Times Square Performers Say New License Law Would Violate Their Civil Liberties
Council Member King poses with a group of performers after the press conference Monday.
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In the past few years, there have been several unfortunate, highly-publicized incidents in Times Square involving pervy, anti-Semitic Elmos and pugnacious, cop-punching Spidermen. But a new union representing Times Square costumed performers says a proposed law introduced by City Council Member Andy King yesterday -- which would require performers to be licensed and fingerprinted, and would create fines and jail time if they don't comply -- goes much too far.
King, who represents the Bronx's District 12, announced the proposed bill at a press conference in Times Square Monday, then introduced it Wednesday, September 10. That happened over the objections of New York Artists United for a Smile, the new costumed performers union, who say they weren't consulted about any aspect of the law.
"Council Member King just called up the Times Square Alliance and the NYPD," says Lucia Gomez. She's the executive director of La Fuente, an immigrant-advocacy nonprofit that partners with local labor unions. (Times Square performers are mostly immigrants, many of whom now live in one blue-collar community in New Jersey.) Gomez realized the need for the Times Square performers to organize after two of them approached her in August, referred by another labor union, and said they were feeling a new level of pressure from the NYPD.
Gomez says the process of writing the bill didn't involve the performers themselves at any stage. "The NYPD and the Times Square Alliance fed them a lot of information and then they ran with that legislation," she says. (The Alliance is a nonprofit, governed by a board of directors, founded in 1992, whose mission is to "improve and promote" Times Square. It was created at a time when the de-porning of the area was at its peak, and has helped draw more major chain stores to the neighborhood.)
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"They chose to inform us five days before they introduced it that this what the legislation is, and basically said, 'Are you going to stand with us or not?'" Gomez adds. "That's not the way a democracy works."
King told Metro New York that he'd met with the performers twice in the 48 hours leading up to the press conference, and said he was surprised that they were protesting him. But Gomez says there was only one meeting, on Wednesday, September 3rd, and that the council member didn't adequately convey what's really in the bill.
"The tone of the meeting was 'We want to create a license that will help you, that will be about protecting the innocence of children,'" she says. King, according to Gomez, told a story about being in Times Square with his granddaughter, and seeing a Hello Kitty remove her head and unleash a stream of profanity. "He felt that left a lasting image in his granddaughter's head. She said 'Hello Kitty took offer her head. How does she take off her head?'"
But Gomez says the council member was "not explicit" about the fact that the bill would create a new misdemeanor offense for costumed performers who don't submit to the new regulations. They would require performers to pay $170 for a license every two years, unless they could prove they were indigent and the fee would create an "unreasonable hardship." Everyone would also have to submit to fingerprinting and a background check, which they would also pay for. The bill also says that an applicant would need to prove that her or she "possesses good moral character," one of the broader requirements in the bill that could potentially make it unenforceable on constitutional grounds. If a performer doesn't have and display a license, they can be punished with a fine of not less than $100 and not more than $1,000, and a sentence of up to three months in jail.
"I think it's about criminalization," Gomez says. "A majority of these individuals are immigrants." In the meeting, she says, King "couldn't stop stressing that people should feel safe because no one will ask about their immigration status. I had to tell him the city of New York already has a law around immigration status, not asking unless it's a matter of public safety. There's already a law that states that. For him to play that role indicated to me the lack of sensitivity on a bunch of different levels for working poor people." The parts of the bill that prohibit "aggressive solicitation" or "using violent or threatening gestures" towards people being solicited are also already covered under existing city laws.
The bill as it's currently written also contains some curious restrictions on how performers may use public space, stipulating that they can't solicit on a sidewalk unless it has a "twelve foot wide clear pedestrian path." It also says performers can't "touch, lean against" or be fixed permanently or temporarily to "any building or structure," including lamp posts, parking meters, and mailboxes. They also can't come within ten feet of sidewalk cafes or five feet from bus stops, newsstands, public telephones or access ramps for disabled people, all rather common features on any city street. Being convicted of one misdemeanor under the new law means a performer's license can be permanently revoked.
Gomez says New York Artists United for a Smile will spend the next few months talking to City Council members about the new bill and how it would impact their livelihood. In the meantime, they've begun producing ID cards of their own, to show the police in case of trouble. She hopes, too, that they'll be able to talk to the police about how the law might be implemented.
"If there's a problem" with a performer, Gomez says, "there are already enough laws. The police have done fine jobs going after these individuals and arresting them. We saw three arrested last week."
The full bill from Council Member King is on the following page.
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