Artist Tackled, Pepper-Sprayed by Officers in Washington Square Park

Oriel Ceballos has sold paintings in the park for years, occasionally without a table, which is against regulations. On Sunday, he was forcibly detained for doing so, for the first time.

Oriel Ceballos (in blue) was tackled by park officers after selling paintings in Washington Square Park from the ground instead of a table. (Courtesy of Griffin Wood)

Oriel Ceballos was displaying his paintings along the fence of the Washington Square garden on Sunday — an area he said has long been frequented by artists — when he was told by park officers that he needed to sell his work on a table. After Ceballos declined and asked officers to write him a ticket, as they had in the past, three officers tackled him in an attempt to restrain him, with one officer using pepper-spray on him.

A video of Ceballos’ interaction with the officers was posted on Instagram by Tisch first-year Griffin Wood. The video now has more than 6,000 likes and 223 comments. A longer video of the altercation from another perspective has since been posted on Youtube.

“This is awful and so scary,” an Instagram comment from Tisch sophomore Cat Johnson reads. “I walk through the park every day and have seen his art.”

Prior to the assault, Ceballos told WSN he had stopped responding to officers and sat on his bike, far away from authorities. According to Ceballos, when he thought they were writing him the ticket, the officers suddenly jumped him.

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“Three of the patrol officers tried to remove me, literally pull me off my bike without telling me anything,” Ceballos said. 

He said he remained nonviolent throughout the altercation, but found himself in a position where he would be physically harmed if he didn’t react at all.

“If I wanted to be violent, I could’ve easily gotten all of the officers off of me,” Ceballos said. “I [was] actually in a state where I had to protect myself […] they were trying to hurt me.”

Authorities did not give Ceballo an explanation for why they employed physical force. Ceballos said that officers claimed he was being arrested, but never actually went through with official arrest proceedings.

“They kept shouting ‘stop resisting, stop resisting,’ and I kept reiterating, ‘why am I under arrest?’” Ceballos said. “No one said yes, no one read me my Miranda Rights, I was disturbing the peace in no way. This is not an arrest, this is an assault.”

Ceballos, who has been selling his artwork in this manner for nearly three years with little conflict said that park rules are inconsistently enforced. He added that the park has a reputation for attracting artists — some of which also sell from the ground — and that he returned to sell his art at the park the day after the assault without issue.

Guidelines by the parks department state that failure to comply with officers “can lead to a summons and possibly arrest.” Ceballos said in the past he was only ticketed, which is what he asked officers to do on Sunday, and that an arrest was unwarranted.

“There is nothing on the books that says that you should arrest a person for having art on the ground,” Ceballos said. “Art and freedom are [things] that go with Washington Square Park. People put their art on the ground.”

Following the conflict, Ceballos said he was detained for eight hours in a holding facility without medical attention for injuries sustained during the assault and assigned a court hearing on Nov. 13 for three counts of assault.

Criminal records are public information unless officially sealed. The NYPD did not confirm the arrest and city databases — which generally are immediately updated with criminal records — contained no information on an arrest. The Central Bookings courthouse, where Ceballos said he was taken, did not disclose information on arrest charges.

Ceballos, who has a master’s degree in Divinity from Princeton University and a masters in Education from Columbia, only recently made his foray into the art world. He expressed fears that if he were ultimately prosecuted, his reputation would be stained.

“It will negate all the years of hard work, of scholarship that have led me to this point,” Ceballos said.

Ceballos plans to stage a series of protest events, one of which is a rally in Washington Square Park this Saturday, where participants will be asked to place their art on the ground and request summons from any authorities who tell them to sell from a table.

Email Lisa at [email protected]

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