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.

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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.

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.

7/28: What I learned yesterday

Yesterday brought us an article in Gothamist, a flurry of discussion on Twitter and Facebook, and thousands of views between here and YouTube. Here’s what I learned:

1. New Yorkers love their music, and they want their musicians protected. Response to the story was overwhelmingly supportive and affirmative of the power and importance of public music.

2. New Yorkers have seen musicians harassed and arrested. I read through a lot of comments, and let me tell you, I’m not the first musician that these readers have seen escorted out of a station. Why doesn’t that news spread? Because there’s no central forum to share it — and we’re working to change that.

3. New Yorkers love their music — but they don’t always know it’s legal. Many comments from supporters still expressed unsureness or confusion about the rules. And that haziness in the public consciousness translates into a haziness in police practice, which results in harassment, summonses, and arrests. Let’s fix that: New York, Music is Legal!

Printing the “Music is Legal!” shirts

The shirts arrived Thursday evening, and since I only had two days available to print them before losing access to my studio space (and I’m spending Sunday helping to install my show at the Painting Center), we had to rush to get them done.

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135 t-shirts

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Printing the first shirt.

With only two people, it took seven or eight hours to finish the front side of all 135 shirts.

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We started with the pink shirts.

My cousin Zeke took a detour into the city on his way up the Appalachian Trail, and he offered to help us print the backs. With his help, we finished them in four hours.

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And he bought us food!

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The print shop’s mustachioed Pratt Cat, who is most often found sleeping in the paper guillotine’s scrap bin, visited us in the silkscreen lab.

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About half of the finished shirts.

Matthew and Kalan will start distributing them to subway performers this week. Remember: Music is Legal!

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.

13/07: Kickstarter

Hi all! It’s time to FUNDRAISE. Here’s why:

Performers have been in the MTA for over a hundred years, and have been legal since 1985.

But many station managers, police officers, and passers-by don’t know that we’re legal. Consequently, of the hundred-odd performers I’ve talked to, almost everyone has been made to leave a station by police, and more than a few have been handcuffed and taken away — for playing music!

We believe one of the best ways to address this is by getting the word out there: Music is Legal! But how do you communicate that information to five million daily riders, thousands of police, and hundreds of station managers?

Well, fortunately, there are hundreds of us. So here’s our idea: we make t-shirts like this one:

IMG_0167Then we give one to every performer, for free, and ask them to play once a week with the shirt. We’re sure it’ll reach millions of MTA riders. Can you imagine a subway where police and station managers celebrate music? We think it’s possible.

Do you want to help make this a reality? Go to our Kickstarter project, “Music is Legal!,” and make a pledge. When we meet our funding goal, we’ll make 100 of these shirts — and you’ll receive one as a reward.

And please: help spread the word by linking to the project or to this post.  Have a question or a suggestion? Contact us!