video of the incident with Hyperallergic, said that the officers punched his brother repeatedly before handcuffing him and taking him away in a police car. The video shows the five officers piling over Saada Mansour, asking him to “stop resisting.” His brother, who documented the arrest with his phone, is heard repeating the words, “He’s not resisting.”
Meanwhile, an NYPD force of at least a dozen officers arrived at the museum. A tense exchange ensued between some of the demonstrators and the officers over Mansour’s arrest.
Minutes later, the activists marched in the hundreds to Midtown Precinct North (18th Precinct) on West 54th Street and Eighth Avenue, where Mansour was allegedly being held. NYPD officers on the scene declined to provide Hyperallergic with information about the facility in which Mansour was held or the charges against him.
On their way to the police precinct, the protesters held traffic at several intersections in Midtown Manhattan while carrying banners and chanting slogans for Palestinian liberation. Some of the demonstrators, who are not affiliated with Strike MoMA, burnt Israeli flags.
At the precinct, activists staged a sit-in that halted traffic at Eighth Avenue for about half an hour. They demanded information about Mansour’s arrest from dozens of NYPD officers who barricaded and guarded the precinct. The protesters then held a “jail support” for Mansour which included dance, music, and prayers. “Let him out,” they chanted in unison.
“Five minutes of traffic are not worse than genocide,” Nerdeen Kiswani, a member of the Palestinian-led organization Within Our Lifetime, cried through a bullhorn.
While many passersby approved of the rally, including drivers who honked their car horns in solidarity with Palestine, some found it disagreeable. A former US Marine who witnessed the protest from the other side of the street told Hyperallergic: “If Hamas fired the rockets, Israel should go into Gaza and kick ass.”
By contrast, a middle-aged New Yorker who was swatching the protest on her way home from work said that she’s not bothered by the peaceful demonstration. “I just wish that Palestinians and Israelis would learn to share the land they live in,” she said.
Mansour was finally released around 9pm and was taken immediately by his brother and other activists to a nearby hospital for medical treatment. Soon after, protesters began to disperse, promising to return to MoMA for another passionate demonstration next Friday.
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At least 197 Palestinians, including 58 children, have been killed in Israel’s continued bombardment of Gaza since Monday, May 8. On the Israeli side, 10 people have died from rockets fired from Gaza by the militant group Hamas.
“You are now witnessing not only a genocide in Palestine but the entire colonial entity of Israel forcing itself through bombs and raids and mortars on Palestinian land,” Kiswani told protesters in a speech. “You’ve been witnessing it for 73 years, but in this moment of escalation, nobody can say they did not know.”