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BART directors consider banning busking and panhandling on trains

on October 18, 2019

Hip hop singer Drew Bernard was standing outside the Powell BART station on Market Street with a portable speaker in hand as the afternoon crowd whizzed by.

“I lived right next to a BART station. So I was like, I’m gonna start performing as soon as I walk out of the house,” said Bernard, who goes by Young Humble Billionaire. “I put it in my own hands to make money by using my music.”

BART has about 400,000 riders every day, and for BART performers who sing, dance, or play guitar on the trains between the seven-minute ride between West Oakland and Embarcadero, that’s a guaranteed audience. Buskers usually throw down two two-minute shows on the ride. That gives them time to give a short announcement, perform, and then collect compliments and donations. They say they do it to bring positivity to riders’ commutes, and also get some fast cash for their talents.

For Bernard, busking is another source of income. “It is a very good source of income. It’s been exceptional to me,” he said. He sees performing on BART as a launching pad for his career. “I don’t want this to be my everyday life of just going to perform on BART. Eventually, I want to reach higher stages,” he said.

Drew Bernard, also known as Young Humble Billionaire, sings uplifting Hip Hop outside of Powell Street BART Station at 4th St and Market. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay
Drew Bernard, also known as Young Humble Billionaire, sings uplifting Hip Hop outside of Powell Street BART Station at 4th St and Market. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

That said, he doesn’t just do it for money. “The money will come some way somehow. … If you’re paying attention, if you’re smiling like that, love that energy. That’s all I need,” he said.

But BART directors are considering a ban on panhandling and busking throughout the subway system. Right now, the ban is in preliminary discussions and a formal proposal has yet to be drafted. But the idea is still causing controversy. Of the nine board directors, two directors openly support the ban, while another two oppose it.

At the next BART Board meeting on October 24, they are expected to discuss the issue. BART Director Debora Allen, who represents District 1 in Contra Costa County, says trains are not a place for performers or panhandlers. She’s spearheading the effort to ban busking and panhandling. Current BART policy forbids aggressive panhandling; for example, someone asking for money and blocking the door. But this proposal would be different because it would ban asking for money in any of the areas people have to pay to enter.

Allen declined to comment for this article, but in an interview with KTVU’s reporter Greg Liggins on August 19 she said, “Panhandling is definitely part of the rider experience and my riders, my constituents tell me on a consistent basis, they want it ended.”

Earlier this year, BART’s Marketing and Research Department published a rider satisfaction study, which detailed that satisfaction dropped 13 percent from 2016 to 2018. According to the study, many riders report they take BART less often because of issues of cleanliness, crime, and overcrowding. That same study cited homelessness, security, fare evasion, and cleanliness as top-priority issues. Though busking not mentioned in the survey, Allen said a ban on panhandling would include busking.

Christopher “Carmu” Davis, a turf dancer who performs on BART trains, disagrees that buskers should be associated with panhandlers. “We [are] mainly seeing a lot of people complaining about the women with the babies and homeless,” he said, referring to panhandlers who ask for money.

Turfer Christopher "Carmu" Davis hangs upside down by his feet during a set on BART between Embarcadero and West Oakland BART stations. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay
Turfer Christopher “Carmu” Davis hangs upside down by his feet during a set on BART between Embarcadero and West Oakland BART stations. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

But some BART riders think that buskers and panhandlers are disruptive and support the ban. Gerald Cauthen, president of Bay Area Transportation Working Group, a volunteer-run organization that works to increase ridership on public transportation, said he hears many complaints about panhandlers and buskers. “BART is for taking people places,” Cauthen said. “So why should entertainment be inflicted upon them?  Usually when you want to be entertained, you go somewhere.”

He said riders complain to him that they are not able to avoid unwanted performances by changing seats or cars. For example, if someone is disabled or is traveling with a bike or stroller, they might not be able to move to a different seat. “There’s no way to really get away from [buskers],” he said. “The noise pervades the whole car.”

But opponents of the proposed ban say it might actually be illegal. Lawyer Abre’ Conner of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California wrote a letter to BART’s directors saying that she believes a proposal to ban panhandlers and buskers from the transit system is unconstitutional. “We have concerns when a government entity plans to restrict fundamental free speech rights and make it illegal to panhandle or busk,” she wrote in August.

Conner cited similar anti-panhandling cases in Massachusetts and recently in Sacramento that were struck down by the courts because both deemed panhandling to be free speech. “BART has a policy to invest in access choices to ensure that disadvantaged communities share the benefits of BART accessibility. An anti-panhandling ordinance seems to be inconsistent with that policy,” she added.

Cauthen disagrees. He thinks that because you need to pay to enter BART, the rules should be different from a public space like a park. “It is a perversion of free speech to say that that people should have a right to go into paid area where people try to do one thing, and then interrupt them and force themselves on them in a confined area,” said Cauthen.

But not all riders are annoyed by the buskers. Some seek them out.

“Are you getting on this car?” Jhia Jackson asked turf dancers Tavon “Arrow” Gladen and Christopher “Carmu” Davis at West Oakland BART station on Saturday night. Davis and Gladen had been warming up at the station by doing handstands and gliding across the platform. Davis nodded, and she followed him with excitement.

Gladen started the set by saying, “We’re just young men doing something positive with our extra time. If the music gets too loud, I’ll turn it down.” Gladen said he likes to start each show with an introduction to give people a chance to move cars, or to open up the floor for feedback ahead of time. “You can let us know beforehand, and not after we already started the show. We understand,” he said.

After his announcement, Gladen bumped the music on and showed off his “bone breaking” contortionist moves—a signature of turf dancing. Davis at one point did head stands and hung off the ceiling bars by his feet. Some riders ignored the performance, but most watched with nervous fascination.

After the two-minute set, riders applauded, and some gave a few dollars including Jackson. “Me being a dancer myself, I admire what they’re doing,” she said. 

After collecting money, Gladen and Davis did the routine again in the next car. They performed multiple acrobatic sets Saturday night on BART cars running between the West Oakland and Embarcadero stations.

Denzel “Koozi” Harris of Turf Feinz performed a set on a BART car gliding up and down as if his feet were on ice  and contorting his arms behind his head. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay
Denzel “Koozi” Harris of Turf Feinz performed a set on a BART car gliding up and down as if his feet were on ice and contorting his arms behind his head. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

Donald “Lavish” Brooks, Denzel “Koozi” Harris, and Auseon “Ausee” Wakefield of Turf Feinz, one of Oakland’s oldest turf dancing crews, were also performing that night. The two crews routinely bumped into each other, but tried to spread out across different cars.

Brooks said he rarely performs in a BART car full of disapproving riders. “I really look at it as a tool for a dancer to make his money and survive and still do what he loves,” said Brooks between sets at Embarcadero Station. “There’s people here that appreciate that and we get standing ovations.”

Brooks says that he thinks of dancing on BART as more of a financial safety net and a place to try new sets out. Turf Feinz only performed for an hour on Saturday night and went home with about $50 each.

Although there are now enough turf crews that they have to avoid stepping on each other’s toes, Brooks said that it’s a recent development—there weren’t any turfers performing on BART just six years ago.

“One day I dared my friend to get up and start dancing on BART. On the car that we danced on, we made $60 with no music,” said Brooks, laughing as he clapped out a beat. “I was like, ‘Whoa! We made more than we ever did on the street.’ And so we went to the next car. … From that day on, it’s just been a cycle of more dancers.”

Dancing on BART also led the Turf Fienz to much bigger stages, like performing with the Jabbawockeez before a 2019 Warriors championship game and H.E.R’s latest music video.

“I’ve done commercials gigs, music videos, and professional things,” said Brooks, referring to gigs like performing with Oakland rapper G-Eazy on Jimmy Kimmel Live. “I use this to just maintain and stay, like, level, because I already get paid for a bunch of other gigs and stuff.”

For other dancers and singers, they echoed this sentiment and say a ban wouldn’t stop them from performing elsewhere. At the 12th Street BART Station, resting between sets, Davis said, “I actually do like spending time on here—dancing and seeing people.” A ban, he said, “would suck, though.”

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