2021 | News

Miscommunication by police about public musicians enrages area buskers

Initial tweet mistakenly lumped together scammers and street performers

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Travis Gardner plays the trombone in downtown Silver Spring on June 2. Gardner is one of several area street musicians, or buskers, upset about recent tweets by the Montgomery County Police Department with a warning about people pretending to play the violin.

Photo by Chip Py

A miscommunication by Montgomery County police on social media about “scam” street violinists has outraged some musicians who play in public in the D.C. area.

On Thursday, police posted a warning on Twitter that people should be “aware of scam violin players in Rockville and other location’s shopping centers.” The tweet said “these people are known as buskers” and are “illicitly soliciting money through cash AND electronic methods.”

A busker is someone who performs on streets or public places, often for money.

The police were trying to highlight a nationwide scam in which people pretending to play the violin — the music is actually a recording — try to get donations. They often falsely claim to be homeless or have a sick relative.

Many people posted angry reactions to the advisory online, particularly on the police department’s Facebook page, where the conversation included hundreds of comments.

Police didn’t apologize for the “busker” reference, but followed up on Friday with another tweet with a clearer message, and deleted the first tweet.

“MCPD cannot discourage anyone from giving money, but does offer a word of warning to be cautious, especially if using phone apps,” the tweet on Friday said.

Shiera Goff, the director of public information for the department, told Bethesda Beat on Monday that the advisory was intended to warn people about fake violinists who pretend to be playing, with bow movement synchronized to music.

“One of the detectives from the fraud unit asked if we would post it on social media because these people have been a little bit more noticeable [in Montgomery County],” she said.

Goff said the second tweet was meant to clarify that the department was specifically referring to fake violin players.

“There were quite a few people who did know that we were talking about people who were pretending to play the violin. And they were trying to explain that to people, but other people were not seeing it,” she said.

Goff said police generally don’t arrest people for asking for money or panhandling in Montgomery County, unless it’s aggressive.

“This was just a friendly suggestion to warn people that these people are not playing the violin, and that also they claim to be homeless and have family members who are dying,” she said. “And they’ll tell these stories that may not always be true.”

Even with the clarification, the damage was done because police did not distinguish between legitimate musicians and scam artists, some street musicians said. They started a petition demanding that Police Chief Marcus Jones issue a public apology and talk to area street performers.

“It is offensive to hard working street musicians (buskers) to label all of us as illicitly soliciting, begging, and scamming the public,” it states.

As of Tuesday morning, the petition had more than 140 signatures.

One of the petition’s organizers — area journalist and photographer Chip Py — said the clarification tweet didn’t go far enough because it didn’t acknowledge the initial mistake.

“[Police] claimed all of these people are buskers and said they’re illicitly soliciting people for their money. Well, busking isn’t illegal in our town [or] in our county, and a lot of buskers make a living,” he said.

Py, who has chronicled the history of Go-Go music in Washington, D.C., said the holidays are often a busy time for street musicians at outdoor markets, such as the Downtown Holiday Market in D.C.

“There’s people out there playing music on the corners. People are going, ‘Oh, better not give them money.’ The damage has been done,” he said.

Travis Gardner, known as the “Trombone King of D.C.,” told Bethesda Beat on Monday that during the COVID-19 pandemic, while clubs were closed, his five-member band often busked at Veterans Plaza in Silver Spring.

“Before the pandemic, I had a 9 to 5, but I was working with senior citizens in a nursing home. We got laid off a month before they even shut down. So that was the only way to make it through the pandemic,” he said.

Gardner said Jones should apologize to street performers.

Gardner said that to avoid conflicts with law enforcement, street performers generally keep to a curfew and make sure not to exceed a certain decibel level.

“You have people who a lot of police officers come up to [and say], ‘Hey, you’re doing something illegal.’ … We’ve been around long enough, we know all the restrictions and the laws, that they really can’t say too much to us,” he said.

Gardner took issue with the police department’s cautionary note about musicians who use cash apps.

“I think you call it a scam if you don’t know where the money is going,” he said. “We use PayPal. We use cash apps. Because some people are like, ‘Hey, I would love to give to you, but we don’t carry cash anymore.’”

Emma Ghaemmaghamy, a Chevy Chase musician known as Emma G., agreed that it’s common for street performers to use cash apps.

Emma Ghaemmaghamy (Submitted photo)

“Why are we still bothering with coins and notes? It’s 2021,” she said.

Ghaemmaghamy, a singer/songwriter who has performed at the Kennedy Center, said she remembers working as a street performer at Metro stations about six years ago.

She said she understands the warning about “the perceived nuisance of people pretending to play instruments,” but the tweet was insensitive.

“They used the term ‘busker’ and ‘scammer’ interchangeably, when, in fact, busking is playing an instrument and performing, regardless of whether people are tipping or not,” she said.

Ghaemmaghamy said she doesn’t even think people pretending to play the violin for money is a big deal.

“So they’re playing … Beethoven’s quartet, whatever it is, on the on the track, and pretending to play. The worst that can happen from that is people don’t like Beethoven,” she said.

Ghaemmaghamy said the police should have deleted all of the tweets referencing violinists.

“They should clarify and recognize that street performance is an art form and brings value and culture to communities nationwide,” she said. “I think that their complete lack of compassion towards people who clearly need money is evident.

“And their initial tweet was very much about quashing a perceived problem for the privileged as opposed to actually thinking, ‘OK, how can we actually help these people?’”

Ghaemmaghamy said she would welcome an apology from the department, but would prefer that it change its outlook on street performance.

“Given how under fire police are currently, this is a beautiful opportunity for the Montgomery County Police Department to practice more empathy, to engage quality musicians and activate quality communities through culture,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com