The shocking images of realistic-looking dolls wrapped in emergency thermal blankets laying in small cages greeted New Yorkers during the morning commute on June 12.
People took double and triple takes as they passed by what appeared to be a child sleeping in a cage at the York Street subway station in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. There were prominent signs that stated #nokidsincages and a smaller sign explaining the display.
James Johnson’s 7-year-old daughter noticed the figure in DUMBO as the two walked by on their way to school. She asked if it was a real lady.
Her father assured her that it wasn’t, but struggled to explain what she was seeing.
Similarly, several people who didn’t speak English stopped, concerned that a real child was in immediate danger. Friendly passersby assured them that it was fake.
It was one of two dozen artistic depictions installed by Raices Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services as a protest against the treatment of migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. The group cites instances of immigrant children being held in large outdoor cages in freezing temperatures with little more than emergency thermal blankets for comfort.
In parts of Manhattan, police were called by people who believed the displays were real. Many of the displays had sound installations of real children crying for their parents. Early in the morning, according to a recording on social media, police broke one of the locks to confirm the child wasn’t real by removing the wig. In other locations, police or workers removed the displays as seen on social media photos and videos.
Despite the shocking and disturbing portrayal in public view, Johnson said he approved of the message and the manner in which it was conveyed. He said it forced people to stop and pay attention to an important issue, himself included. He noted that many simply walked by seemingly without noticing.
It was morning rush hour in New York City, after all.
Later in the day, Carlos Abreu stopped to look at the display by the subway station in DUMBO. Shock filled his face, soon replaced by sorrow as he realized what he was looking at.
“It hurts,” he said.
Abreu was in DUMBO to protest the nonunion work being done at a nearby worksite. Having fought one battle for justice, he said he now realizes he cannot ignore a dilemma that is too often put out of sight.
“I have kids,” said the father of two. “I can’t … I can’t allow this.”
“It makes my heart heavy as I stand here,” said longtime educator Kathy Kennedy. “I just feel like people have not treated these people as people.”
She said she approved of the display being set out in a business district in New York because it puts the issue the issue of migrants the Southern border front and center and forces people to reflect.
Luciana Arias, a tourist from Argentina, stopped in her tracks when she saw the display.
“I thought it was real,” she said.
It took her a couple of minutes to connect the dots and remember the news reports of the migrant children being locked in cages in the United States.
She said she was thankful to have seen the display on her visit to New York. She believes that it will have an impact on people and help them better understand the situation.