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New York City's Cops Are Waging War on Subway Performers

Commissioner Bill Bratton's new "quality of life" campaign is seemingly designed to drain New York of character — and punish the poor.
Photo by Alex Ayer

When David Foster Wallace wrote about "kinetic beauty" in a 2006 essay about tennis star Roger Federer, he described it as having to do with "human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body." Kinetic beauty, for Wallace, finds its apotheosis in those rarest of moments, when bodies exempt themselves from physical laws. They become "genius, or mutant, or avatar" bodies. Wallace witnessed kinetic beauty flow through and beyond Federer's body and racquet at Wimbledon Centre Court.


An ocean away, in the yellow-lit subway cars that continuously rattle through New York's subterranean thoroughfares, I too have witnessed kinetic beauty. Maybe a couple of times in my five years living here have I seen a genius body in motion. It begins with nothing more miraculous than a subway car door opening, the placement of a boombox on the floor, and the announcement — prompting sighs or smiles, depending on the passenger — that "It's showtime!"

More often than not, impressively acrobatic but ultimately unremarkable dancing follows, the flips and spins enough to win a few dollars from commuters — but then there were those moments when a group of kids bent space, metal, and belief around their impossible, careening, non-stop, precise, spinning, twisting, genius bodies. And there have been genius voices too; some of the sweetest songs I've ever heard have lived only in the transient spacetime between subway stops. These performers, these bearers of kinetic and sonorous beauty, can change the meaning of a New York journey.

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton would like to put an end to that.

Bratton became the city's top cop this year for the second time, having first served under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the mid-1990s. Bratton is perhaps best known for his role in popularizing the "broken windows theory" in US policing — the idea that instituting a "zero-tolerance" policy for minor crimes via persistent ticketing and arrests will lead to lower overall crime rates, including for more serious and violent offenses. (He's credited with introducing the policies as police commissioner in the 90s, but he'd also employed them in his previous job — as head of the New York City Transit Police.) The true extent of broken windows' success is a matter of debate and is certainly not fully borne out in crime statistics. What is clear, however, is that heavily policing minor infringements — like panhandling or tagging — targets, by definition, the young and the poor. And so they are disproportionately forced to suffer the consequences of running afoul of the criminal justice system.


Any regular subway rider will notice an increased police presence in subways, which to me is more unsettling during a commute than a dancer or musician trying to pick up a few bucks.

Bratton's latest implementation of broken windows theory takes aim at what the data calls "peddlers and panhandlers." As the New York Times reported just three months after Bratton's January swearing-in, “arrests of peddlers and panhandlers on subways have more than tripled over the same period last year.” So far this year, at least 46 subway dancers have been arrested and charged with reckless endangerment — a charge carrying a $100 fine, a huge financial burden on most performers. Drawing from the Orwellian playbook of policy nomenclature, these arrests are part of Bratton's "quality of life" campaign for transit users. And while I concede that many commuters find peddlers and panhandlers to be a nuisance, it seems outright objectionable that performers be designated criminals.

"Many performers have packed up entirely," says Matthew Christian of the busker advocacy group BuskNY. "We have recorded a number of wrongful arrests and tickets. Unjustified ejections from stations — or in the technical parlance, 'Get outta heres' — are through the roof. Performers and train riders have noticed the changes."

Any regular subway rider will have also noticed an increased police presence in subways, which to me is a more unsettling nuisance during a commute than a dancer or musician trying to pick up a few bucks. And as Christian points out, artistic performance has been legal in the subway since 1985 — hence the use of vague charges like "reckless endangerment" to target performers. "The old problem — that police hold wide-ranging misconceptions about the legality of street performance — is the same problem we have today. The difference is that far more police are present."


Dubbing the crackdown on subway performers a "quality of life" initiative makes you wonder what kind of New York Bratton and the NYPD envision. A life in which traveling through the metropolis proceeds silently and smoothly, without the disruption of music or dance. Such a life posseses a certain type of "quality": the dull, grey quality of a metal transit box never transformed into a site of kinetic beauty or auditory surprise. Bratton's New York would be a bland terrain indeed, devoid of what the French situationists called dérive. Dérive is a practice that demands the re-imagining of landscapes, particularly urban spaces. Subway dancers, at their most daring, are sublime if unwitting artists of dérive. For them, a handrail is not a handrail, a seat not a seat — space and its assumed purpose is up for grabs, up for play, up for beauty.

The Waffle Crew, a dance group with members from all five New York boroughs, are nothing short of aerial acrobats when performing their so-called "Lite Feet" dance style, floating from subway floor to ceiling, from pole to handrail, deftly avoiding passengers who sit agog. Waffle Crew's Andrew "Goofy" Saunders tells VICE News that his fellow Waffle members are well-practiced and know how to perform their act with care for passenger safety and enjoyment. (They are now also well-practiced at avoiding cops.) "We're putting smiles on peoples' faces," he says of their subway performances. "Unexpected things can happen." He believes police target subway dancers because it translates into easy tickets and arrests.

Saunders' point bares out when one considers Bratton's role in implementing NYPD's storied data-driven policing, which defines its own success metrics through tacit quota creation and fulfillment. As writer Ingrid Burrington has pointed out, “data methodology and the data analysis are designed to work against the people it claims to protect." Treated as data points in a statistical topography of crime-fighting, New York's struggling street and subway performers are wrongfully victimized. It seems worth noting, too, that while Bratton has responded to public outcry by lowering stop-and-frisk numbers — a promise made by Mayor Bill de Blasio during his campaign last year — the structure pitting the NYPD against the city's economically disadvantaged has continued unabated through efforts that have seen a spike, for example, in arrests for low-level violations in public housing developments.

As such, the same energy that fueled anti stop-and-frisk advocacy and protests in recent years should now challenge Bratton's targeting of peddlers and panhandlers. As with the ruinous and debasing effects of racist stop-and-frisk policies, Bratton's focus on low-level violations disproportionately punishes New York's poor and minority communities. In this regard alone, the city has much to lose in letting "quality of life" rhetoric go unchallenged. It seems to me, too, that there is much to protect in the screeching beast that is the subway system — a quality of life, and rare moments of surprising beauty, that must be protected from, not by, the cops.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Photo via Alex Ayer Photography