BART buskers hosting 'in-solidarity' show at Fruitvale station to counter anti-panhandling proposal

Tone Oliver, an El Sobrante rapper and full-time public transit busker, is hosting an "in solidarity" show at the Fruitvale station Friday evening, in the hopes of showing the community what BART performers do as he and his peers confront what he calls an "active attack" on artist livelihoods.

The grassroots event begins at 5 p.m. and will feature himself, as well as rapper Drew Money a.k.a. the Young Humble Billionaire, a guitarist by the name of J Bird and a saxophonist, KJ Focus.

"I wanted to connect performers with the community," Oliver, 31, told KTVU on Friday ahead of the event. "I want to show the positive side. We are a cultural part of the bay." 

The performance, in front of the Oscar Grant mural, is to counter a proposal pushed by BART director Debora Allen that would ban all forms of asking for money on trains – playing music for voluntary donations and panhandling -- inside BART fare gates. 

Allen, who represents eastern Costa Costa County, said many of her constituents have complained to her that they don't like the noise and the repeated pleas for handouts from homeless people and BART performers on the trains as they try to get to and from work and home in peace. 

"People are not on trains to hear artistic expressions," she said. "They can pay for that somewhere else." 

Allen formally introduced the ban proposal on Aug. 22 and the board will discuss its legal implications in October. The American Civil Liberties Union has already declared that such a panhandling ban would be unconstitutional, and asking for money in the public square is equivalent to free speech. Allen countered that the ACLU is wrong on this: BART can indeed enact such prohibitions inside the fare gates, which she said is a "restricted forum" and not technically public space.

BART already has penal codes on the books. People already may not use sound amplification devices that disturb the peace or others by engaging in "boisterous or unruly behavior."  Panhandling that is "aggressive and involves accosting someone" is not allowed. And in 1983, BART adopted an "expressive activity permit" policy allowing people to speak and hold special events in the "free area" of BART stations if they have permits but not in the "paid area" of the stations, where only ticketed passengers are allowed. 

Allen said that her proposal would just strengthen the rules already on the books, turning what has been a longstanding policy into an ordinance. "An ordinance actually lets us put up a sign," she said, "or lets a BART operator tell someone not to panhandle." 

She said that there are some safety issues with busking as well. "What if they (the performers) go flying from a pole, or the straps and fly into a lot of people?" she asked. 

Allen said that her intention is to "terminate the regulars." Allen said she is not targeting poor individuals asking for a few bucks every once in a while, or a person playing acoustic guitar who is not asking for donations. She is focusing her efforts on "regular panhandlers making a living" every day by asking riders for money on the trains.

And as for people who say, ‘Get up and move if you don't like it?' Allen countered with these questions: What if a rider is disabled? What if the trains are full? 

If her proposal gets passed, it would be a "progressive structure," with warnings issued and signs posted, before people would potentially be cited. 

Oliver gets it. 

He, too, doesn't really like to be asked for change and spare cash from people who "have open wounds and don't look healthy." But for him, linking the chronic homeless issue and  busking are two entirely separate issues. 

It's not like Oliver has that much money to give anyway. While an average busker might earn $200 on a good day, Oliver is relatively new to performing on BART trains. He was driving for Uber and "really struggling," he said, until a friend told him being a BART busker less than a year ago. Now, it's his full-time gig. 

He also understands that some people on BART might not want to hear rap, hip hop and other forms of loud music on the trains. He said that most of the buskers he knows have an unwritten code to keep the music at relatively low levels so as not to annoy the crowds. "We want to please people," he said, "if we want donations." 

He also knows that what he's doing is borderline against BART rules, since playing amped music is not allowed.

"So, I'm not going to rap in front of a cop," he said. 

But, he said, people should also see the good behind what he and his fellow buskers do. 

Once, he a BART rider who was suicidal later came up to him to say that his songs uplifted him so much that he decided to keep living. Oliver has the words "Keep Going" on his sneakers, and the man had those words tattooed on his feet. 

Other times, Oliver said he's changed hearts and minds. He said he has seen "older, white men who look displeased," and then after his rap, will be "converted, with a smile." 

People who ride BART can also choose not to listen. "People can just bring their headphones and put them on," he said. 

His hope, though, is that BART riders look up from their phones and just experience a new form of art on the trains.

"My hope is to bring love and joy," he said, "and experience this part of Bay Area culture."