“I think Sal has done something a lot of people have tried to do, which is spark a communitywide discussion about the need for a more artistic Lafayette.” CRAWFORD COMEAUX, Lafayette computer programmer
LAFAYETTE — Supporters of homeless artist Salvador Perez say authorities violated his free speech rights when they arrested him in hanging models of exploding planes on the Lafayette 9/11 Monument.
They say the act enjoys the same constitutional protections as the placement of flowers and miniature American flags at the downtown memorial.
Perez, a 35-year-old artist with no fixed address, was released from jail early Monday after supporters raised the money to bail him out.
“It looks now like he was arrested because of what he expressed,” said Miranda Tait, an attorney in Lafayette who is part of a group that has rallied around Perez.
She and others supporting Perez said they had never met the man before he was arrested.
“You have to be able to criticize the government,” Tait said. “That’s the most American thing there is.”
An artist who frequently uses the pseudonym “Ace,” Perez is accused of hanging models of exploding planes on two I-beams recovered from Ground Zero. The beams comprise much of the Lafayette monument located in Parc Sans Souci in downtown Lafayette.
Details drawn on the model planes, such as “NWO,” which is short for New World Order, hint at Perez’s apparent political beliefs — that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were orchestrated by former President George W. Bush and something conspiracy theorists call the New World Order.
The act, whether it’s free speech or vandalism or both, has elicited strong reactions.
“I don’t think it’s free speech at all,” said Chuck Pickett, a Lafayette resident and frequent letter-to-the-editor writer whose son was a military pilot. “I think it’s a threat.”
But Crawford Comeaux, a Lafayette computer programer who led fundraising to bail Perez out of the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, had a different reaction.
“I think Sal has done something a lot of people have tried to do, which is spark a communitywide discussion about the need for a more artistic Lafayette,” Comeaux said. “In five minutes, he managed to spark the community-wide discussion.”
Perez was arrested the afternoon of Sept. 11, hours after the cutout planes were found fastened to the monument. Also found at the 9/11 monument was a wooden effigy of Bush with a detonator in one hand and a wad of cash in the other.
Elliot Brown, a Lafayette Parish public defender who has been assigned to represent Perez, declined to comment this week on the case and his client.
Perez has relayed through supporters that he is not talking to media. He has not denied he was responsible for the display.
Lafayette police on Sept. 11 booked Perez on one count of criminal trespassing and one count of criminal damage to a historic building or landmark.
Police spokesman Cpl. Paul Mouton said Wednesday that the trespassing accusation stems from Perez allegedly being on city-owned property adjacent to Parc Sans Souci. Mouton said the criminal damage count was because the model planes were fastened to the publicly owned monument.
Perez might be standing on solid legal ground, said Tait and another First Amendment attorney, Alfred Boustany.
Political speech is constitutionally protected for people such as Perez, whose opinions lie outside of the mainstream, said Boustany, who also is a criminal defense attorney. Boustany said the small American flags and flowers that adorn the base of Lafayette’s monument also are forms of speech.
“It’s pretty reprehensible what (Perez) did,” Boustany said. “But … if you allow people to place things at the monument expressing support for certain ideas, certain beliefs, then you can’t then exclude those who express a different belief.”
Boustany said the vast majority of Americans do not believe Bush was part of a conspiracy to have men from the Middle East hijack four passenger jets and use them to kill Americans.
“Those people (the vast majority) don’t need First Amendment protection,” he said. “The idea (NWO theory), as reprehensible as it is, is the purpose for which the First Amendment was created.”
Some of Perez’s creations line the wall at a downtown bar, The Greenroom, with each piece listed at prices of $350 to $450.
All the works appear to have a political edge to them —wooden television sets with hands holding bombs, knives, pistols, machine guns or other weapons; stenciled wood cutout images of Che Guevara, Subcomandante Marcos, Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Victoria Broussard, who along with Comeaux created a Facebook page to raise money to bail Perez out of jail, said he has opened the door to a larger discussion in the community.
“We could grow so much as a city if we could learn to embrace other people’s opinions and respect them,” Broussard said.
She added, “I hope we can get Lafayette behind more free art. Until we allow our people to express their creativity and their opinions, we’re not going to be the big city we want to be.”