Broken Windows for Subway Buskers in Bill Bratton’s New York

"It's showtime! Showtime!" (Image: NY Mag)

More bad news in Police Commissioner Bratton’s New York City: Subway platform buskers are facing harassment and arrests by the NYPD and MTA police for what is a completely legal activity. As we reported in May, arrests for subway dancers alone are up 4700 percent from last year. Several buskers held a press conference recently to protest the treatment. For many, this climate of punishing non-criminal behavior reeks of earlier time in New York City, an era that starts with “G” and ends with “iuliani.”

Mayor de Blasio’s choice for police commissioner remains a disappointment for many—an even greater disappointment than his manner of pizza consumption. Bill Bratton came to New York as chief of the New York City Transit Police (the predecessor of today’s MTA cops) in 1990, under Mayor Dinkins. After leaving for a two-year stint as head of Boston police, Bratton was made New York City police commissioner in 1994, by Rudy Giuliani, and the two set about instating the now-infamous broken windows policy, which seems to have risen again. Can we even pretend to be surprised?

Broken windows policing leads to undue force, namely chokeholds, in minor offenses—the sort of undue force used against Eric Garner, for selling loose cigarettes, and against a pregnant woman grilling outside her home. Compared to the recent rash of chokeholds, stop-and-frisk is practically kind. Both broken windows and stop-and-frisk disproportionately target Black and Latino individuals. In what feels like a summer-long episode of NYPD ’roid rage, backed by a theory that tackling asthmatics and arresting subway musicians will curb violent crime, resentment and mistrust are growing between the police and the people they are supposed to protect—hardly the result of “courtesy, professionalism, and respect.”

If it’s worth anything (and it’s not), at least one young white man playing a classical instrument attracted negative police attention last summer for wholly legal activity, and on the Upper East Side, of all places. Meanwhile, as police continue to rid the streets of gainfully employed violinists, the buskers’ advocacy group BuskNY aims to make musicians and performers aware of their rights, and offer guidance on what to do if they are harassed. Earlier this year, Bratton himself suggested setting aside areas of subway platforms for breakdancers (“Dancing or non-dancing?”), but no movement on that just yet.

Love it or roll your eyes, public performance is a huge part of the culture of New York City, and one we can’t afford to lose to overzealous policing. I mean, when’s the last time a “showtime!” dancer put anyone in a chokehold?

Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.

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