Ramón fights and wins in Grand Central

This is Ramón Peña. He’s from Puerto Rico, he’s got pipes — and he’s also one of the bravest subway performers we’ve met.

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I met Ramón in Grand Central between the 456 and shuttle, as he was being ejected. ‘Ejected’ is a funny word: in Ramón’s case, it means that two police officers were requesting him to immediately exit the subway system, with the alternative being arrest. Yes — because he was singing.

Ramón wasn’t having it. He got the police to specify further: they said a call had been made to them by the station agent, and that any responsibility for the ejection was with the MTA, not them.

Ramón took them at their word. Together with me and Yuri, a friend of his, he went out to the station booth. The station agent didn’t back up the cops: to the contrary, he said, Ramón was just making music, and that hurts no one. (I admire him, but he was adamant that his identity not be publicized).

He did, however, direct Ramón to his higher-up, the station supervisor. We waited.

The station supervisor eventually arrived, and began to run us through a list of excuses. Ramón isn’t in MUNY, he said, and wasn’t in the MUNY spot [neither of these things are legal requirements], and couldn’t he just move, and would we please turn off the camera.

We didn’t.

Ultimately, the station manager talked himself into a corner. He accepted that Ramón had the right to play, but insisted that the MTA required him to call the police over any complaint, even a wrongful one. (I asked whether he would use his discretion on any complaint — he said no — and whether he would call the police if a rider complained, quote, “that I was gay.” He said he would).

Still, he had agreed that Ramón was cleared by the rules. Ramón asked if there was any objection to his performing an encore, and there wasn’t. He reclaimed his spot, and this is what we heard:

Power changes everything, indeed, Ramón. Keep telling ’em, and keep ALL music alive beneath New York!

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Performer arrested at Metropolitan Avenue

BuskNY and the performing community were disturbed to learn of a new wrongful arrest. A longtime, well-loved performer was arrested early this morning at Metropolitan Avenue, a key station for Brooklyn performers. Fortunately, he was well-prepared: a copy of the rules of conduct was in play, and the full arrest was documented on video:

BuskNY is preparing a public response to this arrest. Please reach out if you would like to be updated. We thank this performer for standing up to the undocumented and ungrounded ejections that occur daily in New York City — and we believe, as always, that the end of wrongful ejection, ticketing, and arrest is in sight.

Busker Ball VIII

BuskNY was proud to speak at Busker Ball 8, a showcase for the city’s most vibrant freelance performers, on Thursday. Under the direction of Theo Eastwind, the latest Busker Ball brought its focus to activism, criticizing the wrongful ejections, tickets, and arrests that have plagued the NYC subway performing community.

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Grace Kalambay performs

BuskNY spoke and displayed the banner we used for our rally at City Hall, and the audience also heard a recorded update on buskers’ rights from Nick Broad of the Busking Project.

Performers included Lawrence Wilson, Eli Bridges and Ken Shoji, Theo Eastwind, Grace Kalambay, Cathie Russo, and Mr. Reed.

Is 2014 the end of subway dancing?

Update 4/30: this story has gone around the media in the last 24 hours, and meaningfulpositive coverage is streaming in. Maybe New York loves Showtime — is that why the dancers are still there? Join the debate on Twitter under #WarOnShowtime. BuskNYers, let’s give a voice to performers who are popular, who are iconic, and who most of all do not deserve to be saddled with misdemeanor records.

Since the beginning of the ‘subway crackdown‘ this year, arrests of performers on trains have skyrocketed. Some of these arrests have occurred to musicians, and in one case, even to clowns charged with offering nuts to riders. But the brunt of the arrests have targeted one of the most vulnerable groups in the subway: train dancers.

Official numbers have recently come in, and they are bleak. According to a New York Post report, 46 performers have been arrested. Worse, those performers — all 46 — have been charged not with a violation of the MTA Rules, but with reckless endangerment.

Are these dancers in fact reckless hooligans? Far from it. It’s clear that train performers view their work as positive: they highlight that dancing has given them opportunities for success, and that they engage subway riders with optimism and enthusiasm. What’s more, dancers’ broad support among riders is reflected — even if the MTA pays no heed to this statistic — in the outpouring of contributions they receive. 

Nonetheless, under Bratton’s explicit directions against dancers, the NYPD has taken the shortest route to criminalization. Ignoring MTA guidelines entirely, police have charged all 46 with misdemeanor reckless endangerment rather than an MTA violation, citing the narrow distance between their performance and subway riders.

In light of the NYPD’s close focus on this art form, two questions should be raised. First, why have the police targeted, among all other subway entertainment, the tradition most practiced by young minority men? Is it possible that the crackdown is coming from the “new system where the MTA shares riders’ complaints with the police,” as reported by the Post? The implication is that Bratton’s subway policy is driven, not by a rational understanding of public safety, but by a witchhunt against those performers perceived to be ‘most annoying.’ If those subway riders most likely to file official MTA complaints also happen to be opposed to manifestations of popular culture, it seems that the police won’t hesitate to assuage their worries, even if it means creating 46 criminal records.

Second, what can explain the decision to charge these performers with misdemeanor reckless endangerment? Was it not appropriate to charge them, far more cogently, with a violation of MTA rules? In the stark absence of actual evidence of dancers causing accidents, the highly theoretical choice of reckless endangerment means the NYPD believes this tradition to be so strong that it requires special means. And for once, they’re right. Summonses alone cannot stop one of the longest-running and most emblematic forms of artistic expression in the MTA.

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NYC may diss its train performers often, but it loves them too. That’s why they’re there: they’re popular. That the NYPD has chosen to escalate the fight against artistic performance into a sustained campaign of misdemeanor charges speaks to an attitude that has given up on community policing long ago. And that means the fight isn’t lost yet.

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.