Protest

’Like Being Inside a 180-Foot Bell‘: A Statue of Liberty Protester Remembers

The Fourth of July protests against ICE and separating immigrant families are part of a long tradition of Statue of Liberty action, including one in 1991 for abortion rights

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The dozen-odd members of Rise and Resist who dropped an “ABOLISH I.C.E.” banner from the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal on Wednesday — and the one member who took it upon herself to climb onto the statue itself and announce she wouldn’t leave until “all the children are released” (she lasted nearly three hours until NYPD Emergency Service Unit officers brought her down) — were part of a long tradition of protests at the statue, which as both a symbol of immigrant welcome and the second-tallest female statue in the Americas contains a multitude of symbolism.

In 1970, demonstrators with the National Organization for Women draped a sixty-foot banner from the statue reading “Women of the World Unite!” The following year, members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War spent forty-two hours inside the statue’s crown, festooning it with banners. (VVAW repeated the feat in 1976.) In 1977, Puerto Rican nationalists draped a Puerto Rican flag across the statue’s brow, locking themselves inside for eight hours to call for the release of four independentistas in prison for shooting at members of Congress from a Capitol gallery.

By 1991, the threat of the moment was to abortion rights, as the Supreme Court had ruled in Rust v. Sullivan that the Bush administration could impose its gag rule forbidding women’s health clinics that received Title X family-planning funds from counseling women on abortion. On July 29 of that year, a group of activists with Women’s Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM!) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) dropped a pair of banners from the statue, one from the pedestal reading “Abortion Is Healthcare, Healthcare Is a Right” and one from the statue’s crown reading “No Choice, No Liberty.” 

The banners were abducted by national park security, but the activists slipped away unnoticed. In the wake of Wednesday’s protests, two of the 1991 demonstrators shared with the Voice their recollections of the 1991 statue protest, and their thoughts on its spiritual descendants. 

“We were talking about actions we might take in response,” recalls Dana Luciano, at the time a WHAM! activist and currently an English professor at Georgetown University. (Full disclosure: I was also a member of WHAM! at that time.) “And someone said, ‘We should gag the Statue of Liberty!’ It was kind of spontaneous — I don’t think most of us knew, at the time, about the history of protest at the site. I think we just thought that as a high-visibility female figure, the statue would be a good place to stage a feminist action. It was thrilling to learn afterwards that we were part of a much longer history of protest there.”

As it turned out, an ACT UP affinity group called Action Tours — best known for ambushing Dan Rather’s CBS Evening News during the Gulf War with chants of “Fight AIDS, not Arabs!” — had already been scoping out the statue as a site for protest; the two groups soon joined forces. Around 35 people participated at the statue itself, Luciano recalls, with perhaps a dozen more working on press and legal support.

“Early on we’d realized that actually gagging the statue wasn’t feasible, so we decided to drop banners from the crown — the idea being to cover the statue’s face, like a mourning veil — and the base,” she recalls. “It took about three trips to the crown to figure out how to open the windows so we could hang a banner. It was windy up there, so we weighted the bottom of that banner with a heavy chain sewed inside a few layers of fabric so we wouldn’t damage the statue, which would have carried a felony charge.”

On the day of the action, the activists showed up carrying the two large banners, cinder blocks to weigh down the one that would hang from the pedestal, and additional tools. “We get up there and use special hardware to open the windows the way they’re supposed to be opened — no damage was done,” says Jon Winkleman, an Action Tours member at the time. One activist held a helium balloon in front of a security camera to block its view — “it turned out it wasn’t even on,” says Luciano — while others blocked the steps to the crown to buy more time.

“The banner got tangled, so I’m sticking my head out, reaching outside the statue to untangle it,” recalls Winkleman. “And it’s like — oh my god, I’m touching the Statue of Liberty’s nose! Which was the coolest thing in the world.”

One reason the demonstrators had been particularly careful not to break windows or otherwise harm the statue, Winkleman says, is that they had discovered that causing over $2,000 in damages could be considered a felony: “If you do any type of scratch, they can always claim $2,000 worth of damage.” 

“But as soon as we got the banner up, it started blowing around and the chain, despite the wrapping, started banging against the statue,” says Luciano. “Since the statue is made of metal it was like being inside a 180-foot bell — it was kind of terrifying. As we ran down the steps to the base, one of our members shouted, ‘Felony!’ each time it rung. By the time we got to the base, someone had pulled it inside, unnerved, I guess, by the noise.” (The Associated Press credited a Park Service ranger with hauling the banner inside after about five minutes.)

The group that draped the large banner off the pedestal had fewer problems, she recalls — “except that some of them had gift wrapped their cinder blocks to hide them in case their bags were searched, so that delayed things a bit. People looking on were actually pretty excited — some of them started taking pictures. One man asked if they were from Greenpeace.”

Eventually, all the activists joined the crowds of tourists on departing ferries. “We were about to get on the boat, and they grabbed this woman who wasn’t part of us, and they were going to arrest or question her,” says Winkleman. “And then her husband pulls out a badge — he was an off-duty cop.” No arrests were ever made.

Of course, 1991 was a less security-heavy time, when lugging cinder blocks on a ferry to a national monument was less likely to raise eyebrows. At this year’s protest, Luciano notes, everyone was arrested, not just the statue climber.

“With CBS, the moment we did that, they changed their security badges to have a little radio transmitter in it, so you couldn’t fake them,” says Winkleman. CBS staff, he recalls, immediately nicknamed the new cards “ACT UP badges.”

“9-11 definitely had a chilling effect on protest, but the wheels were in motion long before,” Luciano says. “In New York City, for instance, the Giuliani administration was committed to squashing dissent from the beginning. They went after civil disobedience activists especially hard, making sure the arresting officers had them put through the system rather than just giving desk appearance tickets.”

Still, she’s cheered to see that direct action is alive and well despite the heightened security state. “Black Lives Matter, Occupy, Standing Rock — these are and were sustained direct-action movements. Almost 600 women were arrested in D.C. last Thursday in the Senate office building; six senior citizens were arrested Friday for blocking the ICE offices in Philadelphia,” says Luciano. “The woman who climbed the statue yesterday made me remember Bree Newsome, who climbed the South Carolina Capitol to take down the Confederate flag there in 2015.”

And, adds Winkleman, in many ways getting news of a protest out to the public is much easier than it was in 1991, when activists had to hire a helicopter to shoot video of the event. (The weather was bad, and it arrived minutes too late.) “You look at the social media, the live-streaming online that happened yesterday — I wish we had that back then,” he says. “So yeah, things are different: They can’t do what we did back then, but we can’t do what they can do now. And I’m sure some other activists will find a way to do something even more spectacular.”

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