Last week, in a private "prescreening" at Columbia College, artist and photographer Nancy Bechtol debuted her first-ever documentary film: Free Speech & the Transcendent Journey of Chris Drew, Street Artist.
The room was packed with people who'd been touched by the late artist's eccentric activism—the Native Americans he'd known (since 1990, Drew's Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center had made its home at the American Indian Center), the wannabe artists (Drew taught screen printing to anyone who walked in the door), the Puppet Bike guys (his better-accepted colleagues on the city streets). Also present were a few members of the grass-roots media, and the pair of lawyers who'd worked on both the court case Drew once invited and the felony charge he didn't expect.
Drew's longtime cause had been what he believed was the constitutional right of artists to sell their work in public, wherever they wish, as long as they're not blocking the right-of-way. His vision was for a Chicago that, like Paris, would embrace its artists as part of a free, vibrant streetscape.
The Chicago we have is pretty much the opposite. The city requires a peddler's license for vendors to legally sell art on the street; to sell in the most desirable areas downtown, where only a handful of spots are available, also requires a monthly permit and preapproval of the art that'll be offered.
To try to change that, Drew put himself on the sidewalk, distributing patches of wearable art for free (to avoid breaking the law about selling it) and explaining his cause to anyone who paused to see what this scruffy, bespectacled, pony-tailed character in the knit cap was about.
Bechtol, who first met Drew when she was a staffer at the Cultural Center during the Harold Washington administration, began videotaping him on the street in 2009, and the pair, with Bechtol's two-man crew, became a common sight on some of the city's busiest pedestrian walkways. When Drew decided to stage an act of civil disobedience that would bring the matter before the court, he wanted documentation of that too.
So on December 2, 2009, when Drew was arrested for selling his art patches on State Street, Bechtol was there. Her footage, available on YouTube, shows him, arms outstretched, in a patch-dotted, come-and-get-me red poncho, flagrantly violating the law by hawking his wares and then calmly submitting to a pat down and handcuffing when a trio of cops surround him. She kept filming as they put him into an unmarked car and drove off.
At the police station, officers discovered an audio recorder in a plastic bag pinned to Drew's poncho and charged him with violating not only the peddling ordinance but the nation's most stringent state law against eavesdropping. According to it, recording required the prior permission of everyone whose voice would be heard. For audio taping his own arrest, Drew was charged with a felony that carried a prison term of up to 15 years.
Civil rights specialist Mark Weinberg was representing him, working pro bono, but after the state's attorney dropped the peddling charge to focus on the felony, he brought in defense attorney Joshua Kutnick. Also working pro bono, Kutnick developed a constitutional argument that prevailed at the county court level. The state's attorney appealed the decision, taking it to the state's highest court, where it was pending when Drew died of cancer in 2012. Kutnick petitioned the court to let the case live on in the public interest, a request that was denied.
But this year, just two weeks before Bechtol's screening, the Illinois Supreme Court, ruling on two other suits, declared the eavesdropping law unconstitutional. Kutnick says the only audio-taping restriction that now stands in Illinois is a federal law that requires the permission of at least one person taking part in the conversation—and that person can be the one whose finger is on the record button.
At the screening Kutnick said the decision was also a victory for Drew. Yet the artist's chosen cause is as unmitigated as it was when he started planting himself on sidewalks all over town. Weinberg says he still thinks about it "a lot," though he never agreed with Drew that selling artwork on the street is an absolute right under the First Amendment.
"There's no absolute right to sell anything on the street," says Weinberg, who's done some street peddling himself. "It's a political issue, and we have very restrictive peddling laws in Chicago," especially in the Loop. He told me he wonders whether the popular will exists to bring about Drew's vision.
But last month when the city held a packed town hall meeting at the Cultural Center to solicit ideas for a new public art plan, a suggestion that called for artists to be freely on the street, making and selling their art, was the one that got the loudest applause. A second public-art town hall meeting will be held at 6 PM Wednesday, April 30, at the Washington Park Arts Incubator, 301 E. Garfield; RSVP at cityofchicago.org.