A Brief History of Banner Protests on New York Bridges
Posted November 6, 2018 4:52 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — A witch, a performance artist and a teacher walked onto the north side of the Manhattan Bridge’s bicycle path on Monday, wheeling a 100-foot-long bright pink vinyl banner with one word written on it: vote.
The women, dressed in dark running clothes in the pre-dawn hours, struggled to hoist the 250-pound professionally printed banner and insert it between the safety fence and the railing. They got the E and the T unfurled by 6:15 a.m. Helicopters began circling, and then the police came, arresting the three activists for unlawful posting without a permit.
Their action was just the latest in a series of banner drops from New York’s landmarks, most notably the city’s famous bridges. Since 1988, no fewer than eight banners have been hung — or nearly hung — from the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queensboro, Williamsburg and Robert F. Kennedy Bridges. On July 4 this year, Therese Okoumou climbed up onto the base of the Statue of Liberty and refused to come down; she waved a sign in the form of a T-shirt, printed with the words “Rise And Resist.” But the bridges remain attractive for those wishing to send a message.
The New York Police Department issued a statement that was akin to a scolding: “In instances where individuals have unlawfully displayed or attempted to display a banner the NYPD has promptly responded, taken the persons into custody and issued summonses accordingly.”
It added: “If a member of the public sees something, as always, we encourage them to say something.”
Seeing something is just the point. In New York, location is key and political groups from across the spectrum have seen the Manhattan Bridge’s appeal: Wall Street and the Statue of Liberty looming at one end and a captive audience on the north side from riders on the J train on the neighboring Williamsburg Bridge.
A group of about 15 artists and activists calling themselves the Flo Kennedy Society — after the feminist and civil rights activist who died in December 2000 — took credit for Monday’s protest from the Manhattan Bridge.
“It’s not just one specific target that this message is for,” said Monica Hunken, 37, the performance artist, who was issued a criminal court summons. “The word was just ‘vote.’ This is for not only for New Yorkers, but for all of the place of the United States.”
The color of the banner — officially raspberry — delivered a familiar secondary message, she said: fighting for women’s rights to their bodies and their identities.
— ‘Keep America Great’
When President Donald Trump appeared at the United Nations General Assembly, two men and two women were arrested after hanging a 20-foot-by-12-foot banner — a bit on the smaller side — from the Manhattan Bridge, urging Trump’s re-election with the slogan: “Keep America Great.”
— ‘Bridges Not Walls’
On January 2017, the day of Trump’s inauguration, a “Build Bridges Not Walls” banner appeared on the Queensboro Bridge, referring to his plan to build a wall at the southern border to curtail migrants from crossing illegally. The same message then appeared a week later on the Manhattan Bridge.
— ‘Dump Trump’
After widespread arrests resulting from Inauguration Day protests in Washington, branded J20 for the Jan. 20 date, activists hung a banner on the Williamsburg Bridge in the summer of 2017: “Dump Trump #DropJ20.”
In 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a haunting appearance on the bridge in a banner emblazoned with the word “Peacemaker.”
— ‘Gaza in Our Hearts’
In 2014, protesters hung a pro-Palestinian banner reading: “Gaza in Our Hearts.” The sign, which also read “Boycott Divest Sanction Israel,” dangled from the Manhattan Bridge for about 30 minutes.
— ‘Animal Cruelty’
Animal welfare activists protested a construction company’s plan to build an animal testing lab in Washington state in 2016, dropping from the bridge: “Skanska: Building on Animal Cruelty.”
— ‘Stop Ocean Dumping Now’
The message in one of the first notable banner drops was: “Stop Ocean Dumping Now.” In 1988, Greenpeace activists dangled from the then-Triborough Bridge (now-Robert F. Kennedy Bridge) to hang the banner and then themselves remained suspended above the East River for hours.
— ‘Ahmadinejad Is Not My President’
The Brooklyn Bridge never wants for tourists, protesters and postcard moments. In 2009, activists supporting Iran’s opposition movement unspooled a green banner on the bridge, itself, marching across with signed messages in hand.
— White Flags
Most memorably, the Brooklyn Bridge was the scene of a seemingly strange surrender in 2014: White flags were mounted before dawn in place of the usual waving U.S. flags. Though not technically a banner drop or a protest, it was a buzzy mystery until two German artists confessed.
Members of the Flo Kennedy Society actually consulted with those artists, realizing that because of their action, security had been tightened considerably on the Brooklyn Bridge; the Manhattan Bridge, they believed, was slightly more accessible.
But they did not quite factor in the enormousness of the job. They designed their banner to be larger than any before hung from the Manhattan Bridge: 100 feet wide by 40 feet long.
“If you look at past banners — from afar they don’t really read all that well,” Hunken said.
“Hubris brought us down,” said Vanessa Wruble, laughing. “I always say, ‘go big or go home.'”
Wruble, a member of the Flo Kennedy Society, is perhaps best known as one of the founders of the original Women’s March on Washington. She is now the executive director of March On, which was helping to organize a March on the Polls rally involving students Tuesday. The police cut the Flo Kennedy Society’s “VOTE” banner down to size, letting half drop into the East River. By then, police had arrested the three activists, including Lena Greenberg, 23, a teacher, and Sarah Lyons, 26, a writer and witch who reads Tarot cards at Catland, an occult bookstore in Brooklyn.
When Greenberg and her fellow protesters were led into the 5th Precinct in Chinatown, on the Manhattan side of the bridge, the police told the women to watch their step. Laid out across the floor and draped over furniture in an entire room of the precinct, Greenberg said, was the other half of the banner, the letters V and O on the pink background.
“We had struggled so much with this enormous, unwieldy thing, and for the moment, it was their problem,” Greenberg said.