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A fixture of the Herald Square subway stop, John Ajilo — also known as the “Dancing is Happiness” man — has been a quirky, welcome sight for many commuters over the past five years. The subway saxophonist, usually posted near the W34th Street and 6th Avenue entrance, and sometimes at Port Authority/Times Square, frequently performed impromptu concerts for tourists and locals alike, backed up by a jaunty ensemble of robotic cats at the Midtown stations.

But all of that came to a  jarring close on Thursday, as a crowd of six police officers converged on Ajillo, handcuffing and arresting him for (the NYPD say) “impeding pedestrian flow and utilizing a sound reproduction device.” 

NPYD officers arrest busker John Ajilo at the 34th Street subway station.

“I am not obstructing the law, I am not committing any crime,” said Ajilo as he was forcibly restrained by officers Thursday evening. While permits are not required to perform underground, according to Gothamist officers cited “complaints from the MTA regarding an unauthorized performer” and an MTA rule book stating that performances cannot interfere with the flow of customers through the station and that there are limits on “sound reproduction devices.”

Said Pat Warren, MTA Chief Safety and Security Officer of the incident in a statement: “The MTA has rules of conduct that are for the safety of all riders and employees and are not optional. We appreciate the Mayor’s and police commissioner’s commitment to keeping New Yorkers safe by ensuring those rules are observed across the transit system.” 

“We can’t have it both ways. Let’s not tell police officers to do a job and then when they do the job, we turn on them and state that they were being heavy-handed,” said Mayor Eric Adams of the video showing the officers drag Ajilo away. “They were not heavy handed. They were patient. He was heavy handed and ignoring them and then he became loud and disruptive to draw attention.”

“My wrist is injured from the tight handcuffs, Am emotionally depressed, and my body hurts. My saxophone was damaged, our dancers were incomplete and broken too after they were released to me,” posted Ajilo on Instagram as he recounted the ordeal, adding that he spent the night in jail before being dealt four tickets, “all for a struggling subway street musician trying to take care of family and my four autism / autistic children and the community musically,” he added. 

As the Adams administration promises to amp up subway security following concerns over rider safety, the city’s beloved subway entertainers and street vendors have become the NYPD’s go-to target, inciting anger from New Yorkers who believe the city resources are grossly misdirected. “Arrest actual criminals instead of being useless,” commented one Twitter user, while another said of the cops: “This is so infuriating. They’re literally ruining the city, financially and culturally. And if you want a safe MTA, why wouldn’t you want people like this putting in a loving and reliable presence, bringing people together? Cops are an antisocial force. Society is safety.” 

“It’s a war on music,” said Sal Salomon, a Hell’s Kitchen native, longtime busker, and acquaintance of Ajilo’s. “In this present climate — where there is so much going on with the Supreme Court, with crime in New York City, with the removal of protections against concealed weapons, the mental health issues that are plaguing the subways  — the buskers in the subway are the only link to a little bit of momentary joy and civility in our city.”

Busker Sal Salomon “it is absurd and ridiculous that someone playing a saxophone with robotic cats is going to be arrested.” Photo: Phil O’Brien

“If we’re so worried about safety, it is absurd and ridiculous that someone playing a saxophone with robotic cats is going to be arrested and that we’d use so many resources — police officers, squad cars, judges and court employees — to arrest the buskers who are just bringing joy to our city. Those officers should be ashamed of themselves,” added Salomon.

The NYPD’s focus on arresting vendors and performers is a hot-button issue citywide. Last month, after a street vendor was pinned and handcuffed for selling fruit at the Broadway Junction subway station, Adams argued: “There’s a reason we have a Department of Health Standards. If people are just selling food without any form of insurance of the quality of their food, someone could get ill from that, so that’s why there are rules in the subway system.” City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams countered: “We must provide economic opportunities for New Yorkers who are pursuing them, not criminalize or push them into the justice system.” 

Salomon was ticketed $140 for performing Frank Sinatra tunes in Central Park. “I was using a Bluetooth speaker,” he said. “If you listen to your own music on the lawn through a Bluetooth speaker, there’s no issue, but if you’re performing, they’ll bother you. It’s not about the volume,” he said, adding that in Ajilo’s case, “there is supposed to have been a meter to determine if the speaker was too loud — otherwise, the officers were “illegally making a judgment call on what’s ‘too loud’. It’s a war on performers.”

Like Ajilo, Salomon stressed that most artists performing in the subway or park are just trying to get by in an unforgiving artistic economy. “Living in NYC is very expensive, and artists have had to go to the streets with no other choice to try to survive and make ends meet. You’re not assaulting anyone, you’re not robbing anyone — artists need freedom.”

In Ajilo’s case, New Yorkers have come out in droves to show their support, expressing their dismay at his arrest and donating thousands to the musician’s GoFundMe page in hopes that he’ll be back at his post soon, bringing joy to a city that desperately needs it. 

John Ajilo performing in Times Square with his sax and robotic cats in April this year. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Join the Conversation

15 Comments

  1. I have to say this is pretty ridiculous. While people are getting stabbed, slashed, shot and forcibly touched among other things, SIX police officers are spending who knows how much time with this man who is bringing a little fun to the otherwise dreadful subway system. I won’t even get into the manner in which they “took him down”, but I think it’s time that Adams and the NYPD get their priorities straight because what they’re doing now clearly isn’t working.

  2. I take the train daily (Weekends too), and I see FUCKING MORONS blast their music for the whole Train car to hear, dancing up and down around babies, ppl smoking, arguments and more. Ive even seen Beggars BUMP INTO EACH OTHER in the same car and often BACK TO BACK one leaves, another enters. Riders are FORCED to stay there! With this guy, you just pass by! GET YOUR FUCKING PRIORITIES STRAIGHT! There’s a reason ppl dont want to pay your fare!!

  3. It’s a sad world we are living it seems that it doesn’t matter where you turn something is always going on. Many years ago it used to be that performers in the subway would need a permit to perform as long as it didn’t obstruct traffic maybe that should go back into affect. As for the arrest it was totally unnecessary BUT I will also add that if you are asked to pack it up and move along then even if you’re not committing a crime and considering the issues with police brutality just comply and call it a day. You stand a better chance at not being arrested to hurt. The omni presence was a bit much with the officers all standing around waiting for a boss to make a decision meanwhile back in the trains we have the dancers and slashers. As for Eric Adams stop saying people complain and make better use of the issues at hand. Good Day everyone!

  4. What do you expect out of Mayor Adam NYPD?

    He’s a cop. The cops are his boys. They’ll do whatever they want and we’ll pray they don’t do it to us.

    The only person happy that Adams is mayor is DeBlasio because he looks so much better in comparison.

    Cameras failed during the subway shooting? Adams solution is to buy more cameras. Cops sitting around on their phones while criminals stab people on the subways? Have six cops arrest a busker. So lame and unhelpful, I’m embarrassed that my tax dollars pay their salaries.

  5. Perhaps there should be specific areas that don’t impede traffic for musicians. It’s ridiculous that six cops were needed when they would be better used on the platforms protecting us from people looking to shove you to the tracks or molest you. Let’s use some common sense!

  6. Wow. I’m speechless. Everyone else is saying it well, so I’ll just add that I’m so disappointed in this city. What a joke.

  7. The cops will do anything to avoid the real problems and if you say anything to them about it they threaten you.

  8. This is a sad commentary on the state of thing in NYC. This is not what is meant by the need for police protection. Arresting musicians is not what it’s about.

  9. This SUCKS, NYPD!!! And SIX officers???? Get your feet back on the Hell’s Kitchen sidewalks and leave peaceful entertainers alone. MTA? Tweak that rule to make sense.

  10. While I do sympathize with Mr. Ajilo, I support the officers removing him. In terms of the scuffle, they seem to have asked him peacefully first and he deliberately refused to comply. He should be fined more heavily for forcing them to get him out by force!! I think he wanted to cause a scene!
    As for basking, I don’t mind baskets if they get out of the way. I do enjoy their shows from time to time. But I don’t want them imposing on passengers! Do your thing but don’t try to impose it on passengers!
    Let him go in there and just play his instrument or instruments, but to add stuff reaching out and pushing people into a narrower space I think is not cool!!
    If he can’t be considerate, then, he shouldn’t come back in there!! Just the saxophone and perhaps a couple of drums in a small space and out of the way when not in use I think might be ok! But to do it all over the place etc is not cool to me!
    If these people can’t comply with these minimal requirements then they should get out.
    I feel like people are taking advantage of people’s progressive values to make the streets unusable for everybody else except them! That seems selfish to me! The rest of us play by the rules, we don’t impede others! And we have hard lives too! People putting up tents on the streets etc etc!! And then complaining when they’re removed!! But the rest of us also pay taxes and want to walk and feel safe on the streets! Do we have no rights?! Shall we just hole ourselves up in our apartments and not come out? Must we walk through the tent camps?! I think it’s inconsiderate, and as much as I am a “liberal” I find this unfair and wrong and unacceptable!! Let’s find other solutions but to take up and take over our public spaces to me is just not acceptable!!! We all have challenging lives, we don’t impose our problems on our neighbors in the public parks or streets!!! That’s just exploiting our good will!!! It must be stopped!!! We can’t continue to lose our cities to people putting up tents or basking where they please!!! That’s just not acceptable!!! I think such people doing these things are abusing kind people’s progressive values!!!

  11. If they wanna arrest him for performing they better arrest all the other white performer’s that perform in that same exact spot. I’ve seen performer’s with drum sets giant speakers and other equipments and the cops stood by and said nothing.

  12. Police had to do that, because the man was clearly breaking mta rules about music in the system. If he signed up and auditioned to perform and got permission, he would have to follow guidelines written for street performers, I’m sure one of those rules was not to spread out like he was. However with all the criminals and wannabes out there, it seemed that they were going for a soft target, that gentleman, while he was breaking a few laws, was not harming anyone. Meanwhile turnstile jumpers are free range blatantly breaking laws, on their way to commit more mayhem. They are the ones who really deserve that sort of treatment. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. The law is the law and police are there to enforce it for the safety of the riding public.

  13. This is ridiculous & beyond sad. I have seen him perform & he is not a problem. Arrest & lock up the shoplifters instead of letting them continue 100 times & laugh as they are released. The musician put a smile 😃 my My Face & brightened my commute. The cops 👮‍♀️ made or WERE GIVEN a bad judgment call!!

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