Opinion - Step away from the trombone

Atlanta’s panhandling ordinance snags street musicians

Trombonist Eryk McDaniel has busked in his fair share of American cities. The 20-year-old Alabama State University student, who’s currently majoring in elementary education, has played to adoring onlookers on the streets of New York City and Los Angeles. Like many buskers, he says, performing in public offers him the opportunity to visit new and unfamiliar places while showcasing his musical talents in front of diverse audiences.

“There’s nothing like checking out a new spot in a new city to get a feel and a sense of the people,” the Cincinnati native tells CL.

McDaniel came to Atlanta with his brass instrument three months ago, but he didn’t exactly receive the warmest of welcomes. On May 31, Atlanta Police arrested the trombonist for monetary solicitation — that’s legalese for “asking for money” — outside of Turner Field. His instrument case was open, and filled with a little bit of donated cash, when an off-duty APD officer asked him to move to another location. McDaniel instead defended his right to play there — and, as a result, spent the night in jail.

His arrest was the second time in nearly a month that a musician has been charged with panhandling in Atlanta. Brooklyn violinist Juan Pablo Chavez, who plays under the name Johnny Arco, spent six days behind bars after MARTA Police arrested him for allegedly panhandling and selling copies of his CDs at the Five Points station. The Berklee College of Music alum says he’s never experienced similar issues in other cities.

The whole ordeal left a bad taste in his mouth. “I’m a professional recording and touring artist,” says Arco, who had to cancel a week’s worth of scheduled gigs and advocacy events. “I wasn’t some panhandler that needed a couple bucks ... I was just playing the violin in the subway station.”

According to police, McDaniel and Arco technically violated a city ordinance and broke two state laws, respectively. But both arrests underline a larger problem with how street performers are currently perceived, and unnecessarily prosecuted, in Atlanta. And they make a strong case for tweaking laws meant to curb panhandling.

Last fall, Mayor Kasim Reed, Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond, and Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms revamped the city’s archaic and previously unenforced panhandling laws. The updated ordinance made it illegal to ask for money within 15 feet of pretty much any place where people might gather, including the entrances of public or private buildings, city parking lots, and ATMs.

They also cracked down on aggressive panhandlers — including those who followed pedestrians, blocked sidewalks, threatened passersby with abusive language, and repeatedly asked for money after being turned down — with a combination of community service, jail time, and monetary fines. City officials viewed the new law as relatively simple, constitutional, and effective.

But it was too effective in some cases. City Hall tried to make Atlanta’s streets safer for residents, commuters, workers, and tourists. It also stifled the potential for vibrant street life by casting too wide of a net. Artists, hardly the disruptive or intimidating public safety threats the law aimed to stop, became caught in the middle.

Authorities — including Atlanta Police, MARTA officers, and other security forces — are enforcing what’s on the books. In the case of McDaniel, APD claimed to have given the trombonist several chances to avoid arrest. But they exhausted their options with repeated warnings and even showed him a copy of the ordinance. The police were simply carrying out the law, APD spokesman John Chaffee said, not trying to squelch someone’s freedom of expression.

Still, street performers are unnecessarily harmed in the process of making music.

Left unresolved, Atlanta could earn a negative reputation as a city that’s hostile toward musicians. Other performers, hearing Arco’s and McDaniel’s tales, might skip the city and take their talents to busking havens such as New York, Chicago, or New Orleans. Say goodbye to Atlanta’s chances of fostering a vibrant street scene that atracts musicians from afar. Or hell, even from here.

But change might be afoot so that police officers can make the distinction between an aggressive panhandler and a musician with an open instrument case. Bond tells CL the current code is far too “ambiguous” and has consequently hurt street performers. He says that was never an intention and that he wants Council to “work hastily to correct this” with an amendment to the current ordinance.

That fix can’t come soon enough. Arco and McDaniel are just two of the countless artists who see the potential to bring a little life to Atlanta’s streets — and make a few dollars along the way.

Arco says his arrest hasn’t changed his attitude toward Atlanta. He hopes to turn his jarring experiences into a positive one, possibly even a future street performance. “I’m glad that what this arrest may do is help change some laws and maybe help some other artists,” Arco says.

McDaniel, who’ll return later this month for his court appearance, doesn’t think busking in Atlanta is worth the risk. He’s spending the first part of summer in Los Angeles, where he’ll perform outside Dodgers Stadium, entertainment venues, and on the beach. And, no, he doesn’t expect to be hassled for playing his trombone.