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.

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“They are disbanding my family”: NYPD crackdown continues

Nick Malinowski, a civil liberties activist who’s been an active opponent of Bill Bratton’s return to ‘Broken Windows’ policing, recently interviewed Heidi Kole, a long-term busker and busking proponent, over at Alternet.

Image: littleny/Shutterstock

It’s an in-depth interview that gives an inside perspective on the crackdown and its effects on the performing community. Good weekend reading, and a required text for folks reporting on the effects of the #WarOnShowtime. Check it out here.

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.

7/30: Voice from the blogs: our theoretical protection

One online commenter, writing at Norman LeBrecht’s blog Slipped Disc, had this to say :

“The big problem here is that the NYPD is NOT enforcing the law. In fact the law protects the violinist’s actions. He is being intimidated for no real reason. I have had similar experiences, being threatened by MTA employees etc. When busking I always avoided being arrested, simply because I couldn’t afford the time and money that would go into defending myself, and because I was afraid my instrument would be harmed in the process. The police count on the threat of mistreatment to frighten most buskers into cooperation with their whims — it’s nothing to do with obedience to the law. The police are the ones ignoring the rule of law here.”

He said it better than I can.  We hear the same from other performers: harassment is a regular phenomenon. Further, musicians feel disempowered to fight it, particularly when police will neither read the rules nor create any form of documentation of their harassment short of cuffing us and hauling us away. How can you fight a station eviction later when you were asked to leave verbally? Which agency investigates complaints based on a verbal record? And when an insistence on getting some measly scrap of official paper in order to lodge a complaint leads, as it did in my video, to arrest and detention, will we insist that every performer also be an activist, have a practical knowledge of arrest procedure, wear a sweater to protect against the cold in jail, and have a fund ready to replace his or her instrument? Are those the criteria in order to benefit from the protection of the law in NYC? We are sick and tired of this theoretical law, sick and tired.