Before the secret police expelled Milan Kohout from his native Czechoslovakia 22 years ago, Kohout was among the courageous band of artists, writers, and academics that fought to bring human rights and democracy to that nation. Those were the years before the Iron Curtain unraveled, when Eastern Europe — though brimming with dissent and dissatisfaction — was still under the thumb of the now-defunct Soviet Union.
An electrical engineer by training, Kohout’s weapon of protest is performance art. After being forced out of Czechoslovakia, Kohout was granted political asylum in the United States, studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, became a US citizen, and — now able to make his avocation his vocation — joined Mobius, the internationally acclaimed local artists group.
Kohout, who has taught at Tufts and at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and participated in art programs in China, Taiwan, Croatia, Poland, and Cuba, is now facing criminal charges here in Boston as a result of a one-man performance he staged this past November in front of a Bank of America office in the Financial District.
Kohout’s performance piece was simple and physically unobtrusive, but it was intellectually provocative. Called “Nooses on Sale,” it consisted of Kohout, a wispy-haired and bearded middle-aged man, standing behind a simple, hand-lettered sign carrying those words. At his feet were a scattering of ropes fashioned into hangman’s nooses.
Kohout’s intention was to draw attention to — and register his outrage at — the so-called subprime mortgage crisis. That crisis, which should rightly be termed a scandal, is expected to cost more than two million Americans their homes and their life savings. It has triggered an economic downturn in the US that many experts fear is a recession. And it has spawned an international financial crisis of such magnitude that Klaus Schwab, one of the organizers of the Davos, Switzerland, World Economic Forum, calls it nothing short of “apocalyptic.”
It is hard to imagine a bank or financial institution of any significant size that has escaped the impact of the subprime crisis. Not coincidently, it is difficult to imagine how the financial sector as a whole can escape its institutional complicity in the scandal. It is part of the uncomfortable brilliance of Kohout’s “Nooses on Sale” performance that he chose an office of the proudly named Bank of America as the site for his work. That the Bank of America office Kohout chose sits within shouting distance of the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was first read to Boston residents in 1776, added to the power of his statement.
Kohout now faces the bogus charge of operating without a proper peddler’s license. That the Bank of America called the police on Kohout should not come as a surprise. That the police arrested Kohout, however, is an outrage. Even more outrageous is the decision by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office to move forward with the Kohout’s prosecution. And more outrageous still is the fact that a judge is letting the charges stand.
Kohout, a serious man, was engaged in the serious business of political protest. If the police were unaware of the fact that the United States Constitution sanctions such an exercise of free speech, then the DA’s office should have enlightened not only the arresting officers, but also police brass, and — for good measure — City Hall, which presumably maintains ultimate police oversight. In light of the police overstepping their authority and the failure of the district attorney to do his duty, it should fall to the courts to dismiss the charge against Kohout.
The prosecution of Milan Kohout is — so far — a failure at every level of the justice system. Free speech and the right of political comment and protest are not trivialities. Kohout was symbolically offering to sell nooses, which represent the suicidal behavior of our financial system and the personal pain it has helped to engender among millions of American families.
“Nooses on Sale” was, in addition to being constitutionally protected speech, an incisive and particularly — even painfully — apt comment on the subprime scandal. Kohout deserves applause, or argument, but not prosecution.
Cuba: an opportunity
The resignation of Fidel Castro offers a great opportunity for the Cuban political structure to deal with the enormous number of social and economic problems brought on by nearly 50 years of Castro’s iron-fisted reign. People of good will hope that Cuba moves swiftly to return personal freedom and economic equality to its citizens. This is a particularly appropriate moment for the United States government to begin lifting the onerous embargo that has had two unquestionably negative impacts: allowing Castro to continue to rail against the US as the world’s premier colonialist power, while at the same time visiting hardship on his people as a result of this decades-long political stand-off. To begin normalizing relations, the US should not only relax restrictions on cultural and intellectual exchanges, but also lift the ban on US travel there. This would serve as an excellent means for more US citizens to travel to Cuba and see for themselves what life is really like on the Caribbean island just 90 miles from our shores. A change should come swiftly; we have lived in isolation from our neighbors for too long.