Last spring, harmonica player Gary Cobin was preparing to perform for commuters inside Brooklyn's Church Street subway station when a cop warned him to get out.
Cobin politely responded that it was perfectly legal to play there. Though he was new to busking (performing publicly for donations), the 71-year-old Cobin had read the rules for musicians set down by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).
The policeman was unswayed. "When I come back here, you better be gone," he warned Cobin.
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"He's the one with the gun, so I left," Cobin told Metro.
But Cobin returned the next week "determined to go to jail or do whatever I had to. I wasn’t going to put up with this."
He shouldn't have to, said Matthew Christian, a violinist, and co-founder of BuskNY, a group that advocates for street musicians. Christian said that since 1985, the MTA has allowed music artists to perform in subways as long as they obeyed regulations, such as not blocking traffic and keeping the sound low enough for loud-speaker announcements to be heard.
Despite the MTA's policy, despite the public-relations setbacks suffered by the NYPD after videos of cops wrongly arresting musicians went viral, and despite the sums the city has paid to compensate some of those artists, police continue to boot performers from subways, according to BuskNY.
BuskNY supporters gathered last week at the new Second Avenue station on the Upper East Side to protest what they say is NYPD's attempt to bar musicians from that location.
Police have harassed musicians numerous times there, though it is only three-weeks old, Christian said. He told protesters that MTA celebrates art at the station by prominently displaying murals. He noted, however, that music artists "have very often been wrongfully ejected from the stations."
The musicians say police still don't seem to know MTA's rules. Some officers have told them that to perform in the subways they must be a member of Music Under New York, the MTA-directed arts program. BuskNY argues that while MTA sets aside choice times and spots for members to perform, a membership isn't required.
MTA seemed to confirm that in a statement. "Any musician is welcome to perform in the New York City subway," provided they followed the aforementioned regulations. The key word is "any." MTA said it plans to "remind" police about the rules.