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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.”
“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.”
“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.