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Street Performers Say Police Harassment is on the Upswing

CLARA GRUNNET, HOST: This is Uptown Radio, I'm Clara Grunnet.

CLARA-SOFIA DALY, HOST: And I'm Clara-Sofia Daly.

CLARA GRUNNET: For our next stop on the show, we’re going underground to the subway stations…that have been in the news a lot this year. In February, after a series of violent crimes, Mayor Adams announced a crackdown: the “Subway Safety Plan,” an initiative which includes more police on trains, and a plan to get homeless people out of stations. Now, street performers who play there, say they’re also being targeted --- even though they’re doing nothing wrong.

Julian Abraham reports.

JULIAN ABRAHAM, REPORTER: At the 168th street subway station in the Bronx, a performer who goes by the name of Baroque Barbie sits on a tiny chair playing the cello. That’s not her real name. We’re using her stage name to protect her personal safety. Baroque Barbie’s wearing something like Marie Antoinette would wear – an extravagant pink gown, and a costume wig shaped like a bee hive.

Playing cello in public is her full-time job…and her passion.

BAROQUE BARBIE, PERFORMER: “It’s been so freeing. I don’t have a boss, I don’t have co-workers, I don’t have employees. I answer only to myself and I make my own schedule. I’m doing what I love to do.”

JULIAN ABRAHAM: Baroque Barbie’s husband is also a street performer. For both of them, going to work can mean top of the usual stresses of a job, they also have to worry about getting arrested.

BAROQUE BARBIE: “My husband and I, we’ve experienced a lot of police harassment. Busking is legal, you do not need a permit. And there are a few very simple rules to follow that are very common sense."

JULIAN ABRAHAM: She’s right. According to both New York City law and the MTA, busking is legal and allowed in the subways. You don’t need a permit. There are a few regulations like not blocking foot traffic, or how loud the music can be… but Baroque Barbie doesn’t use an amp - she plays the cello.

Her music doesn’t even come close to the decibel limit, and she usually sets up in a corner so she doesn’t block foot traffic.

BAROQUE BARBIE: "And we even have them printed out – we carry the rules with us at all times, and yet, police, depending on how many people are observing, you know if there’s witnesses and everyone has a camera out, they like to try to make things very difficult for us.”

JULIAN ABRAHAM: What’s happening to Baroque Barbie is an example of what’s happening more with many street performers since Mayor Adams pledged to clean up the subways. She says police often say to her - you can’t be here, you need a permit OR, you need to be a member of MUNY: Music Under New York.


“Today We’re at Grand Central Terminal, celebrating the 25th Music Under New York auditions.”

JULIAN ABRAHAM: MUNY. It’s a program funded by the MTA. MUNY accepts a limited number of acts and schedules performances and promotion. When MUNY musicians play, they look like any other act, except they get a pink sign that says Music Under New York. But, It’s not necessary to be a MUNY member to perform in the subways. The Street performers I spoke with say it’s almost a cliche at this point for the police and MTA to make this error, mistaking MUNY membership as some sort of a legal permit.

And, they appear to have made the same mistake in an email to Uptown Radio.

“The MTA sponsors the very popular “Music Under New York” program that allows musicians to play throughout the subway system”

If you didn’t catch that, that was an MTA spokesperson incorrectly stating that MUNY allows musicians to play in the subway when really anyone can. When asked to clarify, the MTA declined further comment.

Busking was not always legal. in the 1930s, the New York mayor at the time, Fiorello La Guardia, banned busking in all forms.

Though illegal, it was often not enforced - like jaywalking. And busking became an important form of protest in the 60s.. against the Vietnam War.

In 1985 – a landmark city-court case, People v Manning, ruled that the ban was unconstitutional – and that busking was a protected form of free speech – even in the subways. Fast forward to this year…Mayor Eric Adams made a promise to make subways safer…hoping to ease New Yorkers’ fear.

ERIC ADAMS, NYC MAYOR: "I hear it every time I'm on the subway system, people tell me about their fear of using the system. And we’re going to ensure that that fear is not New York’s reality.”

JULIAN ABRAHAM: The mayor’s plan includes removing homeless people from the subway/stations… But some street performers say they feel as though they’re being swept up and Thrown in the same category.

AARON GAMMAN, PERFORMER: “I’ve had cops tell me that I’m nothing more than a beggar”

JULIAN ABRAHAM: Aaron Gamman makes a living playing music. We’re standing upstairs in the VIP section at Busker Ball, a battle of the bands for buskers. We’re in a warehouse sized bar, and as we’re talking we have to keep ducking against the wall because people in giant clown costumes are trying to get through.

Gamman says he’s noticed more police harassment since Mayor Adams announcement

AARON GAMMAN: “Recently, they’ve just been more concerned about street musicians.”

JULIAN ABRAHAM: Gamman is Black, and he says this makes the stakes feel higher when he’s approached by cops.

AARON GAMMAN: “I guess it is different from like a white person, because now I actually have to be like ‘my life might be on the line’ because of you know playing music in the street somewhere. So it’s super stressful just to even think about.”

JULIAN ABRAHAM: Standing nearby, leaning against an Ikea bookshelf lined with tequila shots in red plastic cups is Sean Carey. He’s not a musician, but performs his own type of act in the subway.

SEAN CAREY, PERFORMER: “I am a poet. So I write poems for people on the spot. I set up with a table and a little sign and a typewriter, and people will come up and request poems on different subjects.”

JULIAN ABRAHAM: He says the problem with cops isn’t limited to musicians… but extends to other performers like him. Just this year, he says he’s had two interactions with police and was kicked out of the Union Square station both times.

SEAN CAREY: “And I was speaking with another musician, and they told me that this was a response to some of the crime that had taken place in the subway and that the cops for whatever reason, were cracking down on performers in order to try and under the premise of making things safer”

JULIAN ABRAHAM: We reached out to the Mayor’s office and the NYPD and asked about incidents of subway performers being arrested or ticketed incorrectly. But neither responded to a request for comment.

Nearby, Justin Sight is standing on a tiny balcony, overlooking the stage. He’s performing a magic trick for a cheerful couple who are really impressed.t JUSTIN SIGHT, PERFORMER" “Time will appear to stop…”

JULIAN ABRAHAM: In this trick, Sight somehow makes black ink appear on the couples’ hands, even though he’s a about yard away from them.

Right after…they book him on the spot for a private show this weekend.

Sight says he’s had a couple of run-ins with police, especially in the Times Square station. He had to go to court. The ticket was thrown out, but it had a chilling effect…Sight says he never went back.

Since then, he says he makes most of his living playing in parks, and booking private shows. No more magic for subway riders.

Julian Abraham, Columbia Radio News.

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