A couple dozen subway performers gathered at the Metropolitan Avenue subway station in Williamsburg yesterday to protest what they say is illegal harassment by the NYPD. Gathered steps from an NYPD station house on the mezzanine level, performers, activists, and two NYC Councilmembers implored the NYPD to educate officers on the MTA's rules of conduct, which does in fact permit "artistic performances."

"We're not asking for the laws to be changed here," Councilmember Steve Levin said. "The existing law is here to protect us. If this is 'broken windows,' I want no part of it." Levin also revealed that he tried to be a subway performer many years ago, before beginning his life as a public servant. "Nothing is more New York than our street performers. This is New York culture. To deny that is to deny who we are as New Yorkers."

The rally was organized after the arrest of guitarist Andrew Kalleen over the weekend at the same subway station. Kalleen was performing on the G platform when an officer ordered him to disperse. Their ensuing debate was captured on video, and shows the officer reading the MTA's rules of conduct out loud, including the part that states that artistic performances of this nature are permitted. Then he arrests Kalleen anyway.

Kalleen filed a formal complaint with the CCRB yesterday and said he's considering suing "whoever is responsible." After the rally, Kalleen told us that he was detained for five and a half hours at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street Station. Though he was initially told by officers he'd be processed at Central Booking and be forced to spend the night in jail, Kalleen says his arresting officer changed the charge to loitering after he realized he'd have to drive Kalleen downtown himself.

"I knew when the cop walked up I was going to be arrested," Kalleen says, adding that the last time an officer confronted him while performing he regretted not refusing to leave. "The world watches New York. This is not the message we want to send to the world."

BuskNY, a group that advocates on behalf of subway performers, urged NYPD brass to issue a memo to NYPD precincts elucidating the rules of conduct for the subway. The group distributed a proposed memo listing facts officers should be aware of, such as "no permit is required to perform in subway stations or on subway platforms," the "MTA allows all performers to accept donations," and "Music Under New York banners are not a legal requirement to perform."

The MTA's Music Under New York [MUNY] program has, for almost three decades, made it easier for some subway performers to work in the system, while making it harder for other performers who are invariably chased away by ignorant cops who fail to realize that the MUNY permit is not required by law. (Disclosure: I once protested MUNY after I was prohibited from auditioning for a MUNY permit, and was also arrested by the NYPD while performing in the subway as a "silver man.")

Asked about the complications indirectly caused by MUNY, Matthew Christian, a volunteer organizer for BuskNY, says, "While we respect the MTA's decision to additionally promote certain performers, it is undeniable that MUNY promotional banners pose a risk to the safety of freelance performers. Andrew was arrested by a police officer who insisted that a banner was required, and I have been through the same scenario. Both of these incidents were captured on film, and so it is unconscionable to us that MUNY does not react with a strong public statement and the addition of a disclaimer ['this banner is not a permit or a legal requirement'] to its banners in order to prevent expensive, dangerous wrongful arrests in the future."

To be sure, there are situations where subway performers create a hazardous situation, sometimes by drawing a big crowd on a subway platform. And sometimes they're just annoying. But the MTA's rules should be made clear to rank and file officers tasked with patrolling the system, which would ostensibly free them up to fight actual crime in the subway, which is still a thing.