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CRACKING DOWN

New York City is trying to reduce subway crime by harassing beloved station musicians

Men perform for tips on the subway platform in Manhattan, New York
Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
Life below the streets.
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It was another harrowing scene in the New York City subway.

On the evening of June 22, five police officers swarmed and arrested John Ajilo, a beloved street performer widely known as the “Dancing is Happiness” guy during his set at the 34th Street-Herald Sq. station. The saxophonist, who plays peppy jazz tunes with a merry gang of animatronic stuffed animals around him, was charged with three crimes according to a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) spokesperson:

  • Rule 1050.6(c)2 – Interfering with passenger movement,
  • Rule 1050.6(c)6 – Use of sound production device
  • Rule 1050.6(d)2 – Disregarding sign or notice

He was released after a night in jail but will have to appear at the city’s criminal court next month.

A permit isn’t needed to perform in the New York Subway

Per the city’s busking policy, musicians don’t need a permit to perform on subway platforms but they do need to abide by the transit authority’s rules of conduct. An MTA employee called the cops after noticing that Ajilo’s set-up—a tableau of toy pandas, ducks, and cats, and his amplifiers—were in violation of those rules.

The desperate scene—a jarring contrast from Ajilo’s affable persona—angered many New Yorkers who saw a clip of the arrest on social media. Some argued that the city is targeting the wrong culprits in its bid reduce crime in the subway system, likening the incident the arrest of a fruit vendor in May.

Others called out what looked like unnecessary force used on Ajilo, triggering a collective trauma of Black victims from police brutality. His GoFundMe campaign has raised over $114,000 so far.

“No one was following the rules”

New York City mayor Eric Adams defended the arrest. “Listen, you got to follow the rules,” he said in a June 27 appearance on a local news channel. “That is how our system got in the way that it is now, because no one was following the rules,” he argued.

Adams shrugged away suggestions of police brutality. ”Let’s not tell police officers to do a job and then when they do the job, we turn on them and state that they’re being heavy-handed,” he said. “Those officers took the right action and I’m proud of the action they took.”

MTA CEO Janno Lieber echoed the importance of enforcing rules at a June 28 board meeting. “There are lots of performers in the system and we welcome them,” he said “It’s part of the New York subway culture…but everybody’s got to play by the rules.”

Lieber insists that race wasn’t a factor. “It’s a safety issue,” he said. “I’ve seen the video and they tried to persuade him to relocate and to do his show in a different location but for whatever reason, he didn’t want to. So I don’t think in any way is targeting anybody.”

The state of New York City’s subway system

It’s a fair observation that the MTA hasn’t been strictly enforcing its rules of conduct until recently. No one is handing out $50 tickets for riders who aren’t wearing face masks for instance, nor is there an established protocol for catching fare evaders who jump the turnstiles.

The urgency to make people feel safer on the system comes after two fatal shooting incidents in the New York City subway last month. Data from the New York Police Department show that transit crime citations are up by 40% (pdf) compared to last year, though there is no knowing how much of that is due to officers becoming more zealous in issuing tickets or making arrests. Some experts say there’s a new a pattern of violence in public transportation systems across America.

Adams’s response involves having more police officers in the subway enforcing laws.

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