Less than three weeks have passed since the Second Avenue Subway line made its long-awaited debut, yet conflict is already brewing between the station's buskers and the NYPD. On Thursday afternoon, around a dozen subway performers gathered in the mezzanine of the 72nd Street station to protest what they view as illegal harassment by police seeking to keep the newly opened stations busker-free.
The rally was organized by BuskNY, a group that advocates on behalf of subway performers, in response to multiple altercations with the police in the three new Upper East Side stations. While the MTA's rules of conduct explicitly allow for artistic performances within stations, many officers and station managers seem to remain ignorant of the three-decade-old rule.
"There may be some sort of fear of unregulated artistic expression," said Marc Orleans, a mandolin player who said he had been removed by police from the 72nd Street platform on Wednesday. "The MTA has to tolerate it, but they also are trying in a not upfront way to regulate this. This is an ongoing situation that everyone who plays in the subway a lot has encountered."
The underground artists said that while they're accustomed to disputes with the NYPD, officers are taking a particularly hardline along on the new Second Avenue line. "There's pressure from station management to make sure these stations are clean," said Orleans. "Millions of dollars have been put into this."
This assertion was echoed by David Everitt-Carlson, the 60-year-old creator of #iThinkOutsideMyBox, a public painting project that invites strangers to paint their own cardboard square, who said he received a ticket for obstructing pedestrian traffic on the mezzanine of the 72nd Street station last week. Everitt-Carlson caught part of his interaction with police on video, before he was escorted out of the station under threat of criminal trespassing. He told Gothamist that he hadn't faced such issues in his previous five years of creating public art. "It seemed the officers were told to shoo me away," he said.
"Our officers work to protect the rights of everyone who lawfully uses the transit system - artistic performers and commuters alike," said an NYPD spokesman. "This often means a balance between protecting the uniquely New York experience performers provide, while at the same time ensuring safe passage for subway riders"
A third encounter with police was caught on video on Saturday by BuskNY co-founder and subway violinist Matthew Christian. In the video, a police officer can be seen approaching Christian on the platform of the 86th Street station and telling him that "it's unlawful to play music on the platform," before threatening to arrest the violinist if he didn't leave. As both parties filmed each other, Christian read a section of MTA rules that spell out the legal right to play on the subway, sans permit. It's around this time that a second officer appears and asks Christian if he "has a permit from the MTA." (Christian was not ultimately arrested.)
Christian said the interaction demonstrated a widespread misconception stemming from the MTA's Music Under New York program. While members of the MTA program are afforded priority scheduling in high-traffic areas, many police officers and transit workers incorrectly assume that only those with MUNY banners are permitted to play in the subways. In truth, there's no such thing as a subway performance permit, and no legal distinction between MUNY members and so-called "freelance performers." For years, subway freelancers have lobbied the MTA to include a disclaimer on MUNY banners indicating this, to no avail.
"It's ironic for an office that takes public money and promotes public art, when they receive a report that they're endangering people who make art in public, they don't respond to that," said Christian. "It's a tragedy that MUNY endangers the other 90 percent of performers out there."
Nearly all of the gathered buskers—none of whom seemed to be MUNY members—expressed a similar sentiment. "The MTA needs to be responsible for educating the police about their own regulations," said Orleans. "I think that's where the problem lies."
Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the MTA, declined to address whether the MUNY program would consider updating its banners. "The MTA is proud to support and promote the arts and musical performances," he wrote in an email to Gothamist. "Any musician is welcome to perform in the New York City subway system as long as they follow the Transit Rules of Conduct."
Toward the end of the rally, an orange-vested man paced around the outskirts of the dwindling crowd, training his iPhone on a harmonica-playing protester. When asked if something was wrong, the man, who identified himself as a 72nd Street station supervisor, motioned toward the harmonica player.
"Not permitted," he said. "Unauthorized musicians are not allowed."
Some of the protesters sighed audibly and continued their conversations, while others packed their things and began to leave. The harmonica player finished his song, but did not play another one.