1985-95: Forgotten history of activism

On Thursday, BuskNY and City Lore will host an evening of songs and stories in a first commemoration of the 1985 case People v Manning, the first to explicitly provide constitutional protection to New York City’s subway performers.

But though Manning was a crucial step forward for performers, it was far from a definitive legalization. The preparation for this program has led us across a trove of documents that reveal a story of legalization more complex and more hard-fought than what is often told. This post will seek to rectify the paucity of information on that era by presenting a few of the performers, activists, and original documents that shaped the period.


The chapter of subway history most familiar to today’s performers is the 1985 case People v. Manning. In that case, “punk-folk vagabond” guitarist Roger Manning contested tickets he received, in the spring of 1985, under the then-current MTA regulation 1051.3, which forbade riders to “entertain passengers by singing, dancing or playing any musical instrument.”

The original People v Manning summons

The original People v Manning summons

In the first case where constitutional protection was explicitly granted to subway performance, the court found in his favor, establishing rule 1051.3 as “unconstitutionally violative of the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” relying on NYCLU lawyer Art Eisenberg’s citation of previous First Amendment protection in the 1968 case People v St Clair:

People v Manning, 1985

People v Manning, 1985

In her decision, Judge Diane Lebedeff notes that the NYCTA “amended its regulation concerning disorderly conduct effective June 14, 1985.” In that amendment, in which the modern-day rule 1050.6 was created, the TA “no longer place[d] a prohibition on any kind of entertainment.” In other words, in the nick of time before the release of the Manning decision, the TA had already removed its explicit restriction on performance.

Still, in practical terms, People v. Manning and the accompanying rules change left the subway little safer for most performers. Summonses continued to be written, not only on pretexts like blocking traffic, but also under the new 1050.6(b) ban on “solicit[ing] money for goods, services or entertainment.” Although performers accepted donations rather than soliciting them, this nuance was lost on MTA agents — and on police as well.

Worse, the MTA attempted to describe membership in the new program Music Under New York as a legal requirement:

1985 MUNY "permit"

1985 MUNY “permit”

Enter Lloyd Carew-Reid, an Australian-born classical guitarist who chose to contest the MTA’s summonses. Carew-Reid’s fight stuck, both legally and in the public eye. Ultimately, the MTA was forced, according to a January 30, 1987 AP article, “to put a moratorium on issuing summonses” to subway performers. (Later, in 1989, it would issue the new rule 1050.6(c), recently publicized during the arrest of Andrew Kalleen, which for the first time explicitly stated that “artistic performance, including the acceptance of donations” was permitted).

Carew-Reid in NY Post, 1987

Carew-Reid in NY Post, 1987

For this reason, Carew-Reid argued in performer and journalist Stephen Witt’s long-running column The Street Singer’s Beat circa 1989, “Roger [Manning]’s case [only] brought on a new law, ‘No entertainment for the purpose of soliciting’. My case actually changed the policy. That’s why for the last two years, nobody has been ticketed.” In a word, then, 1987 saw the practical legalization of performance as the MTA ceased to systematically issue tickets; 1989 would then see explicit allowance of busking, under 1050.6 (c).

Carew-Reid, featured in The Street Singer's Beat

Carew-Reid, featured in The Street Singer’s Beat

Carew-Reid and his advocacy organization, Subway Troubadours Against Repression (STAR), went on, in a historical series of public hearings, to successfully fight a proposed rules change banning performance on platforms. STAR also fought a ban on amplifiers on the platforms, arguing that the rights of those performers whose genres inherently involve amplification were being violated. (This argument resulted in a stay against the amplifier ban by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, but was ultimately rejected. Amplifiers remain banned on the platform, but are permitted on the mezzanine level).

Following STAR’s lengthy fight to protect performers, the gap was filled, in the late 1990s, by the Street Performers Advocacy Project, which emerged from the pioneering academic work of Susie Tanenbaum. SPAP produced a written pamphlet to advise performers of their rights, and informed countless more through a widely-cited online resource, the Know Your Rights guide.Underground Harmonies

Still, despite these decades of advocacy, the safety of subway performers remains precarious. Due to inaccurate media coverage of Music Under New York auditions, which erroneously suggest MUNY membership to be a legal requirement or “permit,” performers continue to be wrongfully ejected, ticketed, and even arrested.

Subway performers rally at City Hall, August 2014

Subway performers rally at City Hall, August 2014

As one such arrestee, I have channeled my experience into co-founding BuskNY, which has spoken out for threatened performers. Others, including  Erik Meier and Andrew Kalleen, have spoken out, with Kalleen’s video alone reaching 1.5 million viewers online.

The most recent chapter of subway performance history has thus seen greater attention brought to the legality of performance — and, we hope, a move toward the definitive end of the oppression fought by Manning, Carew-Reid, STAR, SPAP, and many more.

10 Favorite NYPD Quotes on Busking

Heidi Kole posted this brilliant list today at the Subway Diaries. BuskNY has tacked on a couple at the bottom — anyone care to add further?
1. “Oh those rules, yeah I know all about those rules, we don’t care about the rules.”
2. “What rules?”
3. “Heidi, I thought we had an agreement? You wouldn’t sing & I wouldn’t bother you?”
copsupbway
4. “Oh that that First Amendment thing again, we’ve heard of that, it doesn’t matter, you’re still getting a ticket.”

5. (Lean in & Whispered) “This platform is actually a terrorist target”

6. “Technically you’re not doing anything illegal, but you still can’t do it.”
7. “I’m gonna give you a ticket ’cause my supervisor wants to see I’m doing something useful, but once I”m gone you can start singing again.”

8. “Have you ever thought of conforming?”
9. “Don’t start getting rulezy with me.”
10. “I AM THE LAW!” (For proper pronunciation, lean on that first ‘a’ for a bit).

 

 

2014 MUNY Auditions

Yesterday, Music Under New York held its 27th annual auditions in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall. About 20 acts out of the 60 contestants will be chosen by a panel of 35 judges to be added to the MUNY roster. The auditions lasted five minutes each over the course of about six hours, and winners will be announced within the next few weeks.

muny 003muny 013

We asked MUNY manager Lydia Bradshaw to make sure the legality of freelance busking was mentioned during this year’s auditions. Kalan and I attended the first few hours of the auditions to find out if our requests had been honored as well as to see some of the performances, and MUNY turned out to be quite supportive of our cause. We were unexpectedly invited into the press area where we found that MUNY had included a highlighted copy of MTA rule 1050.6 in the press packets for the event.

rules

Every reporter covering the auditions has one of these.

We stuck around to see the first 20 performers, and I managed to get close enough to get clear shots of most of them:


Based on some of the articles we’ve seen so far, not every member of the press has actually read everything in the packet, since some still conflate MUNY membership with a general busking license. BuskNY has been largely successful, however, when asking the authors of such articles to make corrections. If only informing the NYPD and general public that busking is legal were that easy!

muny 018

Megan Gillis rolling her xylophone out after a really excellent performance.

But back to the auditions themselves: we’ll be looking forward to finding out who wins, and hope to run into all sixty of the contestants performing in the subway soon.

Regarding Charity

Hello everyone, my name is Arthur Medrano. I am a contributor on this blog and a fellow busker. I am hoping to inform you today about the nature of charity.

Busking in the subway today is a very hard job. Performers often play over a lot of noise and conversation. Sometimes, they are ignored and often go hours without making a ton of money, but if you’re like me, you love what you do and you keep coming back. The nature of buskers is to bring as much culture back into the city as possible while netting a few bucks to help pay for their stay. However, this often seems like an insurmountable task. There have been days where I’ve felt like I’m only worth what I’m making and at times, yes, it was $2 per 2 hours of playing. Still, it’s not a reflection of my talent or anything that I bring to the craft, it’s a reflection of the people around me.

A few weeks ago, I was playing on a subway platform in lower Manhattan and I wasn’t doing too hot for the first 45 minutes. I stuck it out though because I figured there’d be someone out there who would appreciate what I was doing. Those days, I played in a similar area and I saw a man who’d come every day at the same time to pick through the trash. He was homeless. He carried around bags of his belongings and often he’d score some grub from the trash can. Well, as I played, I saw a man approach the homeless man with an apparent look of concern. He fished through his wallet and pulled out two ones. The homeless man humbly refused the money. The man looked surprised, but instead of looking to me as I was playing, he put the money back in his wallet and walked off.

Although I was performing, I could feel my jaw just drop. I was unable to process the context of the situation with its relation to my situation. That man, who was willing to give money to a homeless person, refused to give money to a busker who was in proximity of this situation.

Now, if you’ll understand me correctly, buskers are not rich people. Most of the buskers that I know supplement their income with the money they make from playing. A few buskers manage to pay their rent and live frugally with their winnings. Still, there is a divide which many people cannot see – without that supplementary income, many buskers would have to give up their passions so that they could provide just enough to get by.

Busking isn’t ordinary. It’s extraordinary. It has the power to change people’s minds and shape how they feel for the rest of the day. Why is it that people aren’t aware that buskers deserve to be paid for sharing their passions?

If you see a busker, do me a favor, go up to them and at least talk to them. Busking can be an alienating venture, but if more people are wiling to engage performers not just with donations, but with words, we would be better off and maybe we wouldn’t have to worry where that next dollar is coming from.

Disobeying: letter from the front lines

I recently got this email from a friend and fellow performer about an incident at the 53rd St mezzanine. I immediately knew I had to share it, not for the nice things she says about our work, but because her description of what’s involved emotionally in standing up to a wrongful order from a police officer is spot-on. I’ve been in her shoes, I know how scary this is, and I’m glad she got it on paper:

“Just a note to let you know how empowered [BuskNY] makes buskers feel. At one time we had no one to stand along with us when we were harassed by policemen.

I had an incident tonight that went over pretty well.  Once again, I was singing at 53rd Lexington, (Upstairs on the mezzanine where MUNY performers are scheduled). This is the exact same place I received the first ticket and summons.  Well, to make a long story short, everything was going quite nicely until an officer walked up to me and said, “You have five more minutes and then you wrap it up. I’m at this station now.”  My response was why did I have to leave.  He told me it was because I did not have a permit. I then informed him that I had a right to perform on that mezzanine without a permit and that Tim Higginbotham of MUNY told me to contact him whenever a policeman approached me about that location.  Well, the officer did not want to hear it and told me when he came back he wanted me to be gone. I told him I had the same problem with Officer Valdez because he was not informed that performers had a right to play at that station. I told him that if I were to be ticketed that I would sue this time.  He said, “do what you want but you have to leave.”

I was so angry but I thought about my equipment. A performer told me that the police took his equipment away from him and he never got it  back. But as I began packing up I thought about BuskNY and suddenly felt empowered. I refused to leave. I continued singing. All the while I imagined officers around me, handcuffing and taking me away. Yes, I was prepared for that. I had made up my mind that no matter what the officer or officers said to me that I was going to ignore them and just keep singing.

After about an hour, the officer came back upstairs, saw me singing and walked past me mumbling, “you’ve been here well over an hour now.”  BUT he did not bother me. I think it helped when I called the officer’s name that ticketed me the first time but also…I made sure to tell him that I was going to put in a lawsuit. I felt it was something I was able to do easily with BuskNY.

I just wanted to share this story with you and let you know once again how wonderful it is to know that someone and something ‘has your back’ as a performer. It’s tough enough giving the best you have of your talent while most people just walk past you without giving what you do a thought, less lone being hassled by policemen.  Your courage has given me courage.”

Performers are wrongfully ordered around by police every day in this city, and standing up to that problem means putting our equipment, our livelihood, our physical freedom, and our safety on the line. It’s scary, it’s very real, and it’s just not going to happen if no one has performers’ backs with legal tips, paperwork, model cases, and moral support. For one, I’m glad we’re doing the work we do.

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!

 

8/21: Big city bubbles

Update 8/22: David Everitt-Carlson reminds us of the consequences of the recent changes to NYC Parks rules:

“If he’s taking donations the Parks Dept. now considers that illegal in [Central Park], Union Square, The High Line and Battery and could summons him – unless he’s on a medallion and using a 3′X8′ table with nothing else on the ground.”

When you ban public art, you are banning this man and his bubbles. Bet you feel accomplished right now, rule-writers.

Original post: Popped up for air at Union Square with Milo this week, and who was there but this guy:

Bubble picture

I’ll be darned if those bubbles weren’t the most beautiful thing I’ve seen all week. And do you ever see New Yorkers smile like that?