First it was selling mangoes; now it’s playing saxophones. Under Mayor Eric Adams, New York City police have dramatically stepped up arrests of solo entrepreneurs trying to scrape a living in the city’s subways.
Last week police arrested John Ajilo, a beloved saxophonist who has been a fixture for more than five years in Herald Square, one of New York City’s largest subway stations. The talented busker is known for playing tunes with a sign that read “Dancing is Happiness” and surrounded by small robotic dancing cats, which often inspire passersby to start grooving as well.
That came to a violent halt last Thursday evening after the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates New York’s subway system, alleged to police that Ajilo’s dancing cats were impeding pedestrians’ paths. In a disturbing video of his arrest that Ajilo uploaded to social media, the saxophonist can be seen standing surrounded by five police officers in a tense discussion. Suddenly, an officer grabs Ajilo’s wrist as the other four officers join in wrestling him into submission. Ajilo repeatedly cries out for help. “What did I do wrong? I’m a musician,” he pleads as the cops pin his arms and then cuff him.
The sax player was issued four citations and jailed overnight. In a message uploaded to his Instagram, Ajilo said that police injured his wrist during the arrest, and damaged his instrument and dancing cats. “Am emotionally depressed, and my body hurts,” he wrote.
Ajilo has received an outpouring of support: a GoFundMe that he launched to cover legal costs and lost income has drawn over $110,000 in donations. “You are a literal New York Icon,” one donor wrote. “You are a gift to our city ... What happened to you is wrong,” wrote another.
But in the eyes of Mayor Adams, the only person who deserved blame was Ajilo.
“[The police] were not heavy-handed, they were patient. [Ajilo] was heavy-handed and ignoring them. And then he became loud and disruptive to draw attention,” the mayor told a local news channel on Monday.
In a separate press conference on Tuesday, Adams lauded the cops for the crackdown. “I’m proud of those officers … That is how you do proper policing.”
In a statement to the Guardian, an NYPD spokesperson said that police responded to “multiple complaints from the MTA” about Ajilo “impeding pedestrian flow and utilizing a sound reproduction device”. The spokesperson alleged Ajilo refused multiple police warnings to leave and “after exhausting all options with the individual he was placed into custody and removed to a police facility”.
MTA’s subway performance rules state that musicians may not impede the movement of passengers. However, the rules do not require permits for musicians, and do not prohibit the use of speakers, except on subway platforms and when announcements are being made.
In a statement emailed to the Guardian, Pat Warren, the MTA’s chief safety and security officer, said, “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.”
Mohammed Attia, a former street vendor who now directs the non-profit Street Vendor Project, said arrests like Ajilo’s happen constantly and are only increasing under Adams’ mayorship.
The incidents that went viral only showed the tip of the iceberg, the advocate said. “If every single incident was recorded and posted on social media, we would see it every day.”
Attia said in the last few weeks, police officers have been cracking down on vendors in New York’s midtown for alleged offenses like having a box on the ground that should have been under their car, or for operating eight feet from the crosswalk instead of the required 10.
“A lot of these minor violations could be curable in a matter of seconds,” Attia said. “Instead they prefer to write tickets and threaten to arrest people and seize their cars and properties, and that’s what they do.”
Adams, who was a police officer for 22 years before entering politics, has ordered aggressive policing of low-level offenses since becoming the city’s mayor in January. On top of flooding the subway with cops to crack down on minor violations, the mayor has ordered police to clear homeless encampments and reintroduced a controversial plainclothes “Neighborhood Safety” unit that was known for abuse complaints before it was disbanded in 2020 during the George Floyd protests.
Statistics show that the unit, which Adams claimed would focus on getting guns off streets, are instead mostly making low-level arrests for things like fake IDs or expired licenses.
Meanwhile, arrests in New York’s transit system are up 64% compared with last year, with 17,000 summons issued for fare evasions and 600 for obstructing seats.
For María Falcon, who was handcuffed for selling mangoes in a subway station earlier this year, the story of Ajilo’s arrest felt all too familiar.
“This man is just like us,” she told the Guardian through an interpreter. “Another humble person, going out, trying to make a living, trying to make people happy, bringing good energy, not hurting anybody, not even bothering the police.”
In April, Falcon was selling mangoes from her cart at at Brooklyn’s Broadway Junction station when she was arrested by a pair of officers. Police detained her two hours, strip-searched her for drugs and weapons and confiscated her mango cart before releasing her. An NYPD statement after her arrest alleged she had “refused to stop vending at the location after multiple warnings”.
After her arrest, Mayor Adams defended the cops and claimed they had no choice, or else it would lead to a slippery slope of lawlessness. “The next day it’s propane tanks being on the subway system, the next day it’s barbecuing in the subway system,” he said.
Falcon, who relies on vending as her sole income, has a permit for handling food but lacks a permit for her cart, which are nearly impossible to obtain thanks to an antiquated licensing system, forcing vendors to either buy them for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market or work in fear of law enforcement.
Molly Griffard, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, which provides representation to marginalized New Yorkers, said that Adams’s approach to public safety was a return to the discredited “broken windows” theory of policing – the idea that cracking down on low-level offenses can reduce violent crime.
“That theory came into being about 40 years ago. It’s been studied extensively across the country, and it’s time and time again been proven not to be effective,” Griffard said. “Instead, what it’s doing is criminalizing poverty and going after the very most vulnerable people who need support, not policing.”
Griffard said that New Yorkers detained for minor offenses may be “held in a cage for several hours while they’re being processed”, without the ability to contact anyone. “Maybe they’re supposed to go pick up a kid in an hour, but they can’t contact anyone. It’s essentially being kidnapped off the streets.”
People accused of violations in New York’s subway system are not provided with counsel, so they end up paying hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars in fines – what Griffard called “basically a very high tax” on street vendors and performers.
The result is “a huge bureaucracy that is spending a ton of time and resources policing and prosecuting the poorest New Yorkers for low-level offenses with no public safety benefit. It’s just failed policy,” she said.
Alex Vitale, the author of The End of Policing and a professor at the City University of New York, said: “These kinds of arrests undermine public confidence in policing and have historically led to escalating incidents in which police end up using high levels of violence against people for extremely minor infractions. This runs the risk of leading to crisis moments, like we saw with Eric Garner.” Garner was killed in 2014 when the NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold on suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes.
Darian X, an organizer with the local non-profit Communities United for Police Reform, said that Adams wasn’t so much returning the city to broken windows policing as it had never ended.
“What our communities have always experienced, no matter what you call it, is hyper-aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses. We have a city that has funded a police force to criminalize those who are literally seeking out ways to support themselves that the city has not provided them,” he said.
The organizer wants officials to rethink policing altogether. “The billions of dollars that we spend policing people are dollars that we could be spending on creating community spaces for those folks, the same way we could actually legalize their vendorship, create job opportunities and programs for them to actually have sustainable employment.
“Instead, we get these egregious acts of violence against poor, working-class people selling churros, selling mangoes, playing music – things that make New York what New York is.”