Three longtime subway buskers won $54,500 from the City this month, in a joint wrongful arrest lawsuit against the NYPD. One of the musicians, Andrew Kalleen, was arrested and charged with loitering in the fall of 2014 after reciting his legal right to perform on the Metropolitan G train platform to an impassive NYPD officer. A straphanger took a video of Kalleen's arrest, which has been viewed more than a million times since. One of the arresting officers struck Kalleen in his face with his own guitar, before placing him in custody for five hours.
The other two plaintiffs on the case, Jadon Woodward and James Gallagher of the freestyle hip hop group Stories For Days, were arrested in November 2013 on the Hoyt-Schermerhorn G train platform. According to court papers, they were approached by four undercover offers around 10:30 p.m. on November 23rd, and later told by a superior officer that "there was a memo out to clean you guys up." Woodward spent 24 hours in central booking, and both men's loitering charges were dismissed after a single court appearance.
Gallagher recalled this week that a woman had just handed Woodward a dollar when the officers approached. "They just said we were soliciting and that they wanted to... check us and detain us in the precinct," he said. According to the performers, officers ran their names three times to see if they had any outstanding arrests, to no avail.
"They were just looking for something to arrest us for, and the white shirt says, 'This young black man doesn't have a warrant? Run him again,'" Gallagher recalled. The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment on these allegations.
Section 1050.6c of the MTA rules clarifies that "artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations" are permissible. Musicians aren't allowed to use amplifiers or solicit payment on subway platforms (that counts as panhandling, which isn't allowed), but acoustic performance with a tip jar is legal.
In the wake of Kalleen's arrest, an NYPD spokesperson said that he had been accepting donations "without permit of permission" from the MTA. He had an open ticket or warrant on his record, and was arrested and charged with loitering. The charges were eventually dropped.
"I really felt like these police were just targeting us, like they needed to write paperwork," Gallagher said on Monday. "It had nothing to do with protecting citizens or being righteous, that's for sure."
Woodward and Gallagher's wrongful arrest case was moving slowly at the state level in 2014 when Kalleen was arrested, drawing attention to buskers' rights. All three sought help from Busk NY, an advocacy group for subway performers founded by Matthew Christian, a classically-trained violinist who has also been arrested multiple times while performing underground.
Attorney Paul Hale took on all three clients and brought their case to federal court, where things moved quickly. Hale said on Monday that while Kalleen's case received an unusual amount of publicity, these arrests are common—he personally has represented five cases involving buskers since 2014. "Unamplified performance on subway platforms is 100% legal and has been for decades," he said in a statement. "The harassment and arrests of buskers needs to stop. Until then, using the Courts is their best recourse."
Christian said on Monday that buskers have won more than $100,000 in settlements since NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton was appointed in 2013. Busk NY makes the case that buskers have been targeted as part of Bratton's Broken Windows policing strategy (there are numbers to back this up), but haven't won considerable compensation until recently. "By organizing the community we have affected real change, and gotten people compensated," he said. "Since Commissioner Bratton came in, we predicted that we would win $100,000. I don't want to celebrate that those incidents happened, but indeed we have surpassed."
Stories For Days is pooling its settlement to produce a new album. "[This has] allowed me some time off," Gallagher added. "We didn't get a lot of money in the grand scheme of things... but it's made a positive effect on our community. People feel like now they have a recourse."