Painting Underground: Chris Wright

Compared to musicians, we don’t encounter many visual artists in the New York subway system. Sure, the MTA has done significant work bringing visual art into public spaces, but we rarely see the process: even people sketching strangers on the train in little Moleskine notebooks are a rare sight. So I’m always excited to hear about somebody painting down there:

Chris Wright, the professor at Pratt who taught me how to paint with oils, has been posting pictures on his Tumblr blog of oil paintings he’s done on the G line platforms (as well as just about everywhere else!)

Flushing Avenue G August 16, 2013 (12:00-3:00 pm)

Flushing Avenue G
August 16, 2013 (12:00-3:00 pm)

Classon Avenue G September 7, 2013 (12:00-2:00 pm)

Classon Avenue G
September 7, 2013 (12:00-2:00 pm)

Very exciting to see painting not only on display, but actually being made in the transit network. Clearly, this is something that the public has an interest in protecting. You can see more of Chris Wright’s work at his web site, chriswrightpaintings.com.

Zoom Balloons in the 14th Street Sixth Avenue Tunnel

On our way back from Harlem, Matthew and I stopped to pick up some cheese at the Westside Market on 14th St. and ran into balloon sculptor Zoom in the tunnel. We had met Zoom a few times before, and in fact still have a gift from him, one of his heart flower balloons, slowly shriveling on top of a dresser.

This time, we got this great balloon clown. Everyone was jealous of it. Or terrified. It was hard to tell.

Matthew and Zoom

Matthew and Zoom

Nothing seems to lower Matthew’s inhibitions quite like holding a silly prop does.  Enjoying the reactions of strangers to the balloon man, he asked our train neighbor what we should name it.

He responded, “Charlie Sheen.”

Matthew and Charlie Sheen

Charlie and Matthew reflected in the train window

Zoom’s web site at http://www.zoomballoons.com/ appears to be down, but I found an article about him on the blog Manalapan Patch. If you’re in the tunnel between the L and the 1 on the 14th St Sixth Avenue station, check out his work!

 

Cheerios, and how I was depicted

I’ve gotten out of the habit of posting busking updates — there aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes! But today saw a couple things that I can’t avoid sharing.

1. At Hunter College, one man bent over to put a dollar in my case while carrying a baby. The baby was carrying a bag of cheerios, and, in the spirit of charity, decided to pour ALL OF THEM INTO MY CASE. In other news, I still had a great day out — apparently busking while surrounded by cheerios doesn’t hurt your earnings too badly.

2. On the Union Square L platform, I ran into Larry and Sonia Wright drumming. (You should click that link by the way — the video will move anyone who’s seen him play). Just down the platform from them was a guy drawing portraits of riders. And right around him were Larry Wright’s sons, waiting to get on the train and dance.

Needless to say, I got my portrait done, there on the platform, surrounded by Larry Wright’s kids and by the sound of bucket drumming. It felt like home.

busking picture

Charges changed

During my July 25th arrest, I was given multiple reasons to leave the station, including “performing without a permit” and “performing on the platform.” Fortunately, both of these things are specifically permitted by the MTA Rules of Conduct. Oops! One officer also raised the idea of a “safety concern.” But, as he was unable to identify any such concern on video, his idea wouldn’t seem likely to hold water in court.

So, when I was released with my Desk Appearance Ticket, the charges listed were: “LOC000.00 0V.” Apparently the legal team needed more time at that point.

A search on WebCrims the next day returned nothing at all. Fortunately, Andrew Ramos at Pix11 was able to get an explanation from the police by phone: they had simply misspelled my name. So, as reported in his coverage, the charges were “blocking traffic.”

Well — it appears that someone has changed his or her mind yet again. According to a WebCrims search this afternoon, I am now charged with a violation of NY penal law statute § 240.35. Among other fun activities, this statute forbids:

  • “[remaining] in a public place for the purpose of gambling with cards, dice or other gambling paraphernalia,”
  • “[remaining] in a public place for the purpose of engaging, or soliciting another person to engage, in oral sexual conduct, anal sexual conduct or other sexual behavior of a deviate nature;” and
  • Congregating in a public place while “being masked or in any manner disguised by unusual or unnatural attire or facial alteration.”

I guess someone just doesn’t want us to have any fun.

Anyway, they got more specific with me, focusing on section 6:

“Loiters or remains in any transportation facility, unless specifically authorized to do so, for the purpose of soliciting or engaging in any business, trade or commercial transactions involving the sale of merchandise or services, or for the purpose of entertaining persons by singing, dancing or playing any musical instrument.”

Never mind that the MTA has its own section of state law addressing what one can and cannot do in the transit system — the NYPD has found a better one. And it’s only 80 kajillion years old!

Nonetheless, it would appear to make an ironclad case against me. Wait, what’s that you say, English teachers? Subordinating conjunctions, you say? Ah yes, let’s reread:

“Unless specifically authorized to do so.”

Aha! Well, given that this business is specifically addressed in 22 NYCRR / the Rules of Conduct in the first place, it looks like we’re alright. Thanks, justice system: you done me a solid.

Police and police reform: How I didn’t get shot

You might have noticed that we talk a lot about the police around here. As a matter of fact, we’ve even been wrongfully arrested a few times; and we wish to heck that the police would do things differently. So, many people conclude, we must also be an inherently anti-police organization.

And precisely that isn’t true. Everyone working on this project is a city resident, and we know why it’s important, particularly in low-income communities, that residents be protected. Academically, I also know that Michelle Alexander, whose work focuses on police and justice system reform, strongly defends the fundamental mission of police in urban communities, writing so early in The New Jim Crow. Because of all that, in a phrase bound to shock you all, we’ll say this: BuskNY supports the police just as much as we support police reform.

I imagine eyebrows are being raised about that claim, and so I’ll add a little story. On a Friday evening two and a half weeks ago, when I was walking back to the apartment after teaching, I heard gunshots behind me just as I reached my block. I turned around, and lo and behold: on the opposite corner of the street was a guy firing a 9mm down the neighboring avenue. I ducked behind a car’s engine block and waited.

Fortunately, when you live in a city, you’re not powerless. I called 911, and after a few seconds, I ducked out and moved up to the corner to see where the shooter was headed. When a police cruiser arrived with a minute, I hopped in. We drove a block and a half, I saw the guy who’d been shooting, pointed him out, and the officers stopped him. He’s now facing multiple charges, and I’m a grand jury witness.

I think this story is instructive for two reasons. First, it shows that the police keep communities safe, in this case by arresting a guy for shooting next to a school. Second, it shows that the police depend on their communities. In order to make that arrest, the police needed information from me. And that’s not an exception but a rule: police need community support to make arrests and to conduct investigations. And we won’t even get into the importance of trust and respect to calm down dangerous and violent situations. (How does a police force handle a disturbance when it’s broadly hated? Can that ever end well? And can we imagine it ending well when a police force is broadly liked and respected?)

So when a police department is routinely disrespectful, routinely uses excessive force, and routinely expresses a overt lack of interest in the law it is supposed to defend, that will impair its effectiveness.

My story from a few weeks back has one more chapter. I got out of the police car once the officers had handcuffed the shooter. That’s when backup arrived. As I watched, they stopped three young men walking down the sidewalk from a different direction. They held them against a wall and searched them, finding nothing. Another man came up, unaware of the shooting, and asked why the police had searched and released them. An officer, whose name I don’t know, walked up and shouted:

GET OUT OF HERE, YOU CAN SUCK MY DICK.

The man left. I pretended not to hear. Within a few minutes, the police took the shooter back to the 83rd Precinct, and I accompanied them to make a written statement. While I was writing the statement, in an area of the stationhouse office routinely used for guests, I noticed the envelopes addressed to various officers that were hanging on the wall. Prominent among them was an enveloped labeled:

FOR JOEY RAMOS

IS GAY

I finished my statement. I pretended I didn’t notice.

What’s the moral of this story? Well, I wrote at the beginning of the post that I support the police, and I’ll write it again here. I’m glad that the police were there to arrest a man for committing a shooting.

But I’ll add this: I’m twenty-two. I’ve been hit by a police officer. I’ve seen police officers use disrespectful and homophobic language on multiple occasions. I live in a minority-majority area. My neighbors are racially profiled. I’ve seen police officers disregard the law. I’ve seen police officers arrest other musicians. I’ve seen police officers ignore the rules and tell me not to mention the rules. I’ve had police officers threaten me with violence. I’ve had police officers twist my handcuffs to hurt me. I’ve had cuts on my wrists from handcuffs, and cuts to my hips and elbows from being dragged. I’ve had cuts to my head from being thrown into a wall. And I also helped stop a crime two and a half weeks ago. I’m like every last person in this community: we are the people the police need. 

So if you ask me for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (so help me God), then here it is:

I support the police and it is a daily challenge for me to do so. I support the police in spite of the police, in spite of the beatings, in spite of the racial profiling, and most of all in spite of the ongoing, callous, crude, and regrettable disrespect to all of us who live here.

Now, if you’ve never dealt with the police, I’m sure it’s easy to be for them. If you have, it gets harder. If you’re a musician, if you’re Black, if you’re sleeping on a train, if you’re walking down the sidewalk in the wrong place, if you’re Hispanic, or if you’re a faggot, then it becomes very hard, very hard indeed to support your police department wholeheartedly.

A police department that treats city residents poorly — whether by hitting them, by searching them without reason, or by admitting that it just doesn’t care about the rules — is not winning any respect. And more importantly, It’s not protecting city residents as well as it could. So even if you (you, NYPD! you, Raymond Kelly!), care solely about public safety and not at all about respect, or courtesy, or professionalism, or eliminating racism and homophobia, for public safety alone you should ask your police department not to publicly belittle, insult, or harass your public.

Does this all relate to BuskNY? Yes, it does. I said at the beginning that we support the police and that we support police reform. And how we do that is simple: we advocate for the police to know the subway rules concerning the most major form of non-transit use of the MTA, to speak respectfully to artists, and to see artists as community members ready to cooperate, not as enemies.

When we argue that musicians should carry the rules, that they shouldn’t give in to unrecorded coercive threats, and that yes, they should sue when their civil rights are violated, we don’t say it because we oppose the police. We say it because we believe that the police should be doing their work better. Though the NYPD does not, we believe they can do their work better; and though the NYPD does not, we want to hold them to a higher standard. Many jokes are made in this city about the motto “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect,” but I find it’s a pretty good slogan. I even believe the police can live up to it one day.

What I say to you is: police reform doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens around specific issues and specific communities. So a movement that protects musicians and that stands up for the rules is fighting, incrementally, the same battle as any other police reform initiative. We want the police to work with our community, we want them to trust us, and we want to be able to trust them. We believe a police officer who’s willing to read a copy of the MTA rules is a better police officer than one who starts threatening, not just for musicians, but for everyone — including for the NYPD. And when the police learn that lesson, maybe they’ll have learned something greater: that working with the city, and respecting the city, is the better kind of policing.