Ben Lerman thought he had done his research. The musician and part-time clothing designer wanted to bring his satirical take on Apple’s iPod ad campaign (“iPoo,” “iPot”) to the streets. He read the law stating that political speech and art are exempt from the city’s vending-permit system. With that in mind, and the knowledge that the waiting list for vending permits is 8,000 people long, Lerman grabbed his keyboard stand, some flat cardboard, and his self-designed baby clothes and T-shirts. Destination: Prince Street. Little did Lerman know he was headed smack into the middle of a legal gray area.“Within twenty minutes, an undercover police officer came over and asked me if I had a license,” remembers Lerman. “I said, ‘No, but this is my artistic communication from me to the people.’ He was having none of that.”
For the next three hours, Lerman sat handcuffed in a van while the officers hunted for other permitless vendors. Finally, they arrested two women (one ran and they had to chase her down) and headed for the Fifth Precinct station house, where he was held until about 1 A.M. “About eight hours in, my resolve started to break,” says Lerman.
“I started asking questions about what law I was charged with breaking. They said they didn’t understand how a picture of a guy smoking a pot pipe was political. I told them it’s not my fault they don’t understand. They were like, ‘Are you callin’ us stupid? Why don’t you grow up and take this like a man?’”
It turns out, the law isn’t so clear when it comes to cases like Lerman’s. Political speech, which Lerman claims his designs are, is protected. But depending on police interpretation of what’s political and what’s not, vendors can be arrested and jailed. This is welcome news for business-improvement districts that don’t like vendors competing for customers, and for New Yorkers annoyed by the street-clogging hassle they cause.
The city is appealing a 2004 decision on a case similar to Lerman’s, in which a judge ruled in favor of two permitless vendors who decorated hats with graffiti. As for Lerman, he’s due in court March 1.