Public art project comes down - did police cross a line?



Posted on July 28, 2010 at 5:29 PM

SEATTLE - For more than a year an art display sat in the vacant lot at the corner of 23rd and Union in Seattle's Central District.  Dubbed "The Corner," the project was to serve as a "snapshot" of a complex community at that moment in time.  Its creator calls it a "collaborative community storytelling project." 

But the display of photos and stories has now been dismantled, much to the dismay of many who live there. 

"I think it was kind of beautiful," says Kalyx Deveaux. 

"When I walked by today I wondered where it went, and why," pondered Barbara Jackson, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 40 years.

"Why" is a very good question.

When "The Corner" was unveiled last summer, one of the photos depicted a man known in the neighborhood as "Saviour Knowledge."  Saviour's real name is Anthony Knowles. He is a convicted felon who admits to killing a man in New York in 1987, and just last month he was arrested for allegedly selling crack - right across the street from his picture at 23rd and Union.

"I should be considered innocent until proven guilty," he said in his gravelly voice.

Despite his past, Knowles is a popular member of the community who sweeps the streets in the area around 23rd & Union every day. He believes police are targeting the art because of his background. 

"They're doing it without a doubt, without a doubt," he said.

He may be right.

KING 5 News has obtained an e-mail from a Seattle Police officer to both the organizer of the exhibit and the property owner alleging complaints from neighbors about Knowles's photo. It reads, "They are asking me to ask you to please take down his picture."

We asked police officials to put us in touch with those who complained, but they refused.

In the meantime those left tearing the exhibit down wonder whether police can legally use their authority to "persuade" a private property owner to take down a piece of public art. 

"Property owners can display any kind of art on their property that they choose," said Joe Martinez, the designer of the project. "I mean, it's the Unites States of America."

A spokesman for the Seattle ACLU says it does appear SPD may have overstepped its bounds in this case because no laws were being broken. Doug Honig says even if someone was offended by the exhibit, it's not up to police to play art critic. 

 "It's between the person who is offended and the property owner," said Honig. "The police should play no part in it."

A Seattle Police spokesman tells KING 5 the department did act within its purview when it relayed the concerns of neighbors to the artists.  Sgt. Sean Whitcomb says it's part of good community policing.  

"We're not out there judging art," he says.  "But our officers are out there to help people solve problems."   

In the meantime, supporters of the art project are considering a lawsuit.