Free Speech, Tone Oliver, and BART’s Proposed Ban on Busking

Tone Oliver performing on a BART train. (Rashaan Carr)

Correction: This post has been updated to accurately describe BART Director Debora Allen’s questioning of the Oscar Grant mural at Fruitvale Station. An earlier version incorrectly stated Director Allen opposed the mural.

So let me get this straight: BART, which is a public transportation entity, and a government-owned and operated system, is looking to stop people from performing for spare change within the paid areas of its stations?

While BART board members pretty much control how all of this will play out in the coming weeks, with a vote on the matter scheduled for October, many of those who perform on BART aren’t sitting around quietly about it.

On Friday, Aug. 30, at 5pm at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, MC Tone Oliver is set to host an event called “I Ride With Buskers,” protesting the proposed ordinance that would ban busking or panhandling in the paid areas of BART property.

Although the proposal, introduced by BART Board Director Debora Allen, is far from a vote, let alone implementation, the conversation around her suggestion has ruffled a few feathers.

Allen officially announced the proposal last week, not too long after an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle spotlighted Tone Oliver and others who perform on BART. In response to Allen’s announcement, people took to social media to voice their concerns. One user, whose tweet Allen retweeted, created a survey of BART riders’ concerns, which reportedly showed that less than three percent of those surveyed listed panhandling as a top concern. Of the 100 people surveyed, the majority said cleanliness on BART was the most major concern.

That’s the court of public opinion. In the real courts, attorney Abre' Conner of the ACLU published a letter stating that her organization would sue BART if the proposed ordinance were to pass, arguing it would violate people’s first amendment rights.

See, here’s the thing: Tone Oliver really uses his free speech. In the traditional form, he gets on his soapbox and expresses himself. He’s not the only one. Tone is a part of a nice-sized roster of BART performers, who time their acts accordingly in between stops, so that they give unsuspecting audiences a brief introduction and short show; enough razzle-dazzle to entice them to cough up a few coins. And then the performers hop off the train or move on to the next car; all of it lasting no more than five minutes.

I’ve seen a few performances, not just by Tone, but by plenty others on BART, and honestly I’m amazed.

I’m amazed by the dancers hitting flips on BART’s handrails, and impressed that the rappers can rhyme while subject to the submarine pressure pushing on their eardrums as the train dips under the Bay and through the tunnel.

I’m also taken aback that these artists are playing the game of “America” by the rules, and getting into trouble for it. They’re literally practicing their first amendment rights, on a government-owned and operated public transportation system. Why is this even an issue?

BART is already dealing with real problems of overcrowding, fare evasion, maintenance and safety, both in and around its stations. Why add this to the list?

If anything, BART should be encouraging the arts. It’s what makes the Bay the Bay.

I’ve written before about the culture on BART being a barometer of the Bay. Even as recently as this week, NBA star and East Oakland native Damian Lillard and talented East Oakland lyricist Brookfield Duece put out a video spotlighting the culture of their neighborhood of Brookfield—including shots of people dancing on BART.

It’s a good thing.

Plus, it’s hard as hell to get up and speak, perform—hell, even exist—in front of other humans. Why condemn someone for defying the law of social gravity, and conjuring enough moxie to speak publicly?

I like silence too, don’t get me wrong. I’m more of the type to be on BART and try to not make eye contact. Acting like the memes in my group chat are scientific studies demanding all of my attention. I see people on BART who I’ve interacted with on social media, and give them a head nod, and return to my phone, book or intense staring contest with the back of the seat in front of me.

In other words, I get it: Folks pay for a train ride home, not Showtime At The Apollo. Sometimes it is a bit annoying to have unsolicited entertainment after a long day at your job. But you’ve got to understand: these performers are at their job too.

These are folks who’ve invested time into their craft. Folks who’ve gotten over their fear of public speaking. And folks who are asking for money, but more than that, they’re asking for an opportunity to be seen.

It’s unfortunate that all people looking for funds on BART cars and platforms get thrown into the same group. I mean, you’ve got to see the difference between the person playing Bach on a keyboard by the ticket machine and the person sloppy drunk and falling on you as they ask for spare change.

No knock against my intoxicated friend, but health-wise, I’ve got to ask if my contribution is going toward something that’s conducive to that individual’s health—let alone the impact it’ll have on the larger society. And yes, there are some people who get aggressive about asking for money. There should be something done so that people’s safety isn’t compromised in the midst of people’s public enterprise.

But if this is simply about being annoyed, how painful is it to have your podcast interrupted because you have to acknowledge economic disparity? You’ve paid for a train ride on public transportation. This is what’s going on “in the public.” The way I see it, this boils down to a simple question: in taking away other people’s freedom of speech, what are you gaining?

I called BART Director Allen, but as of press time did not get a response. When I called Tone Oliver, he said if the proposition passes, it would be “a huge step toward making the Bay Area more comfortable for people of certain demographics—you know: people with certain amounts of money.”

Over the phone, Oliver told me that the only reason the proposal exists is because of a handful of complaints. “But there are people who enjoy the shows, they just aren’t saying much,” he said. “So it’s important we get these other voices heard.”

With that in mind, on Friday, he plans to have performances by folks like rapper Drew Money a.k.a. the Young Humble Billionaire, a guitarist by the name of J Bird and a saxophonist, KJ Focus. And ahead of the event, Tone Oliver put out a new song, “Alignment,” in which he shares a few bars about his recent profile in the Chronicle.

Friday’s event will happen not too far from a mural dedicated to the life of Oscar Grant, unveiled earlier this year—a mural that BART’s Director Allen once questioned in a public Facebook post..

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