Fri. Apr 19th, 2024

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) closed its doors around 4pm today, December 2, as approximately 700 pro-Palestine protesters staged an action outside the New York City institution. The group then marched to Times Square, a chorus of voices chanting “Israel bombs, USA pays, how many kids did you kill today?” echoing through the streets of Manhattan’s West Side. 

The event was co-organized by the Palestinian-led community organization Within Our Lifetime (WOL) and the New York-based activist movement Decolonize This Place (DTP) and initially intended as a two-pronged action: a pro-Palestine rally outside the museum followed by an “anti-colonial tour” of its collections. In social media posts about the event, the groups also cited the AMNH’s sources of funding, including the Bank of New York Mellon, which houses the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Donor Advised Fund, as well as its large collection of human remains.

Ahead of the protesters’ arrival, police had shut down all traffic on Central Park West and barricaded the institution’s front steps, preventing the activists from entering the museum to host the planned tour. Additional police officers joined the dozens already on the scene, including members of the Technical Assistance Response Unit, which specialize in electronic surveillance equipment. Protest monitors from the American Civil Liberties Union stood along the edges of the crowd answering questions and surveying the scene. 

Approximately 700 protesters gathered around the Manhattan institution.

A little after 2pm, the activists unfurled their banners, long colorful sheets of fabric bearing phrases like “resistance until return” and “from Gaza to Jenin, revolution until victory.” One black banner with the words “the Nakba started here” depicted a painting of the Queens Museum building, where in 1947 the United Nations voted to separate Mandate-era Palestine into two states, resulting in the violent displacement of 430,000 Palestinians.

Protesters held hand-painted signs and placards, and a man with a cart walked through the early hours of the protest hawking small Palestinian flags for $5. One woman, who asked not to be identified, held swaddling cloths in her arms in a reference to the more than 6,000 Palestinian children killed in Gaza since October 7.

“There is only one solution, Intifada revolution,” chanted the activists. “From the river to the sea; Palestine will be free.”

Some of the handmade signs and placards at the December 2 protest

Harlem-based artist and comedian Johnny Laveie wore a double-sided sign and offered fellow activists pens to write how they felt on it. By the time the protesters began marching toward Times Square, every blank white space had been filled with words and phrases.

“I think as activists, we often don’t have an opportunity to take care of ourselves,” Lavaie told Hyperallergic. “This is our job as artists: to heal,” Lavaie said. “How do we heal the activists? How do we heal and also fight for the rights of those who are oppressed?”

A little past 4pm, the group walked around the block to the museum’s Gilder Center entrance on 81st Street. Police officers frantically placed barricades to block access, and an officer told Hyperallergic the museum was closed to all visitors, including members.

WOL and DTP held a similar action at AMNH exactly one week earlier on Saturday, November 25, distributing flyers with specific locations inside the museum that they intended to visit on their “anti-colonial tour.” As today, the organizers said that they were not allowed entry. The museum blocked off the main entrance, though a spokesperson told Hyperallergic that visitors were allowed to enter through an alternate door.

AMNH has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment regarding today’s protest and closure.

Artist Johnny Laveie wore a sign and provided pens for fellow protesters to write how they felt.
One black banner with the words “the Nakba started here” depicted a painting of the Queens Museum building, where the United Nations voted to partition the British Mandate for Palestine in 1947.

While the barricaded empty street stifled public interaction during the AMNH rally, when the activists began to march, drivers honked, restaurant diners nodded and cheered, and in a few instances observed by Hyperallergic, some bystanders voiced anger and disapproval. “Return the hostages,” one pedestrian yelled.

A barricaded and police-fortified Lincoln Center awaited the south-moving group, but the protestors bypassed it, choosing instead to enter the Columbus Circle Mall across from the southwestern corner of Central Park. Police officers and security guards attempted to close the doors, but the activists pushed through.

The march moved quickly, covering 40 blocks in an hour and a half. By 6pm, the activists stood in the center of Time Square. Palestinian flags soared above the dense crowd, illuminated by neon restaurant signs and LED billboards. 

By 6pm, the activists stood in the center of Time Square.

WOL organizer Abdullah Akl expressed his dismay that AMNH would not allow the group to enter the museum, emphasizing that the group had made it clear that the anti-colonial tour was peaceful and comprised a teach-in.

“[The New York Police Department] would rather close multiple entrances to one of the largest museums in the United States, just for the sake of a pro-Palestinian rally that’s not even actually disruptive,” Akl said.

“But obviously the NYPD has no intention of our people doing that, has no intention of Indigenous people continuing to learn about their history,” Akl continued. 

The NYPD has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment. 

“When we come out to places like the American Museum of Natural History, we make it very clear that they have not been representing Indigenous people, not only in this country, but countries all across the world,” said Akl. “And we want to call them out on that.”

Some bystanders nodded and cheered as the march progressed.
The group marched to Times Square.
Some protesters wore a keffiyeh, a garment that has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance.
Palestinian flags soared above the dense crowd, illuminated by neon restaurant signs and LED billboards. 
Artist and comedian Johnny Laveie with his sign

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