8/3: Parrots, buckets, and my burgeoning love for the NYPD

Today, Milo and I spent a few hours doing outreach. What I’m learning is that community organizing is a bit-by-bit process: every day brings a few new conversations, a few more names on the mailing list, and a few more t-shirts out in the world. That may sound romantic — but is it ever slow-going as well.

Still, we’re building something important. Today at 14th St, we saw a large green parrot on someone’s shoulder on the platform — and we also ran into Don the bucket drummer, playing a Kikkoman soy sauce bucket like the world was about to end:

Don

A couple hours later, we ran into a cellist who had already seen Don in his shirt. So, we know that word’s spreading!

I also busked for about an hour and a half, in two different stations, with Milo taking some pictures. I learned that I have an incredible ability to make weird faces while playing:

Peek!

Would you tip a guy who looks like that?

Anyway, one more story from today. When we arrived at the 59th St 6 station, we saw a police officer across the platform. Like I mentioned in the last post, I’m feeling a bit tired of going to jail for music — but ever hopeful for the best, I unpacked and asked Milo to take video if she came over.

Indeed, she came by within five minutes and asked if I had a permit. “What permit?,” I asked. “Have you ever seen one?” “No,” she said, a bit sheepishly, “although you do see those banners.” I then showed her my rules, and after taking a careful look, she had this to say:

“Thanks for showing me this. Now I know.”

Now there’s a hopeful sign indeed. (If only — if only — but if ONLY the NYPD offered training on this!)

8/1: Courtesy, professionalism, respect

So, two li’l stories from today:

1. While I was playing at Metropolitan Ave., a cop walked the length of the platform to my spot. No panic — cops there always seem well-trained on the rules. But then he turned just as he got to my spot — uh-oh — and heck, he gave me a thumbs-up. OK!

2. At the northern end of 81st St — where I’ve been escorted out once and arrested once — two cops came down the stairs and ordered me out. Now, although I may seem to enjoy getting arrested now and again, I too have my limit. And my limit is especially low when a court date (moving into late September) potentially conflicts with my Fulbright grant (starting in October). Harassment doesn’t always come at a good time, and I’m just not sure how many more arrests I can do this summer.

That said, I took a big gulp of air and asked why. “Because you can’t ask for money,” one answered. “Well, let me show you the rules,” I said. Then I read aloud:

“The following nontransit uses are permitted by the Authority […]: public speaking; campaigning; leafletting or distribution of written noncommercial materials; activities intended to encourage and facilitate voter registration; artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations.”

Then I handed over the rule pamphlet and pointed to the passage in yellow. The guy took a quick look. “Enjoy,” he said, handing it back. “‘Scuse me?” “Enjoy,” he said — and they were off back up the steps.

7/26: What happened next? And what happens next?

Update 7/27: We’re getting huge traffic from reposts and from Gothamist. Want to keep hearing from us? Hit like on our Facebook page. And, you’ll be seeing us around in the subway — just look for performers wearing bright “Music is Legal!” t-shirts!

Hi all. Last night’s post and video-editing took 100% of the energy I had after the arrest, and I didn’t get around to the end of the story. Here’s an update for the morning, both on my experience at the stationhouse and on what comes next for us.

First off, the HMS BuskNY ain’t sinking yet. We’re taking off for the screenprinting studio in half an hour, rolling 135 blank t-shirts on a dolly. The fronts will be printed by the end of the day, with the backs coming tomorrow. So by mid-next week, Kalan and I will be hitting the tunnels & platforms for outreach harder than we have yet, each carrying a bag of shirts, a stack of flyers, and a notebook full of email addresses. We’re building the first community mailing list, we’re creating an incident database for the day this issue gets a hearing, and we’re checking through the community for stories of summonses, harassment, and arrests that are still within the three-year statute of limitations. Meanwhile, you’ll start seeing “Music is Legal!” around the city. Hold fast!

Now, to finish up the story from last night: I was arrested just after the last video in that series. (By the way, we’ve also uploaded the full footage to give as much context as possible. You can see it here). The decision to arrest was made by Sgt. Robson.

Now, it’s my understanding that Officer Kennedy — who receives kudos for his calmness and politeness — really did believe his version of the rules, i.e. that performances are allowed only on mezzanines. He didn’t seem to agree completely with them — as he said, “it’s not my rules, it’s the MTA rules” — but he was still committed to clearing me out of the station when he saw me.

However, he didn’t want it to involve an arrest. Rather, he wanted it to happen “voluntarily” — which is a terme d’art for “under intimidation with no official documentation.” Officers like the fiction that we scuttle off in shame when we’re ‘caught’ breaking the rules. But the reality is that we know full well, every last one of us, that we’re allowed to play. We’re simply scared shitless, and we vacate the stations because we know crystal clearly that the alternative is arrest.

The biggest shame is that these interactions of extra-judicial intimidation are never documented. We are asked to leave verbally and without any sort of justification — e.g. Officer Kennedy’s “not today”! No document is ever created to record this, and indeed, Officer Kennedy refused to create one through a summons (which I requested). Instead, he wanted me to “just get out of here” with no evidence of the interaction, no stated cause, and a hill of beans to go to the MTA or CCRB with.

When I suggested to him that he choose either a summons or an arrest, but avoid extralegal harassment, that’s how the hour-long saga began. He was not confident enough to choose arrest, but also didn’t want to back down. So, he called a supervisor — allegedly to have me arrested — but who ultimately arrived, talked with him, and then left. He then waited until I performed again, then came to confront me again and gave me a second ultimatum to leave, extralegally, with no documentation. I again insisted on documentation, and backup was called for a second time. Officer Bastien then gave me his own ultimatum, again asking me to leave “voluntarily.” (These guys love when you do things “voluntarily” — i.e. when you comply with an unrecorded verbal order whose only alternative is arrest. Do you think that’s because it cuts down on paperwork? Or because it’s harder to substantiate allegations against them? Or is it just callousness?)

In any case, when I turned down the third ultimatum for “voluntary” departure — which would still have been undocumented despite the presence of at least six officers and two supervisors — then things had to proceed to arrest. (Remember, in the world of “voluntary” choices, every carrot has to have its stick). So when Officer Bastien gave Sgt. Robson the news that I wouldn’t leave, then the choice was made for arrest without hesitation.

I was held for four hours at the Columbus Circle stationhouse. Officer Kennedy appeared to have cold feet ever after the arrest — I believe he had ended up with no way to back down from an arrest he knew was wrong. In any case, he came over after a couple hours and said he’d recommended me for a DAT (Desk Appearance Ticket), a form of early release that’s given conditionally. I haven’t had one before.

By the way, charges (“soliciting,” “blocking traffic”) do not appear on my DAT. This was confirmed by ecourts.ny.us, where my name returned last night with an open case from 7/25 with no entry under “charges,” and this morning returns only my arrest from June (!). We’ll see if a decision is reached by the DA after the weekend.

7/25: Arrest: how the decision is made

Summary:

If you are approached by police while performing in accordance with MTA rules, you have the right to continue your work. It is highly recommended to film the encounter, to display the MTA rules (we’ll mail you a copy free), and to state the officer’s badge number out loud.

If you are arrested for doing so, you have not committed a crime, and you have the right to a wrongful arrest lawsuit. See “Who To Call” for more information on doing so.

So, the big news from today is that I was arrested for a third time. Here’s how it happened:

I arrived at 68th St at 12:10 PM, unpacked, stood up with the instrument, and saw a police officer on the other platform as I did so. He shined his flashlight at me and shouted: “Not today!”

Well, it just so happens that I believe that music’s legal. So I hollered back: “Yes! Today!” Then I launched “Gigue” from the third Bach partita, and the officer set off for the stairs to reach my platform.

By the time he reached me, I had my instrument in its case to avoid damage. He told me to leave, I asked why, and this is what we established as the situation:

I then said that I was clear on the rules [“The following nontransit uses are permitted by the Authority, provided they do not impede transit activities and they are conducted in accordance with these rules: public speaking; campaigning; leafletting or distribution of written noncommercial materials; activities intended to encourage and facilitate voter registration; artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations; solicitation for religious or political causes; solicitation for charities.”], and that I would continue to perform until given a summons or being arrested.

Officer Kennedy — who had given me his name and badge number on request — said he would “call a unit” to arrest me, and that in the meantime, I could speak with the station manager. I went up, called Milo to say I’d be arrested soon, and talked to the station manager. This is what I found out:

I went back downstairs to meet my fate, and shortly afterward, two more officers arrived, one in a blue shirt and one white-shirt. They conferred with Officer Kennedy, then left without talking to me. After that, I waited for a possible arrest on my platform, and Officer Kennedy waited across the tracks without saying a word. I felt about like this:

After a long period of waiting, I wanted to work or be arrested, not sit around and be scared of some pseudo-legal threat. So, I got out the violin again. Officer Kennedy waved his arms, disappeared upstairs, and came back down a minute later with a new story, this time about a non-existent permit:

Since he was back in my face, I asked what options there were at that point. He still wanted me to leave “voluntarily”, which is how the NYPD says “through intimidation and without any legal justification.” I wasn’t having it and asked again if he would proceed to arrest:

Now, I’m not sure what was said in his initial meeting with his superiors, but I think he had cold feet at this point. In any case, he called for backup a second time, and I got to talk to Officer Bastien, who asked why it was legal to play:

Strangely, his curiosity about the law seemed to evaporate when he had the chance to have a copy of the rules in his hands. He changed to a new tactic, telling me that the rules could be “overruled” in the case of a safety problem.

Here’s the second part of his explanation of why police officers can decide the law:

I understand what he was saying, but what I didn’t see was the safety problem on that platform, which I repeatedly pointed out was quite empty. He finally said that he couldn’t explain the problem since he wasn’t there when I was asked to leave, and I asked if Officer Kennedy could explain it to me again:

Check out that long pause when he’s asked if Officer Kennedy can identify a safety concern. The reason he comes up with: “He asked you to stop playing and you would not stop.” So essentially, I was performing, there was no safety concern — but when I was then asked to leave the station and refused despite intimidation, THEN there was a safety concern.

And THIS reasoning, ladies and gentlemen, justified my arrest. Just after this video, Officer Bastien walked over to his superior, Sgt. Robson. There was a ten-second conversation, then Sgt. Robson approached me, ordered me to put my hands behind my back, and had me step against the wall.

Busking log 11/07: flash mob contra at Grand Central

Today brought two new examples of the diversity and the high quality of the arts performed in the NYC transit system. (I suppose I’m preaching to the choir here — but it never hurts to remind ourselves of how broad this community is!)

  1. I had the chance to perform for a contra dance in Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall. Can’t beat the location! It was organized by local dancer as a “flash mob” event. The band and dancers were sauntering about incognito, then quickly lined up for a dance, and were gone again as soon as it ended. (Video will come soon). Passers-by greatly enjoyed the show, and although police did arrive to stop the dance, they were persuaded to hold off for a few minutes until it ended. Thanks, officers, for letting the music continue.
  2. In the 14th St tunnel from 7th to 6th Ave, Milo and I happened upon a truly, truly outstanding cellist. Of course, more than a few people perform the cello suites underground, some for practice, and some for art. But not all of them are, like this guy, Eastman School of Music graduates, and very few of them can light up a tunnel like this. Thanks, Wayne. Keep it up, and we’ll see you around!

Busking log 10/07: he plays pianoforti

I’m dead tired after a long day of commuting, busking, frisbee, and BuskNY conniving with Milo and Kalan. Three quick stories from today:

  1. 68th St Hunter College: a man approaches and says, in the thickest of Russian accents: “You play pianoforti?” “Alas, I play only the violin,” I tell him. “I play pianoforti.” I nod. There’s a pause, then a train begins to pull in. “Next time, I bring pianoforti. We play.” Rest assured, I’ll update you all immediately if (when?) this occurs.
  2. 68th St, ten minutes later: a woman tells me I remind her of “the music they played when I grew up on P.E.I.” What a great compliment! (Well, except that I was playing Irish tunes. Apparently the Iona session is having its effect on me). It’s surprising how many people have experienced traditional dance music in our hemisphere not just as “folk,” but as a living tradition. Always great to hear!
  3. 81st St: ’tis the season for kids’ summer programs, and that means the museum is filled with visiting groups. I get the most amazing reactions — imagine a stream of 40 ten-year-olds coming by, and half of them saying “wow, a violin! Can you play something?” They were on the move, unfortunately, but I played them snippets of the Bach violin sonatas, the Accolay concerto, and the cello suites, and asked which they liked best. Their group leaders kept telling them not to listen, which made me a bit glum. (“Don’t be distracted, kids!”) But then, just at the end of the last group, one group leader took a different approach. “Keep walking,” she said. “But listen!”

On public service

Who, you ask, is the least appreciated, most important worker in the NY subway? The dutiful train driver? The tireless custodian?  Or perhaps the dedicated musician?

But no! It is the humble Welch’s fruit-snack seller. And here’s why:

I have some days — perhaps you do too — where I feel so exhausted on the train that I fear never making it back to my apartment. And always, just at that moment, I am saved: for a kid shows up with a box of Welch’s fruit snacks for $1. Praise and honor him, citizens, for he serves the public good.

Yesterday, when I played at Lorimer St., I happened to set up next to one of these anonymous heroes, who must have been about 13. I asked him how he likes the job, and it turns out that we make about the same amount per day. (Though he keeps longer hours than I could with the violin!)

I launched a tune after that. And what do you know: when the train arrived, he came over and put a dollar in my case. Every once in a while, a dollar bill does kind of move you. Subway, don’t ever change!