Free Speech? Walking the Dog in the Battle Over David H. Koch Plaza

Police stop a van during the David Koch Plaza protest and dedication
Police stop a van during the David Koch Plaza protest and dedication, Photo: Dan Rattiner

This time of year, I divide my time between New York City and the Hamptons, five days out east, two days in New York. It’s quite a contrast, particularly at night. Out here in East Hampton, I walk my dog around 9 p.m. across the street from my house along the line of boats that sit tied up in their slips at the three marinas there. The starry sky makes a great dome over the scene. It’s a peaceful, uneventful walk.

In New York City, I walk the dog down busy Fifth Avenue at 84th Street along the four-block front stretch of the Metropolitan Museum Plaza, then across the street and back up the sidewalk of the apartment buildings.

For the past two years, construction billboards have blocked access to the plaza. The city has been reconstructing it with fountains and trees and other new things to replace what’s been there since the 1970s. The cost has been $65 million. The man donating the money is billionaire David H. Koch, the oil man who lives in Southampton and Manhattan.

In any case, last Tuesday evening the billboards were down and the plaza open again, and quite beautiful. But I could not walk along it because there were police barricades by the curb on that side of the street, so I had to walk south on the side where the apartment houses are. The dog trotted along. I noticed there were policemen and security people about. Also maybe 50 people on each block, standing around all watching the museum’s grand entrance at the top of the broad marble stairs. Often they have big dinners in the museum’s Temple of Dendur wing, which at night you can see all lit up in pink and orange through a glass-window wall on the north face. And at the end, you see celebrities coming out.

Because it was unusual to see police barricading the entire far side of the street, I asked an officer what was happening.

“They’re dedicating the new plaza inside,” he said.

As we spoke, a huge projection of lights spelled out 11 words against the three upper floors of the building. It extended a city block. The words wavered unsteadily. KOCH = CLIMATE CHAOS. THIS IS A MUSEUM, NOT AN OIL LOBBY. They were on maybe 10 seconds, then they were gone.

I continued on my walk. Across the street, a few people from the party inside the museum began to appear coming out the grand entry. The men were in tuxedoes, the women in gowns and diamonds. They were too far away for me to see who they were, though. They stopped and shaded their eyes against the bright spotlights that illuminate the entrance there.

Down below, at the curb, limousines were now pulling up to receive them.

At this point, the wavering 11 words of light appeared on the building once again, and this time several police officers walked out into the street and flagged down a white van coming toward them. The van stopped right by the curb in front of where I was with my dog, and right behind an empty police van. A sign on the driver’s door read ROOFTOP FILMS 232 3RD ST BROOKLYN. Half a dozen officers quickly surrounded the van. Two officers shined flashlights into the driver’s window. Atop the roof and strapped to it by bungee cords was a large black metal box. It was angled up and sideways. This was a projector. They’d got ’em.

The police invited the man in the passenger seat out, had him open the sliding door, and they went inside the back. On the roof, the black box wiggled. Then it stopped. Inside, a flashlight illuminated the contents of the glove department.

Three very serious looking young people, one woman and two men, now came over to stand by me. They wore black shorts, boots, camouflage clothes, backpacks and baseball caps and stared at the white van. The young woman walked over to talk to an officer. Then she came back.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“They’ll give them any tickets they can,” she said.

“I got great shots of other trucks driving by,” one of the others said.

“Probably start with a ticket for driving a truck on a residential street.”

At this point, a second police van pulled up behind the white van. The white van was now blocked between the two police vans.

Now all the fancy people were coming slowly down the grand marble staircase to the street. Some people were tipsy. Some women were struggling in high heels.

The limousines were lining up, some in the parking lane, some in the next lane. But traffic was not being held up. The loading began. One well-dressed older man with white hair wandered off crookedly into traffic for a moment. A policeman escorted him back to help him into the limo. You know the scene when you get dropped off at a terminal in JFK Airport? It was of that order.

Now I saw the police handcuffing the driver and passenger and moving them off to the second police van. I told this to the three young people who had not seen it.

“They’ve what?” the woman said. “In handcuffs?”

She ran over, said something to an officer who said something back, then returned to the other two.

“What did they say?” I asked.

“You’re asking ME?” she said. She was quite agitated. I was bearing bad news. She pointed to the police officers. “Why don’t you ask THEM.”

An officer had now climbed into the white van’s drivers seat, which, I now noticed, no longer had the black box on the roof.

The woman walked back to talk to that officer. “He said ‘Precinct 22. They’ll be out in an hour,’” she said. With that, she ran to the front windshield of the police van, smiled and crossed her wrists over her head at her comrades inside, and shook them triumphantly. Then she gave the thumbs-up sign. And the second police van and the white van drove off.

A few minutes later, the young woman was talking to a tourist. “David Koch bought the plaza,” she said. “Does that interest you? No? Then walk away. Go ahead.”

Hundreds of well-dressed people were now standing across the street, waiting for their limos. And now a voice spoke over a loud speaker. “THIS IS THE DEDICATION OF THE DAVID H. KOCH PLAZA,” it said. Nothing more.

I was pretty upset by all of this. I decided to talk to a policeman.

“Have you worked demonstrations?” I asked.


“Isn’t this freedom of speech? Can they really handcuff people and take them off?”

The officer said, “Maybe their driver’s license expired or something.”

“What if they were shining the Batman sign?” I asked.

The officer didn’t reply.

At this point, an older man in a tuxedo came running up the sidewalk toward us. He was shouting.

“I LOVE DAVID KOCH. I LOVE DAVID KOCH. DAVID KOCH IS SAVING MANKIND.” Everybody could hear him. Then he ran off.

“You should arrest HIM,” I said to the police officer.

I now thought I ought to call The New York Times. I have friends at The New York Times. A woman answered the phone and took down what I told her and said she would pass it along to the metropolitan editor. Maybe he’d be interested, maybe not. He wasn’t. And that was it.

I finished the walk and returned to the apartment.

“How was the walk?” my wife asked.

“You know, the usual,” I said.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art David H. Koch Plaza
The Metropolitan Museum of Art David H. Koch Plaza, Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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