When my oldest son was a newborn, I remember riding the subway with the baby carriage and an unflinching paternal instinct to protect him. Around this same time, I started noticing the "Showtime" b-boys and acrobats pop up on trains now and then. They'd clear the aisle and would generally steer clear of my son's carriage. I remember because I appreciated that -- and appreciated the show. Over the years as they went from dancing and rolling down the train car to more elaborate moves, like flips and somersaults, I never felt a threat to either my son or myself. If anything, as times got tough, I tipped them more.
That was almost a decade ago. My son turns 10 in October. In that time I've witnessed the subway become a makeshift stage for all sorts of performers: African drummers, Doo-Wop singers, hip-hop violinists, poets and Mariachi bands, to name a few. Some of those acts were impressive, so I gave them a few dollars. Some weren't, so I didn't. Then there were the religious proselytizing types whose sermons informed us we were all going to hell for our sins. Those were harder to stomach, but I sat through it. Most of us did. We're thick-skinned New Yorkers, right?
This year, the once-and-again police commissioner, Bill Bratton, has cracked down all sorts of his usual targets -- panhandlers, vendors -- as part of his decades-old "Broken Windows" schtick. You remember Broken Windows, the theory that focuses on low-level crimes as a way of preventing bigger crime. Lord knows that the Mexican woman selling Churros left unchecked can only mean a crime wave down the line, right?
Well Bratton has been steadily focusing his hawkish gaze at subway performers -- acrobats in particular -- lately. The crackdowns were spiking back in the spring but now we have the numbers, and they're pretty revealing of the priorities down at 1 Police Plaza: the NYPD has arrested 240 performers in the first six months of this year compared to 40 during the same span last year -- a five-fold increase.
But what was the impetus to the underground police squeeze? It seems that no one, including a highly-cited Associated Press piece, can find any actual reported incidents of onlookers getting hurt -- which seems to be the prevailing argument against the high-flying acrobats. The since-closed Spiderman Broadway musical might have had more actual reported injuries.
The Daily News summed up some of the support for the crackdowns -- if there is in fact sizable public support for dancers being handcuffed and throw in jail over backflips and a boombox (Note: there is no indication that Bratton has seen Michael Jackson's "Bad" video or that he's sending extra cops to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station). In a July 8th article subtitled "In Praise of Bratton's Crackdowns", the News' Harry Siegel writes:
... performing and panhandling on trains are banned precisely because riders are a captive audience. And acrobatic acts, with bodies spinning around poles on packed, moving trains are particularly problematic.
To be completely clear, based strictly on a law and order argument, Siegel is correct. Performing and panhandling (putting aside the image of the poor and the homeless being led out in handcuffs for the high crime of asking for a buck) is banned. I guess one could make a similarly black-and-white argument for support of a crackdown on littering or jaywalking -- which happened -- but this issue really goes beyond that. Where our city decides to pick its fights is a political question, not simply a legal one. And by Siegel's admission, no one has been hurt -- so the premise for the ban (one hinging on safety concerns) rings somewhat hollow.
So why focus on acrobats? Why focus on one 'quality-of-life' issue and not another? The commissioner has pointed to complaints from passengers. I'm sure there are complaints aplenty. A lot of them likely coming from the section of ridership that shares in commissioner Bratton's disdain for 'disorder' and street culture. Bratton says he can't stand seeing graffiti on his commute to Long Island. Why should he be exposed to street culture on his drive to his second home in the Hamptons? But as one acrobat told me, however many number of people are complaining, there are plenty of people tipping performers -- and supporting the risky business in way of dollars.
Perhaps, then, the question is also cultural. George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, co-authors of the famous 1982 Atlantic Monthly article often credited with birthing the Broken Windows theory, wrote that the theory targets the "disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people." Wilson's book, Varieties of Police Behavior, expands:
The teenager hanging out on a street corner late at night, especially one dressed in an eccentric manner, a Negro wearing a 'conk rag'... girls in short skirts and boys in long hair parked in a flashy car talking loudly to friends on the curb, or interracial couples -- all of these are seen by many police officers as persons displaying unconventional and improper behavior.
But if we're talking about cultural breakdowns -- the reason I enjoy and support b-boying on my commute but the older white guy two seats over might not, for example -- then we're also talking race. Recently, the Nation's Mychal Denzel Smith followed up an earlier blog criticizing the crackdowns as tantamount to a "criminalization of black youth." Farfetched, right? The NYPD criminalizing young black men. Siegel had pointed to Smith's blog as Progressivism gone wild. In his most recent entry, Smith responded to Siegel and reiterated his argument: "We are continuing to police black bodies under the guise of public safety, but all we do is criminalize otherwise benign behaviors and punish black youth."
Of course he's right, but the war of words between the writers was still largely absent the voices of the performers themselves (although Siegel claims to have spoken with a few).
I had a chance to speak with a subway performer named Besnkheru (quoted sparsely in the AP story). He has been arrested for performing before, most recently the night after I spoke with him. He says:
They say by arresting these performers [it] will be a way to stop bigger crimes. Really, by arresting these performers -- which in some cases this is their only outlet to make money -- [they] may look to crime... How can people think that jail is the answer for everything? There are 8 million people in this city; there are not 8 million jobs so if someone creates a way to earn a living, they criminalize it. There is no outlet for the youths, for their talent; but there is a jail.
Hmmm. Sounds like more of that zany Progressive stuff.
Heidi Kole, a busker whose singing and guitar-playing doesn't pose the risks associated with acrobats, has been arrested and harassed by cops before, but she says it's reached a boiling point under Bratton:
The performers have been moved on, arrested, ticketed and charged with the crime of self-expression. It's a very sad, bleak and lonely place underground since the new police chief, Bratton's entrance. Every day now when I go under I get either questioned or ticketed, or worse. It's a scary place underground right now with hundreds of NYPD officers cuffing dozens of people, one after another on a Friday night like tonight. TImes Square has become one huge perp walk. It's a freaky, freaky scene. There is no music, no dance, no laughter, no art. There is only the loud rumble of metal on metal of screeching brakes interspersed with NYPD announcements over the loudspeaker of what to be 'afraid' of.
When Bratton 'cleaned up' Times Square and made Squeegee men public enemy number one in the '90s, he also presided over the police department when crime began to plummet. Ever since then, Bratton, champion of Broken Windows, has been celebrated as a crime-fighting guru. But crime went down all across America -- including places that didn't subscribe to Broken Windows. With Bratton apparently coronating acrobats the Squeegee men of 2014, nuisance-based policing is trying to find a place for itself in New York.
Ultimately it doesn't seem to make sense at any level. Arresting young, talented, entrepreneurial (predominantly) Black and Latino kids doesn't carry with it the implication that without it we're risking a violence epidemic -- like Bloomberg's rationale for Stop and Frisk (which had its cheerleaders in the public and the media; and still does) went. Heavy-handed policing, which extends beyond acrobats and onto platforms (where it is generally legal to perform), has already cost city taxpayers cash settlements as performers have begun to file lawsuits. Tourists love performers -- so its unlikely that an NYC scrubbed of musicians and artists will fit into the city's tourist-friendly economic models.
Recently I met with Heidi, Besnkheru and a few acrobats wary of giving names, citing fear of the police. We talked about alternatives to Bratton''s approach. Besnkheru told me that the MTA's Music Under New York program, which holds auditions, grants permits and designates locations, can't accommodate the number of performers vying for performance space. The audition program closed in March but he explained that subway cars are simply more lucrative, anyway -- which explains why people will still risk arrest.
Ultimately that may be the bottom line. The performers aren't going anywhere. The acrobats, largely young people of color and possibly from low-income communities in the city, will likely keep dancing and flipping in the face of 'super-cop' Bratton's clampdowns. The celebrity-commissioner rarely backs down publicly either. Some of the organizers are organizing to publicly pushback against the arrests. They have my support. And I suspect they'll enjoy the support of a lot of New York, too.