Safe Streets Arts’ table by the Georgetown waterfront is filled with vivid paintings, postcards, CDs, and copper wire jewelry. And often, parked right behind it, is a Metropolitan Police Department car.
Safe Streets Founding Director Dennis Sobin says that the police presence has been marshaled by people in the well-to-do area who fear the former prisoners who run the vending table. The property management company that runs the Washington Harbour, Sobin says, is trying to get them to relocate.
The organization, which displays and sells art made by incarcerated people in an effort to humanize them and their stories, started setting up by the waterfront development last Monday, July 28. Jahi Foster-Bey, the 35-year-old ex-prisoner artist who makes the copper jewelry, has run the table for more than seven years. Georgetown is the fourth site for his satellite gallery, which he’s also brought to Dupont Circle and Chinatown.
On Safe Streets’ first day in Georgetown, Foster-Bey’s table was set up on the Washington Harbour property. Police asked him to move the table to the sidewalk, where he has kept it ever since. “We had similar issues [at other locations], but they never resulted in police being called continuously on a day-after-day basis,” Foster-Bey says.
Safe Streets has been negotiating public space with MPD for nearly a decade. In October 2006, the police and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs ordered the organization to shut down its activities on the corner of K Street and Connecticut Avenue NW, because it was selling merchandise without a vending license. After the American Civil Liberties Union got involved, the city agreed in April 2007 to compensate Safe Streets (then called the Prison Foundation) for lost income and provided a letter that affirmed Safe Streets’ right to sell its art. Public demonstrations aren’t regulated in Washington D.C., and the D.C. Council has clarified that selling merchandise related to a demonstration’s message doesn’t require a vending license.
In other words, distributing information, discussing prison reform, and selling art at Safe Streets’ table is well within the letter of the law, so long as it doesn’t obstruct people’s passage. (The ACLU worked with Safe Streets again in 2008, when MPD issued a citation at the Verizon Center, which was then withdrawn.)
Every time police stop to question Foster-Bey in Georgetown, he shows them a copy of the letter. Often, the cop cars linger for some time before driving off.
In an email blast to supporters at the beginning of August, Sobin wrote about “the intense harassment our Georgetown prison art location has gotten.” He referred to the property manager of Washington Harbour as “our principal adversary”: “The property manager for a nearby super luxury apartment building told us we are not welcomed in the neighborhood, that the wealthy tenants of the building ‘feel uncomfortable’ about us being nearby.”
Washington Harbour Property Manager Jennifer DeMeo declined to comment on the record. (While DeMeo manages Washington Harbour, she has no involvement with the condominiums next door.)
Sobin organized a rally this Monday, August 4, in support of ex-prisoners and the Safe Streets Georgetown location. At the demonstration’s height, eight people marched up and down a 100-foot strip of sidewalk with picket signs that read “Washington Harbor Harassment,” “Injustice in Georgetown,” and “Fairness 4 Returning Citizens.” Most people walked right by, but some stopped to ask questions. One middle-aged woman bought a set of postcards for $10.
At the table, there are paintings made by people incarcerated in prisons from Connecticut to Nevada. Some of them depict grim prison scenes, but most portray happenings beyond the bars: brightly colored birds, a woman kissing a shark under a huge wave, the Boston Red Sox, Tony Soprano smoking a cigar. While original paintings cost between $200 and $500, people can buy prints of the work for less than $50. Fifty percent of the profits go back to the artist.
Foster-Bey said that police presence has resulted in decreased sales at the table. Soon after the start of the protest, a police officer drove up and approached Foster-Bey, who provided him with the letter. The officer returned to his car and stuck around for about 35 minutes. After he drove off, it took less than a minute for another police officer to drive up, get out of the car and ask a set of similar questions. She got back in her car and stuck around. Another officer parked right behind her.
“These are their means of intimidation,” says protester Perry Redd, executive director of Sincere Seven, a workers’ rights nonprofit that works with Safe Streets. “It gives the appearance that we are dangerous.”
Foster-Bey says the police officers have made clear that they know the table is legal, but are responding to complaints. “The police officers told me very plainly that they had been getting phone calls.”
When asked whether officers were responding to complaints, MPD spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump said she was not aware of the issue.
Foster-Bey is frustrated that, as it appears, residents are going straight to the police without any discussion with him or attempt at mutual resolution. “None of the people from this building have walked up to me and expressed any concerns,” he says. “No one has ever come to me to say they have a problem.”
Photos by Rachel Kurzius