BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Graffiti, homelessness, eco activism, gospel singing, the McCourts and the police all collided at an East Village corner Sunday afternoon when a local woman was arrested for painting a message of support for her friend on a construction fence.
Helena Münninghoff, 57, of 26 Avenue C, was arrested at 4:45 p.m. on April 16 by numerous cops and charged with making graffiti. She was put into a patrol car and taken to the 9th Precinct, where she was held in a cell for around four hours. After agreeing to accept a desk appearance ticket, she was released.
Münninghoff, who is originally from Holland, is an artist and ex-squatter who has lived in the area around 30 years. She used to live in the former Umbrella House squat, across the avenue, but said, “They bullied me out of there.”
On Sunday, it all started when she was painting a message in giant white letters on the green construction fence ringing the empty lot at the southeast corner of Third Street and Avenue C. As she explained it, her friend Ricky Cole, a homeless man who was, until recently, a vendor at the location, had just had surgery at an Upper East Side hospital to remove a spinal tumor and would now need help relearning how to walk, plus other assistance simply to survive.
“HELP RICKY,” the fresh white paint blared along the green fence’s Third Street side, continuing, “BACK ON HIS FEET,” on the fence’s corner. She was then extending the message around onto the fence’s Loisaida Avenue (Avenue C) side when police pulled up in two squad cars.
She first got to know Cole, she said, after he “attacked” her on Sept. 4, 2015. But she said she then learned what he had been dealing with at the time: His mother had just died.
“I forgave him right away,” she said.
She then got involved in trying to help regulate the sketchy scene that had popped up under the sidewalk shed ringing the corner building, which was eventually demolished around two years ago.
“There was the beginning of a drug market, so I stepped in,” she said. She had a plan: “A few guys get to sell their trinkets here — but no drugs.”
She stressed that she never called the police to respond to anything happening on the corner. Instead she went out at night herself a handful of times to try to deal with issues there as they arose.
As she spoke, she paused several times to say hi to passing friends.
Noticing Münninghoff painting the fence, The Village Sun had interviewed her briefly, before going into the Earth Church to watch Reverend Billy’s sainting of Malachy McCourt, 91. About 30 or 40 minutes later, shortly after the performance had ended, cries of alarm erupted from Savitri D, the director of Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, and other choir members. They rushed outside to the corner, where they protested as Münninghoff was being arrested.
“Let — her — go! Let — her — go!” they chanted.
“You have nothing better to do?” someone shouted, indignantly.
“What a waste of tax dollars!” another fumed.
Siobhan McCourt, Malachy’s daughter, joined the protesters on the corner. She scoffed when one officer returned to grab the painter’s bucket of white paint that had been left behind.
“C’mon!” the younger McCourt shouted. “That’s evidence? That’s all ya got?”
Her brother Conor McCourt is a retired New York Police Department sergeant.
As the police cars rolled off, the choir defiantly sang, “On the first day, I lived in the tree!” with the kicker, “And the tree is the opposite of a cop!”
Reverend Billy and the choir are vocal opponents of the “Cop City” project, in which a forest outside Atlanta is being clear-cut for a police training facility, and also, more locally, of the East Side Coastal Resiliency megaproject, which has already felled hundreds of old-growth trees in East River Park. Reverend Billy (real name Bill Talen) has previously been arrested for protesting over trees being cut down for the E.S.C.R. project. (For a full recording of their song “Now Bird,” which they were singing at the police on Sunday, click here.)
One choir member, Barbara Lee, who knows Münninghoff from the neighborhood, said, “She’s an amazing artist,” adding she didn’t understand why the woman had to be arrested.
However, asked earlier by The Village Sun if she was an artist, Münninghoff shrugged, “I don’t know what I am — a human being.”
She said she would start selling Ricky’s stuff on the sidewalk there to try to raise money for him. It’s currently stored in her apartment. He’s been away from the spot for about six months while battling health issues.
Speaking later after returning home from the precinct, Münninghoff declared she was well within her rights to paint the message.
“They said I was graffitiing city property,” she said. “I’m entitled to do things here. This man needs help. … I’m still living there and I’m still working there. I’ve never been arrested before… . I’m a person. I’ve worked here in good faith. … There’s a homeless man that I’m helping. I was trying to tell them this, but they didn’t have the patience to listen.”
Münninghoff said she worked as a caretaker for the former building, and still lives in an adjacent building. Even though the corner building is no longer there, she said she still had been working to tend the corner, keeping its fence free of random ad posters.
She said because she did not want to cause problems with the lot’s owner or her living arrangement, she initially did not want to receive a summons on Sunday. But she also claimed that police never offered her one before arresting her.
“They were going to call the owner,” she recalled. “I said, ‘That can’t happen.'”
Some speculated that Münninghoff was “set up” and that the police were tipped off, given how fast and how many officers responded.
Eventually, at a certain point while in the cell, she agreed to accept the summons, though it was then slow in coming.
“I just asked [the officer], ‘Can I please go, man? ’Cause I got a lot of things to do.'”
In the end, she said of the incident, “It shouldn’t have happened. They wasted their f—ing time and mine.”
Reflecting on the whole ordeal, she said, “We need a world without prisons, man.”