Gathering a few dozen subway buskers in one place combines the mood of a jam session on the college green with the look and smell of a Berkeley street rally for peace. At 4:30 in the afternoon on Tuesday, these elements met with the atmosphere and the olfactory candor of the New York City subway system when a rally in protest of one busker’s wrongful arrest took place on the mezzanine of the Metropolitan Avenue G station.
The rally was a surreal concentration of characters, considering most New Yorkers rarely see more than one or two buskers at a time. When I arrived, a middle-aged black man with one half of his head shaved was beatboxing and performing an improvised rap. Please officer, / just leave me be. / I’m just trying to make / everybody happy. Several people held signs that read “Music is Legal,” the motto of buskers’ advocacy group BuskNY, and “Street Vendors Support Subway Musicians.” The rally was cosponsored by BuskNY and New Yorkers Against Bratton, which is more or less what it sounds like, and very serious.
Before everything started, the buskers had pooled near the station entrance and had commenced jamming. A majority of the attendees were guitarists, some of whom joined in while others hung back, holding their cases sort of bashfully. A mime stood incredibly still with a shiny white ball the size of a grapefruit on his head (fastened like a party hat, I surmised), looking downtrodden and holding a sign saying “OCCUPY YOUR MIME,” which I didn’t totally understand. Some folks from Occupy Weed Street were there, as was Kalan Sherrard, an avant-garde subway performer of some renown. A bearded man with dreadlocks wearing a small, tattered dress was dancing and holding signage, but his precise role was not clear. A handful of folks in collared shirts and sweaters or blazers were obviously press, myself included, mingling with faint amusement while taking down information in one way or another.
The focus of the rally was an arrest that happened in the same station early last Friday morning, around 1:30 a.m. A musician named Andrew Kalleen was playing guitar and singing on the G train platform at Metropolitan Ave, when he was approached by an NYPD officer who told him he wasn’t allowed to be there, and to pack it in. The encounter was caught on cell phone video. Kalleen calmly refuses to leave, and directs the officer to Section 1050.6 of the MTA Rules of Conduct, which permits artistic performance. The officer reads the section aloud.
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 […] [emphasis mine]
Whatever version the officer was reading from follows with: “provided they are licensed by the [unintelligible] commissioner, are permitted.” I can’t find that text in that phrasing in the MTA Rules of Conduct, but in any case he reads it, and then corrects himself: “are prohibited. It says ‘prohibited.’” It does not, or not in that place in the text. It doesn’t even make sense that it would say “are permitted,” since the list of permitted activities is introduced as being permitted, which he had already read.
Whatever drives these sorts of confrontations between civilians and police—quotas, bad moods—quickly becomes a battle of macho will, in which it seems an officer would sooner assert himself incorrectly than yield to any ununiformed party, on any point. Certainly this applies to #NotAllCops, but the cordial interactions of legislative misunderstanding don’t typically make the Daily News, or even #myNYPD. In the case of Kalleen’s cop, his refusal to leave and the cell phone camera trained on the scene seem to have raised the personal stakes high enough that peaceful détente was not an option.
The officer sticks by his ad lib amendment and again attempts to eject Kalleen. Kalleen again refuses, and again starts singing. The officer calls for backup and hangs around while the platform audience cheers and drops money into Kalleen’s guitar case. Twice the officer forcibly removes his guitar, at one point hitting him in the face with it. Kalleen keeps singing, arms outstretched like Jesus. Backup arrives, and Kalleen is forced to his knees against the wall while they cuff him and haul him up the stairs. One officer solemnly packs up his guitar case and follows them out. Kalleen continues singing, while the platform builds into choruses of “Fuck the police!” and the video cuts off.
Kalleen attended the rally yesterday, and he has a hearing for his case this Friday, where he and his supporters expect the charge against him (loitering, officially) to be dropped. “People are here because I stood up for something we all want,” Kalleen told the crowd, looking exhausted. “We need to think for ourselves and do what we think is right.” Several young women in long skirts had passed out sheets containing the lyrics of “Ohio,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and “Wish You Were Here,” by Pink Floyd, which Kalleen was singing at the time of his arrest.
At Kalleen’s cue, the crowd sang both, then BuskNY’s Matthew Christian introduced a short program. He spoke of his own experience performing in the subway, saying, “Subway performance has been legal since 1985. We see wrongful ejections, wrongful arrests every day. The NYPD does not do training on artistic performance. There’s no permit to play in the MTA.”
Someone from New Yorkers Against Bratton spoke on broken windows policing, and two city council members offered their thoughts. Robert E. Cornegy Jr. of the 36th District said, “Thank God for cell phone video and social media. It allows us to see this is not an isolated incident.” Stephen Levin of the 33rd said, “Nothing is more New York than our street performers, our street vendors—you are New York. To deny that is to deny who we are. This stands for something; this is real culture.”
At the conclusion of remarks, Christian walked with Kalleen to the NYPD station on the mezzanine level to file a complaint, and asked that the musicians “just kind of jam.” This jam exceeded the first in both volume and purpose, and appeared remarkably well-organized. It went on for a while, while the non-buskers milled about pleasantly. I went above ground to check my email, and when I came back down ten minutes later the jam was still on, but waning.
Fittingly, there was a busker on the Church Avenue–bound platform, a mandolin player, as I waited for a G back to my apartment. He was standing in roughly the same place where Kalleen had been arrested. A uniformed NYPD officer strolled past, seeming not to notice, but it would have been difficult not to. The still air of the platform filled with music where there would otherwise have been only keening rails and mechanical bluster.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.