Violinist Arrested for Playing Bach on Subway Platform

Monday, July 29, 2013 - 04:00 PM

A violinist claims he was handcuffed for playing Bach's Third Partita on the platform of the Hunter College subway station Thursday – and spent four hours in custody as a result.

“I was not playing with amplification and I can tell you that I’m the most rule-focused person down there,” said Matthew Christian, a violinist who is also a teacher of English as a second language. "I’m very, very certain to follow the rules."

It was around 12 pm when Christian showed up for his afternoon stint in the 68th Street station on the 6 line when he noticed an NYPD officer watching him. "He said, ‘not today’ from across the platform,” Christian told WQXR. "I hollered back and I said ‘I’m going to keep playing. And I did.'"

New York City Transit rules permit subway performances provided they are not blocking pedestrian access or otherwise interfering with transit operations. Performers do not need a permit if they are unamplified.

According to Christian, the NYPD officer approached and asked him to leave the station. "I tell him, very politely, ‘well, I’m going to need either a summons or an arrest or some other kind of official documentation of this.'"

The NYPD officer then allegedly went upstairs to call for backup, returning 30 minutes later with two other officers. By this time, Christian had pulled out his phone to record the exchange, which has since been edited and uploaded to YouTube (see below). He said he was given at least two more ultimatums to voluntarily leave the station or face arrest, by which time the number of officers grew to six.

Eventually, Christian was led upstairs in handcuffs and taken to the Columbus Circle station house. Police charged the violinist with soliciting and blocking traffic. He was released four hours later.

An NYPD spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment on the incident.

"If you talk to most musicians, they have been kicked out five to 10 times this year if they play regularly,” said Christian, who also runs an advocacy group called Busk NY, which he says is gathering data on musician arrests. "The big problem is when we get kicked out verbally they don’t give us any kind of paperwork and they don’t document it."

Christian was arrested in 2011 for performing in the subway – on his second day as a busker – when he was asked to stop playing by undercover officer, which led to an altercation. He sued the NYPD and the charges were dropped. He returned in the summer of 2012, only to be asked to leave on multiple occasions.

Steve Zeitlin, the executive director of City Lore, an urban folklore organization that tracks subway musicians, says his group has received a significant increase in the number of arrest complaints from street performers. "It’s been happening everywhere," he said. "It’s part of an overall crackdown."

Zeitlin believes that part of the arrest increase comes from a “quality of life crackdown" but it also may be a byproduct of Music Under New York, the program that sponsors hundreds of street performances. “It’s a good program,” he said, but “the cops see those permits and they work under the assumption that those who don’t have that banner are there illegally."

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Comments [18]

Pete from Mexico City

Backup? 6 officers? Traffic (I don't see any)? Well, of course, policemen aren't exactly known for their refined cultural tastes, so maybe the first one didn't like Bach or hadn't even ever heard of the name. But then, their bosses tell them that a uniform, a badge and a weapon are license to harass and accuse citizens, regardless their taste for music, unless they prove innocence, obviously contrary to the Constitution. By the way, have you noticed that nowadays it's very difficult to distinguish tattooed cops from the criminals, especially if they are of Latin or African origin? I can't imagine a Californian cop in civvies in N. York without being thrown onto the ground and handcuffed because of a traffic violation.

Nov. 01 2013 08:09 PM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

Although I enjoy well performed music in the subway, this is not a First Amendment issue. If no permit is required to play the violin in the subway then the player should have been allowed to play unmolested. However, if the MTA decided to ban all performances anywhere in the subway system, it would not be a violation of the US Constitution.

All subway performers should be required to submit their repertoire to WQXR for approval.

Aug. 02 2013 10:55 PM
Fred from Queens

Where are the police when kids takeover a crowded subway car with their noisy boombox and for "your entertainment" proceed to sprawl, swing, and tumble like it's a gymnasium? That truly endangers the public and disregards everyone else.

Aug. 02 2013 01:03 AM
Stephen Gyetko

The NYPD says it's a 'quality of life' issue? A quality of life issue! No one knows more about 'quality of life' than the good ol' NYPD. Ask the over half a million 'stop and frisk' (87% Black or Hispanic, less than one percent guilty of anything)unfortunates how this contributes to 'quality of life'. And how about that 'quality of life' that exists in the subway. People shoving, spitting, and generally being schmucks, getting in your face, being rude, and, of course that lovely never quite gone scent of urine wafting on the warm damp air that clings to everything like some form of urban kudzu. How awful if something were to disturb such perfection. A bit of Brahms, perhaps? Why it would destroy the very fabric of NYC itself! Thank God the NYPD takes time out of their busy day of ignoring gropers, fare beaters and muggers, to pounce on violinists! Bravo, Boys in Blue! Bravo!

Aug. 01 2013 02:37 PM
Ron Owens from Mountain Lakes, NJ

It's unfortunate that the NYC (big) Blues find a need to bully anyone- especially a violinist. Best said in West Side Story, "Hey, Officer Krupke-Krup you!" That being said, though, we don't know HOW well Mathew was playing- and that's key. My thought is that a badly tuned violin or violin music gone bad has the potential of interfering with subway signal functions and possibly even preventing subway cars from entering subway stations. It's all about safety. lol

Aug. 01 2013 11:52 AM
Robert Oppenheimer from Long Beach, NY

The only way to stop these asinine arrests and assaults on our freedoms is to have the name of the arresting officer(s) posted and printed for the public to see, after all, they are public employees. Then when a situation like this arises again, maybe the following discvussion between police officers occurs: "Dude, this is gonna be one of those collars where your name will get out in the papers and your (wife, kids, parents) are gonna hear about it from (their neighbors, classmates, etc.). It ain't worth it. Just let 'em perform!"

Aug. 01 2013 10:08 AM
Robert Oppenheimer from Long Beach, NY

The only way to stop these asinine arrests and assaults on our freedoms is to have the name of the arresting officer(s) posted and printed for the public to see, after all, they are public employees. Then when a situation like this arises again, maybe the following discvussion between police officers occurs: "Dude, this is gonna be one of those collars where your name will get out in the papers and your (wife, kids, parents) are gonna hear about it from (their neighbors, classmates, etc.). It ain't worth it. Just let 'em perform!"

Aug. 01 2013 10:08 AM
David Everitt-Carlson from NYC

Beth: Yes, a painter with an easel would be cuffed as well. I operate a public painting studio on the High Line park in NYC and whilst I don't paint myself, I provide people materials to paint - and thus, by aiding and abetting the public's right to freedom of expression, I can be arrested - should I take donations for such an activity. www.iThinkOutsideMyBox.blogspot.com

Jul. 31 2013 11:04 PM
Bernie from UWS

@UWS Walley - I don't know if you read the story. The whole point is that you *don't* need a permit to perform. Anyone can show up and perform. That's why we have a First Amendment in this country. I hope the police get that point too.

Jul. 31 2013 09:42 PM
Upper West Side Wally from Manhattan

If we don't allow (and/or enjoy) a group of guys, who are not encumbered by any sense of rhythm or tonality, banging on a set of turned-over buckets, we can't allow Bach or Shostakovich either. 'Culture' can not and should not play a role in this on-the-go decision. The City gives permits to performers; apply for one!

Jul. 31 2013 05:53 PM
David from Flushing

The problem in the subway is that there is a captive audience who may or may not like what is being played. The same is true of subway preachers who yell at riders for many stops. People are entitled to a little peace and quiet. The MTA does allow musicians at certain times and places, so people who want to play should approach them.

Jul. 31 2013 04:23 PM
ageless from westchester

This is absorb. What would the police stop at . I am sickened by this. For years I had friends playing their violin on 5th Ave and people not only stopped to listen but threw in nice bills.

Keep playing the hell with the NYC police they need some culture and on getting it they would act like better citizens

Jul. 31 2013 03:20 PM
Chris Joslin, Esq. from Merrick

Does NYPD have anything better to do with their time then bother a violinist who brings beautiful music to an otherwise hostile environment. I would gladly take his case.

Jul. 30 2013 08:41 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

From the law enforcement side, perhaps it was a case of the officer ready to pan Bach instead of the violinist trying to pan Handel which resulted in the arresting performance?

Jul. 30 2013 07:47 PM
Robert Leuze from Manhattan

Are we 'panhandlers" or "buskers" in the eyes of the police?
I had occasional run-ins with the police when I was an opera-singing busker in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but I complained to then Mayor Koch, who did respond with some support.
I would often perform the most melodic parts of baritone opera arias with recorded accompaniment from my little cassette player. My favorite place was the West 45th Street sidewalk just where Shubert alley begins. I'd sing for about a half-hour before the Broadway shows started, three times a week, often collecting a good crowd. Usually the police were no problem but occasionally would tell me to move along. Apparently every now and then they'd get orders to clear that space of performers. One day one of them said to me that "panhandling wasn't allowed here," and I wrote an indignant letter to the Mayor. In his reply, Mayor Koch agreed that I was not a panhandler and said he thought performing music on the street was just fine. He said he couldn't directly intervene on my behalf with the police, but he suggested I make a copy of his letter to show to patrolmen when they told me to stop singing -- I think he wrote that "it might help." Of course I followed his advice, and sometimes it did help; other times the Official Letter was ignored, and I had to (chose to) move.
P.S. Much bigger problems than the police were winds that would blow my sound away; large, noisy tourist buses left idling by the curb; and the bagpipe player who would sometimes show up across the street from me.

Jul. 30 2013 03:06 PM
Matthew McKelway from Manhattan

Arrested for playing Bach in the subway. I think "officer Kennedy" ought to take up a desk job. What an embarrassment.

Jul. 30 2013 02:12 PM
Isadora from New York.. Where Else?

Sorry, Matthew Christian! However you were noticed and heard! I can't say that Joshua Bell had the same reception when he played in the depths of the Washington subway, despite being in Dupont Circle, a key stop. And even in the heights of fame, only a few people threw dollars into the hat.

Matthew, don't give up! You have been noticed! Did the Blue Force want a private performance? Is there discrimination? After all, I have heard exquisite Chinese music coming from Chinese strings, Italians singing great areas, Spanish women in national costume, singing, and often with a few dance flourishes! All on the platform below Hunter College.

Perhaps the man in Blue was blue himself. Maybe he didn't like his duty.

Keep it up! People are still seeing you and admiring the upcoming talent! Bravo, Matthew!

Jul. 30 2013 12:49 PM
Beth Wallach from White Plains

Are there really laws prohibiting such activity? If so, how ridiculous! We need more activities like this to help create a sense of place in the city. Would a painter with an easel be handcuffed as well? What a brilliant idea to have Bach on a subway platform! I'd probably miss a couple of trains while listening. But then I'd probably be handcuffed for loitering.

Jul. 30 2013 11:36 AM

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