Violinist Arrested for Playing Bach on Subway Platform

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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."