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The Equity Factor

New York’s Transit Authority and NYPD Need to Talk About Busking

U.S. cities continue to struggle with policing sound.

(All photos by Vic Vaiana)

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As programming urban public spaces with events and music continues to grow as a priority for the people managing parks and plazas, U.S. cities continue to struggle with policing sound.

Over the summer, New York’s crackdowns on performers made national headlines, and clashes between police and artists haven’t abated.

On Tuesday, New York City’s busking community converged for a demonstration in the mezzanine of Williamsburg’s Lorimer-Metropolitan subway stop, above the platform where musician Andrew Kalleen was arrested while busking at 1:30 a.m. last Friday. As Kalleen filed a wrongful arrest complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the demonstrators gathered in front of the stop’s police station.

Before his arrest, Kalleen argued with the police officer and told him that Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Rules of Conduct Section 1050.6c stated his right to perform in the space. The skeptical officer fact-checked this on his smartphone, and read aloud the ordinance in question. Kalleen cited the following video as proof of the officer’s misconduct:

“Except as expressly permitted in this subdivision, no person shall engage in any nontransit uses upon any facility or conveyance. Nontransit uses are noncommercial activities that are not directly related to the use of a facility or conveyance for transportation. 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”

BuskNY’s Matthew Christian, who organized the rally, says that NYPD officers are often ignorant about the MTA’s guidelines regarding public performance, resulting in frequent unwarranted arrests. Christian, who has also been arrested while busking, believes that it is up to buskers to assert the legality of their performances, stating, “If you don’t advocate for yourself, no one is there to advocate for you, institutionally.”

Christian explains that many commuters mistake the MTA’s Music Under New York for a permit-granting body, while it merely provides financial and logistical support for artists in the program. This misconception implies to subway riders that artists without a MUNY banner are performing illegally, thus emboldening officers to act outside of their authority.

The NYPD adheres to a state law, which says entertainers can be arrested for loitering in a transportation facility unless authorized to be there. The MTA’s ordinance implicitly authorizes all performers who stay within the given guidelines. Unfortunately, the NYPD and MTA seem disinterested in clarifying the ordinance to each other and the public. Christian hopes that publicizing the laws will lead to their proper enforcement — and a dialogue between the MTA and NYPD.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Vic Vaiana is a photographer based in Queens, NY. He graduated with a degree in film and media studies from Swarthmore College. He shoots artists and musicians in the subways, on the street and in bars throughout New York City.

Tags: new york cityarts and culturepolicesubways

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