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Involuntary Guidelines

Analysis and opinion concerning political actions related to buskers
Analysis and opinion concerning political actions related to buskers
Santa Cruz is a little dimmer, and not because of the dork who snipped cords on downtown Christmas lights. It takes a great deal of care to build trust and create cooperative solutions based on consensus, but it only takes a small amount of selfishness or greed by any involved party to cause their failure.

Exactly as feared, the downtown commission’s recommendations confounded city council into passing yet another clumsy compromise solution to the often dissonant and always complex interplay between downtown sidewalk users.

Enticed by the downtown commission, an email group who took on stewardship of buskers’ interests, backed these doomed recommendations. This had the effect of guaranteeing not only the failure of a city-sanctioned voluntary guidelines’ opportunity, but set a precedent which snuffs out the faith that cooperative, creative, citizen-based solutions will be given a try by elected officials, let alone presented by future citizen groups.

Unfortunately this busker-friendly email group, which never convened a single meeting, allowed themselves to be led into temptation by downtown commissioners having their own personal anti-ordinance agenda. These commissioners, instead of recommending the buskers’ simple request for a few months to prove the voluntary guidelines effectiveness, which would have been virtually risk-free and was agreeable to all stakeholders, and also would have had the power of a downtown commission in consensus, drafted a contentious conglomeration of recommendations. Those recommendations contained dead-in-the-water city-resource draining demands on the police and city staff for data collection and a request to rescind the new display device ordinance. But more importantly, they put the onus of responsibility on the city and the downtown commission. This was the antithesis of the spirit in which the original voluntary guidelines were designed. The reason the voluntary guidelines have worked in the past was because street performers took responsibility for them and reached out to shake hands with all stakeholders, it wasn’t by demanding that the regulatory bodies make all of the initial concessions and take all of the responsibility. Bereft of political savvy, the buskers group was lured into the trap of contentiousness.

In reaction to the mess requested by the downtown commission, city staff countered with their own set of options and analyses. All together these conflicting recommendations left the city council puzzled and grasping for straws. And grasp they did. But their collective grip wound up around cooperative spirit, squeezing out its gentle energy by the drafting of an involuntary one-hour move-along clause for all political tablers, buskers, and any other display device-wielding citizen.

This one-hour move-along was the olive branch proffered by 35 street performers (who actually talked with each other in person) in 1980 to help convince regulation-favoring parties into trying out an interactive voluntary guidelines solution. Now the city council is attempting to codify that concession while shit-canning the rest of the user-friendly voluntary guideline system for which that concession was made. Luckily this foolishness is not yet set in stone, and Green Party council member Tim Fitzmaurice led council into accepting an amendment, passed by the slimmest of margins, which creates two drafts for the new ordinance; one with the one-hour move-along codified, one without. Buskers and busker friendly folks should contact city council members and let them know that you don’t want this move-along absurdity written into law.

But political tablers and performers can declare a tarnished victory. Quite a bit of sidewalk space has been regained. The 14’ setback has been rolled back to 10’. Council rejected a do-nothing 12’ option proposed by council member Mathews. That 12’ proposal would merely have created long thin strips not wide enough for tables, but the 10’ option that was approved, does create a lot more space for political tables. While this space increase also affects busker’s guitar cases and donation cans, it doesn’t solve the dilemma facing performers who want to both obey the law and not send their sound towards the storefronts.

All who have spent any significant amount of time researching and studying downtown sidewalk use issues and nuisances have come to the understanding that there is not a good one-size-fits-all answer. Even adjustable ones with 3 or 4 different setbacks from various objects have the tendency to cause more confusion than they solve. An elegant dynamic solution like the voluntary guidelines approach, that can adjust itself to each situation that arises, is not some throwback to dazed flower-power sentimentalism, rather it is cutting-edge technology infused with live intelligence that can adapt itself, learn, and become more self-sufficient. It would have cost the taxpayers little to sanction a citizen-based group to prove this social technology’s effectiveness.

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Don't Blame the Downtown Commission

I appreciate the time and energy Bobby has put into his analysis, though I disagree with him on some points.

I didn't agree with everything in the Downtown Commission, but felt its recommendations represented a good-faith effort to involve a lot of people in meeting what seemed to be a lot of spurious objections to the Voluntary Guidelines. Since there was never any real data presented about real street performer problems, it seemed more than gracious for street performers and downtown commissioners to be spending so much time making graceful attempts to respond to these phantom paranoias, unsubstantiated by police, merchant, or performer data.

In the process of addressing those so-called problems, Councilmember Porter and Reilly would be allowed to save face; Councilmembers Rotkin, Kennedy, and Mathews could
claim "victory" with the return of the 1994 ordinance (which I oppose); there would be a victory for all.

I see several factors potentially operating:
(1) the "get tough on the weak" mentality seems to be in full bloom. Council doesn't want or need to be bothered with street performers. There's a new conservative majority here which can simply steamroll ahead with the ugly Mathews resolution, backed up in part by Porter's "make the voluntary involuntary" preference, the Bernal staff report, and the minority Commission report;
(2) a possible "resign if you don't like it" broom sweeping through the Downtown Commission, which essentially told them to stop doing independent determinations but
simply follow the will of the unreasonable Council resolutions;
(3) a "we can do whatever the hell we want--we're the city council" attitude which capriciously rejects the many many hours of work of the Downtown Commission (to say
nothing of the Street Performers), without any serious examination of the proposals, other than an airy "'voluntary' means unenforceable and that's unacceptable" mantra.

Missing from any of this analysis is a proper understanding of the role and reality of the police in this situation. It was the police who began the crackdown. Merchants
heightened it with the scapegoat-heavy Jackson petition. Council joined the gangbang with its "enforce all laws" and its obscene rush to pass irrelevant and abusive ordinances
last summer.

But the behavior of the police is a real key to what is going on. Officialdom has always had its own conservative agenda and priorities. As well as its Sentinel, merchant, and Council allies.

The point of the Downtown Commission's call for data keeping was to address the fact that the real saboteurs of the Voluntary Guidelines have been the police. It echoed a similar request by folks opposing the Downtown Ordinances more broadly this summer from the SCAN Steering Committee.

The point was to protect street performers from further sabotage, selective enforcement, harassment, false complaints, and a fascistic falsification of the situation that leads to further repression. Data collection would clarify what was really going on and hopefully exert some kind of check on the police force and its O'Neill's-style expeditions.

Also needed, as it was last summer, is data that throws light on whether (a) any of these laws are necessary, (b) any of these laws serve the purposes alleged, (c) any of the older Downtown Ordinances have worked in the past.

The "mess" was the absurd ordinances that City Council gave to the Downtown Commission to "patch up". Exemption zones didn't work. Permits didn't work. The ordinances don't work. The problem is to save the faces of Council, cops, and staff here.

Their solution was to put forward some minor concessions (10' setbacks doubles the amount of forbidden space on sidewalks for tablers and performers) while casually gutting the guidelines and then in a macabre fashion, slicing off the skin, slipping out the spinal column, and dressing it up as a "move every hour" ordinance.

This Totally destroys the original point of the guidelines and leaves performers with little recourse other than to turn to the courts as Robert Lederman of NYC, the L.A. Alliance for Survival, and other groups have done.

Fitzmaurice's supposed concern for "the process" didn't go so far as to get him to vote against any of this mess. He just wants to keep street performers hanging on. I saw this
same kind of spurious concern he verbalized about civil rights this summer. Then, he expressed all kinds
of objections to the ordinances, which magically dissolved when he voted for all of them but the "leaning" ordinance.

The 14' "option" was never an option. Political tablers and street performers would have united against it, with its 95% prohibition. Even Reilly and Porter knew it wouldn't work, which was why they sent it back to the Downtown Commission. It is no victory to have that reduced to 10'forbidden zones from buildings, benches, phones, etc. when the current law is 6' (from a building) and 4' from a bench or phone. It is doubly abusive in having no legitimate purpose other than currying favor with nervous merchants.

I do agree with the final paragraph or two of the writer about the importance of the Voluntary Guidelines. The setbacks are simply a way of giving the merchants more buffer from any non-commercial activity whatsoever (a homeless removal zone, in fact). The road to restoring the street performers guidelines lies in reaching out--not to the Council and recalcitrant merchants, but to other performers, legal resources, activists in other cities, and the broader supportive community here.

This Council is willing to casually abort its own Commission's work rather than face the reality that it has made bad choices. In a time of repression, they have chosen more repression. Well, at least, we can sing and strum as we go.

Robert Norse

Re: Blame

Yeah, I've thought it over a little more now, and agree that I was too hard on the Downtown Commission. They were just doing the best they could. When I wrote the report, I was pretty bummed about the whole deal, but when I did the little hand puppet thing to myself, it told me that I didn't do as much as I could have to make it work either.

I should have lobbied each and every council member that could make a motion, into making a motion for the delay. At least that way there would have been a fallback position if the DC recommendations weren't going to fly.

I also should have made sure that Joe's idea for polling performers and businesses was known by Coleen ahead of time so that when Emily gave her the leading question about it, Coleen would have been ready and prepared to spend a couple minutes reporting about the strength of volunteerism in the buskers group. I shouldn't have been so soft on 'No-Guild' Noddy and shouldn't have let him get away with his constant denials about street performer problems, after-all I knew beyond any doubt through first-hand conversations with shop workers, that there were indeed plenty of street performer related problems. We didn't need any data collection that we couldn't do ourselves. We knew there were problems and we knew how to solve them. All it took was a little bit of commitment to discussing the problems with the involved parties.

Anyways, there are plenty of mistakes to go around.

No Guild?

Bobby writes: "I shouldn't have been so soft on 'No-Guild' Noddy and shouldn't have let him get away with his constant denials about street performer problems"

But there may be people who read this who don't know the context. Some might think that I would oppose the formation of a street performers' guild or union. I was one of the primary organizers of the Santa Cruz Street Performers' Guild when it came into being back in '79, '80. I am not opposed to the formation of one now. What I did discourage was structuring an agreement that relied on the ongoing active existence of such a group. Back when we did it then and again when we formed the Drum Council, and again now people were talking about these groups as a kind of enforcement group that would hold individual performers accountable for their abiding by the guidelines. Even if the group was very careful to avoid that role in the first place, that is exactly what they would be called upon to do over and over through the years and any failure to accomplish that task would be used to invalidate the concept of the guidelines themselves.

If a legitimate inclusive group of performers formed, I would defer to their judgements and decisions in all street performer matters ... period. If Bobby was party to the discussions that went on then he knows that that was/is my position. If he is similarly aware of the context of the discussion then he probably knows that there was talk of having a group that was only made up of those who were willing to sign on to the Porter/Reilly rules in exchange for some promised "perks". Those who refused to sign would not be "members" of the "Guild". I think that any such effort to isolate performers who, for whatever reason, decline to give their ID and their signature to an agreement made by some group back in 2003 would cause more trouble among the performers than it would solve between the performers and the government.

As for my continual call for naming the alleged "street performer problems" that called forth such dramatic changes in police approach downtown ... I would still like to hear about it. I know of two such problems in recent times. I intervened in one and the other involves a performer who comes into town so seldom that I have not been able to track him down. I am also aware of several "merchant problems" that performers have reported. None of the problems that I am aware of will be solved by the legal response that the Council has proposed.

Yeah, I know that there have been some few problems but I know a bit more about those problems than do the Councilmembers who were addressing them by calling for "rigorous enforcement" and new legal restrictions. I publicly called on them to name the problems so that we could get down to the details and agree that they are not the one-sided thing that they believe them to be. They have resisted responding. Despite the fact that the only public declarations from merchants had been support for the performers and a denial that the summer of '02 call for new laws was intended to effect street performers, Councilmembers insisted that there were problems and they had solutions. I still call on them to tell us what the problems are.

There is one musician who went door to door soliciting comments from merchants about the street performer problems. He says that he received some. I believe him. If he goes door to door soliciting complaints about the Aptos Little League team I believe that he will also gather some complaints about those blameless boys. But if he were to name the complaints in a public forum I think that we could put the complaints in perspective and see if there is a need for legislation to address them.

Listen, the merchants are confused. They have been specifically informed by the Downtown Hosts that there is an agreement that says that the performers will "move along" whenever they are asked to do so by any merchant. When I showed the Hosts that the agreement says no such thing, they stopped telling people that but, except in a few cases, they declined to correct this error with the merchants who thought that a performer insisting on his right to play for an hour was a jerk who was violating the agreement. The next thing we knew ... there was legislation proposed to enforce the "move along" policy that the merchants thought that they always had. Since the courts have ruled that the merchants may not have such power over First Amendment protected activity they have had to proceed with some caution and try to accomplish this without declaring that this is their intent. They will now try to make a law that will pass Constitutional muster and then apply the law through merchant "complaint only" and thereby accomplish this unconstitutional purpose through selective enforcement. I would rather have them name the specific complaints and thereby expose the central issue that has launched them on this path.

Bobby ... if you know of complaints that have led to this government effort, please name them ... I will tell you and the others paying attention to this conversation what I know about it if anything. Together we may find that the guidelines or legislation is a better approach to solving the issues involved, if not the specific merchant's preferences. We may even, who knows, end up in a dialogue that shows the merchants why the Hosts' office is not a reliable source of legal advice.


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