Culture

A Look Inside Feminist Artist Natalie White’s Criminal Trial Turned Performance Art Piece

Culture

A Look Inside Feminist Artist Natalie White’s Criminal Trial Turned Performance Art Piece

Natalie White after "vandalizing" the US Capitol. Courtesy of Sheila Maria Lobo, from the upcoming documentary NSFW: Not Suitable for Women.
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Tomorrow, thousands of women, myself included, will descend upon Washington to fight a battle that is both personal and political. Earlier this week, in a courtroom not far from where the Women’s March begins, feminist artist and activist Natalie White was fighting her own personal and political battle, albeit a more private one.

It all started last July, when White embarked on an ambitious, 16-day Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) march, which would take her from New York to Washington. When she arrived at her destination, she bee-lined for the US Capitol building and painted the words “ERA NOW” in large, red letters on the sidewalk beneath the steps.

In case you’re in need of a refresher, the absence of an Equal Rights Amendment, which failed to pass in 1982 and has been largely ignored ever since, means that according to the Constitution, women are not guaranteed equal rights in this country. Full stop. Insert expletives here.

Unsurprisingly, the government wasn’t a fan of White’s work, despite the fact that it was rendered in water-soluble paint and easily removed. What ensued was a months-long investigation, in which D.C. Capitol Police pored over White’s social media and Facebook pages, eventually sending two officers to the artist’s New York address, despite the fact that she had never left D.C. (taxpayer money well spent, my friends). Meanwhile, White turned herself in to the authorities as soon as she was informed there was a warrant for her arrest.

Given the absurdity of this saga and the utter badass-ness of Natalie White, the artist opted to turn what would be a two-day legal ordeal into a performance piece. Representing herself, White sought to bring increased attention to the importance of an Equal Rights Amendment while shedding light on some of the nonsense embedded in our legal system. She even had a couple high-profile friends, Oscar-winning actress Patricia Arquette and model/actress Lizzie Jagger, act as character witnesses.

Yesterday, White was found guilty. She’ll face a $50 fine and a 6-month stayaway order from the Capitol building (with the exception of scheduled meetings with lawmakers, and their staff, as per Natalie’s request). We can all find strength in the fearlessness White displayed during this fiasco – one that Arquette aptly described as “a wild goose chase.” Now I’m not saying we all ought to go get ourselves arrested, but now is hardly the time to sit idly by. Tomorrow it will become abundantly clear that we will not sit idly by.

And if you need more inspiration, here are some choice quotes from White’s court appearance, as taken from the transcript of her opening statement:

“…On July 8th, I set out on a 250 mile, 16 day march from New York to DC to inform people about the lack of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and that Congress just doesn’t care enough to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. My action was a further expression of my political belief. I don’t see a difference in the two. I don’t see one as being legal, and one as being illegal. I see them both as being protected free speech. I didn’t carve anything into the sidewalk. I didn’t use an explosive device, and I didn’t fight with anyone. I didn’t write, “Death to Congress.” My words were meant to give love and support to women, and to tell Congress that the ERA is not dead. Women still want equal rights.”

“…But, they didn’t arrest me for protesting that day, because I was exercising my first amendment right to free speech that day. They didn’t arrest me the next day, because I was exercising my first amendment rights that day as well, Judge. This is what happened. They had pressure that came down on them to investigate after suffering bad publicity. They saw the photo of me in the New York Post, then they found my Facebook, my website, all with hundreds of naked photos of me that are on my website, and that’s when they became very interested in pursuing this case instead of doing their actual jobs of arresting and investigating criminals. They could look at naked photos of me all day.”

“…Judge, I don’t know if you have a daughter or wife, or a sister, but you have or had a mother. The situations are very desperate and dire, and they call for a desperate, non-violent freedoms of expression, and I thought that what I was doing was protected under the first amendment. I have never been arrested for anything before, my entire life. I’m not an expert on the law. I used water soluble paint specifically so it wouldn’t cause permanent damage. I saw this as an artistic expression, and not damage of property.”

We’re with her. Now let’s go make history.