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New video: Violinist arrested for playing on New York subway

Matthew Christian, an English teacher, likes to play for commuters in his hols. He learned the hard way that 68th Street-Hunter College station is not the place to do it. Christian was ordered to put his hands behind his back and step against the wall. He was held for four hours and given a desk appearance ticket, then released. We hope he has found a better berth. Full story here.


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  1. Louis Blois says:

    In a country where electronic eavesdropping and government secrecy has become the norm, it’s not surprising to see yet another sign of the encroaching police state. What is surprising is how complaisant the public is in accepting this eerily reminiscent state of affairs.

    Play on, Mr Christian. This is a time when we need to speak out against the prevailing tyranny.

  2. I think our guys in Britain would have just found something better to do, and enjoyed the music. We get it all the time here in London, and many stations have areas to busk, and offer money. Ridiculous!

  3. The law should not be too strict on this matter.

    • Hi, Dr Lim. I’m the violinist himself. In fact, the law is not too strict on this matter. From the MTA Rules, section 1050.6:

      “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.”

      ‘Twas not I but the officers who were unaware of the law. What’s worse, if I had left when ordered verbally, there would have been no documentation of the incident and I would have had no way to complain. This all started simply because I requested documentation of the incident before leaving the station.

      Information on the broader phenomenon of performer harassment, contact information for us and for civil rights lawyers, and updates on my case are available through our organization, BuskNY.

      • Matthew:

        I am a big fan of classical music in the subway, especially Bach. But when a Police Officer asks you to stop playing, you stop, even if you are absolutely sure he/she is wrong.

        There are other ways to put your point across though representatives, etc.

        Anyway—food for thought. Hope things resolve themselves for you.

        • This is how Rosa Parks achieved such great results — she respected the authority of “Police Officers” and “put [her] point across though representatives, etc.” Thanks for the tip.

          • Matthew: I think you are going a bit too far on this one. But if you are choosing to “correct” the law (or enforcement of it) with respect to public musical performance by civil disobedience against police officers, you should plan on more time in jail. Just sayin’

  4. Actually, though I’m not saying the ‘against the wall’ thing wasn’t an over-reaction and I’m sure a gentle ‘move on please’ would have sufficed, busking spots in stations and the like are quite often tightly regulated in the UK. In Covent Garden, for instance, buskers have to get through a rigorous audition process and it’s quite an achievement to be allowed to busk there. I actually wrote an article about it when I started out in journalism and still remember the intense competition, and the pride amongst the performers who got through. And let’s not forget that some fine performers have busked, Eddie Izzard et al.

  5. Michael J. Stewart says:

    I think the real problem here is much more about the fear of losing control. Although the arresting officers seem to be reasonable in their request, even though clearly Christian appears to be breaking no laws, the issue for them is the fear of not being able to control people. This means innocent and guilty people alike. The fact is, that if the governments of the world didn’t break laws in first place and if they didn’t violate human rights on a daily basis then they wouldn’t have anything to be afraid of in the first place.

  6. Devil's Advocate says:

    Any chance that they were asking him to leave due to something else going on in this particular station that day and this was for HIS safety, but they couldn’t tell him?

    • Stephen says:

      Of course. That’s the standard line when all else fails. In this case, the fail was a bit more obscure. The best part is that there are 3 or 4 “public safety” individuals out there with a head ache because they chose aggression and an over zealous exercise of “authority”.

  7. John G. Rizek says:

    There are laws and norms that need to be followed no matter what you do. The US, as we know, punishes those who brake the law in a very strong way. I believe that it should have different kinds of approaches by the State and its punitive forces. As someone here already said, a gentle ‘move on’ would be fine. And also, I think police should be anywhere else fighting the ‘real’ crime. That is, murders and so on. To mobilize two officers to take care of a single musician who in the worse scenario was only unaware of the rules to play on the subway, is sheer waste of money and sense of the real problems. It’s not controlling everybody’s life that the US will manage to build a perfect society, that I guaranty.

  8. PK Miller says:

    Give the man the death penalty!!! Seriously, isn’t it amazing–NYPD have nothing else of significance, no other crime in the City. It reinforces my oft repeated insistence that the NY City Police are a bunch of THUGS. Of course, they are given their marching orders by Thugs in Chief Raymond Kelly and Michael Bloomberg. I have always enjoyed the diverse music in the NY Subways including the gentleman playing an Indian equivalent of a cello at 42nd St, Port Authority, the surprisingly talented young Black guys banging on improvised kettle drums and the Korean bass-baritone whom I often heard at Union Square.

    Amazing–so little crime they can arrest a violinist. A terrorist, of course…. Beam me up Scotty….

  9. Jon Teske says:

    Here in Washington, even the famous Joshua Bell busking incident a few years ago, which won writer Gene Weingarten a second Pulitzer Prize…actually did not take place in the Washington Metro (subway) system, but rather at one of the very few stations where you can first enter a commercial area (newsstands, coffee shops etc) before you actually enter the Metro station. The Metro has some of the strictest rules around….certain no busking in stations even no eating or drinking to include water. Last week during a heat wave, they permitted people to bring in bottled water for a few days but that was extraordinary.

  10. I rather wish that New York had an audition process for “buskers” such as the one James Inverne speaks of in his reply. While I applaud freedom of expression, and the right of musicians to promote themselves, there can be little quality control in the city’s already too noisy subway system. I’ve been treated to some wonderful musicians playing in the subways over the years, but I’ve endured far more ear-shattering music to make me overly sympathetic to this young man. He wanted to make a point. He did. He also wasted tax payer money.

    • PAM, I do believe the only taxpayer money that was wasted was wasted by the police.

    • Tim Walton says:

      I am sorry, but your last sentence was the MOST STUPED remark I have ever heard.

      The Police, by being overbearing Bullies who do not know there own laws, were the ones wasting tax payers money.

      The Authorities should be charging these ‘Idiots in Police uniforms’ for wasting Tax payers money.

      The Precedent should be apologising to Matthew for the appalling behaviour of the ‘Official’ and for making the US a laughing stock, but of course he can’t do anything in case he upsets the Gun Nuts & Religeous nuts who really control the USA.

      This is one reason why I would never wish to visit such a Dictatorial country – even if I was paid to.

  11. robcat2075 says:

    His claim that there is no permit seems rhetorically similar to the recent claims we had in this country that a “certificate of live birth” is not a “birth certificate.”

    There obviously is a permission process in place for playing in public transportation facilities to prevent them from being overrun with people wanting to exploit the captive audience.

  12. William Lang says:

    actually, by not using amplification, he was not breaking any laws in new york city. you only need a permit when using amps. i used to play trombone all over the streets and never got harrased like that. sometimes i got told to move, and i did, because standing up wasn’t worth a trip to central booking, but never was i arrested.

    also – they didn’t mobilize two officers as much as there are constantly officers nearby or in every major subway station (unless you need them!)

  13. Jude Ziliak says:

    The big problem here is that the NYPD is NOT enforcing the law. In fact the law protects the violinist’s actions. He is being intimidated for no real reason. I have had similar experiences, being threatened by MTA employees etc. When busking I always avoided being arrested, simply because I couldn’t afford the time and money that would go into defending myself, and because I was afraid my instrument would be harmed in the process. The police count on the threat of mistreatment to frighten most buskers into cooperation with their whims — it’s nothing to do with obedience to the law. The police are the ones ignoring the rule of law here.

  14. It is not uncommon for musicians with more equipment than a violin to play in the subway or even subway cars. It happens in some of the busiest stations and on some of the busiest trains. And it is part of what makes a city or community hop and buzz. Certainly it is part of New York City life and it’s great, even if the playing ain’t always. Arguably, as a technical matter one would need a permit, though they are few and far between for this type of situation.

    However, the police march to a different drummer. The issue is control and it is often arbitrary, whether it is controlling crowds, controlling traffic, stopping and frisking people of color, preventing any person (but especially those of us who are scruffy) from standing too long in one place- yes they sometimes arrest for that- or taking videos of cops violating the law- yes they do that too- or of objects or structures that 15 years ago would be appreciated as tourist sights, and even creating faux incidents that they will “stop in the nick of time” so that they can later point to them as their raison d’être.

    It is an exercise of power in a system that stinks, and it has become the paradigm that many of our leaders and legislatures expect the suckers that elect them to follow as the new norm, Constitution or not. Just think, Ray Kelly, our Police Commish is O’Bomber’s first in line to head the Department of Homeland Security, though the recent vote in the House of Representatives to defund the worst of the NSA was close enough to give one hope that things could change.

    Meanwhile Matthew, just keep showing up, and use your best English skills to craft a petition- e.g., with or the inaptly named and circulate it on the internet to goose the mayor and the police. Maybe if your story goes viral Mike and Ray will be embarrassed enough to instruct their storm troopers to use better sense next time. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to use public turf to express yourself.

    • Matthew: You’ve cited the MTA rule, so I stand corrected on the permit issue (I was thinking pushcarts), and the rule should have been known by the officer policing the subways.

      David: If you don’t make a point of it to the officer- and it doesn’t mean you have to be belligerent if you do- you will be giving up something of value that you should not have to, and will leave the officer as ignorant as he was when he first confronted you. In the end, the officer is supposed to be serving the public, not the other way around. If I recall correctly, the oft disregarded motto of the NYPD is “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect”, where I assume “Respect” also means respect for the law and a citizen’s rights under it.

      • One other point, this one about Ray Kelly, and the disconnect between threatening the arrest of a subway musician and catching real criminals. After many months he still hasn’t found Lou Rispoli’s killer, and that’s with the added advantage his Department’s ability to tap into the NSA and its databanks, an ever expanding network of CCTV cameras, and, of course, informers galore (especially in this depressed economy where a buck is hard to come by).

  15. “Special rules govern the use of the locations designated for the &#”Music Under New York” component of the MTA’s “Arts for Transit” program. Arts for Transit may be contacted directly at (212) 878-7452.”

    Does anyone know what these rules are? Was he playing on a “designated location”? If it wasn’t a designated area or there’s nothing preventing him from playing in a designated area, then it seems like he’s 100% in the right, and I applaud him for standing up for what’s right.

    • Stephen says:

      just to be a nudge. Does the rule actually have a process attached? So many times, one gets a municipal rule or law and no process attached. With a wink and a nod the fine white knights make the pronouncement and then let underlings “get around to the nits and bolts” . Seems like that was central to this issue before we all got involved. It seems that there is a “regulation” that has no way to be enforced except as a personal whim. WOW! I wonder how many other rules are out there like this.

      I’ll sig the petition. Where is it?

    • Did he contact the “Arts for Transit” folks? What did they say?

  16. Hi, the whole thing is going perfectly here and ofcourse every one is sharing facts, that’s really excellent, keep up writing.

  17. Hello, I’m a violinist too, and I really want to play in the subway, that was my plan, even before I moved to the USA, but now, I don’t know if i can do it, someone told me i need an authorization for playing in the subway, but other person told me i don’t need it… this is confusing!

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