Meet D, Texas and Tay, three breakdancing B-Boys from New York City’s underground.
A few weeks ago, D and Texas arrested for dancing (not for the first time). Tay has also been arrested for dancing as well.
This video, however, shows that plainclothes police (Gestapo) were used in their arrest.
The criminalization of artists —particularly artists of color in respect to the Broken Windows Policy of Stop and Frisk— is not only problematic, but endangers the output of cultural capital. Because New York City remains the United States’ preeminent cultural hearth and has a long standing history for being a house of “American” innovation, its underground’s recent criminalization can be observed along with the general criminalization of people of color during New York City’s gentrification.
Much like how moms-and-pops stores, local bookstores, bagel and coffee shops are vanishing, artists are beginning to lose their “home” in the underground. In the MTA’s underground, and depending on which neighborhood, there might be both uniformed and plainclothes police.
Such a police presence should be alarming enough, and is thus “unusual” against the general public. If it is not “unusual,” it opens the possibility of having already been normalized to what suggests a more transparent police state, which presumes power over public spaces such as the underground.
The B-Boys always being with a full circle of positivity—opening and ending with a hope for smiles, happiness and blessedness (really). If you ask them, they are very aware the happiness dancing can produce.
Maybe not surprisingly, there have been parallel experiences in criminalizing artists, erasing historically cultural practices and hearths, and public resistance in the form of dancing in other places—namely, Spain. Yes, Spain.
Similar to the NYPD’s criminalization of underground artists, Spain’s government has mandated legislation which regulate “against street musicians” and give law enforcement the power “to confiscate musical instruments and levy aggressive fines for playing or even just singing in public…”
A wave of gentrification has also been rising in Spain. Like other consequences of gentrification, Spain’s artistic capital has become the consequence of “newly legislated municipal ordinances and heavy policing.” In Spain, the legal complaint has been “noise ordinances,” and in New York City, the legal complaint has been “reckless endangerment.” Both are moot in cultural and historical contexts, and deepen police infiltration into public spaces.
Spain’s social spheres historically center on music and so would produce sound (“noise”), whereas the New York City charges have not been upheld in court, because the presence of an inherent “danger” causal to a B-Boy could not be justified, and only serves, as dancer Texas states, “just to get us [B-Boys] into the” monetarized “system.”
Both are subjects of unfounded, preemptive political and policing aggressions, which perpetuate the continuation of colonization that is gentrification.
In response to Spain’s legislations, “more than 50 people, most of them middle-aged, circled a man playing guitar… while women of all ages occasionally entered the circle and broke into dance.” Nonetheless, the underground, the cultural hearth, continues its ancient tradition of unifying the people in song and dance.
The Spanish government has responded by subverting both the artist and the people with a $40,000 fine and an anti-protest law, thus debilitating any short-term reclamation, and ensuring a future without dissidence, consciousness ot art. In Spain, it has been said and realized that there is a “legal and financial frame into which neoliberalism attempts to confine artistic expression.” This neoliberal project is also part of the economic hearth in New York City, the city in which our dancers are also profiled, questioned, arrested and fined.
Case in point, this second interview explores the question: “Can you recount your experience with the undercover, plainclothes cops and cops in general? What has your experience been with the legal system?”
The B-Boys were not told their rights, were arrested by plainclothes Gestapo and have been given a charge which has not held in court. There are several ways in which their encounters and experiences with police violate basic, human and constitutional rights. The B-Boys have also paid for the lawyers, court dates and other legal fees, but the financial reprimand seems less alarming than the aforementioned constitutional and human violations.
There is an intersection at which there are the B-Boys and the People. Being subject to Gestapo Policing seems normal, because B-Boys have been criminalized—even socially. As Tay said, “Just because we have tattoos doesn’t mean we’re bad. We’re good guys.” But, it might not seem so “normal” if plainclothes officers began replacing uniformed police, and were applied to “society” (the assumption is that the B-Boys are not part of society, and therefore justifies their arrests as “criminals,” and this false construction allows the public acceptance of Gestapo, only because immediately the public does not feel their policing directed toward them).
Allowing a persistent form of oppression, merely because it does not affect one is the quintessential modus operandi of privilege. When there is a construction of a “criminal,” it also indirectly informs what is a “citizen.” A “citizen” is not supposed to challenge any authority—inclusive of police. This then creates a dangerous environment in which police can mispractice the law.
Although the majority of B-Boys who have been arrested are considered legal adults, the NYPD also at times encounters the younger generation of dancers. The video below shows dancers Crash Smooth, age 11, and Puppy Chow, age 12, describing their encounters with the police.
They recount that their experiences with the police have been minimal so far, but they also observe that the older generation B-Boys (legally “adults”) are harassed and arrested by the police. Although it is a sensitive time to discuss the relationship between the police and the public, police brutality still remains and it wouldn’t be unconscionable if the 11- and 12-year-old dancers would be targeted for possible arrest, given that “reckless endangerment” has been charged to other dancers. It wasn’t long ago that this NYPD plainclothes officer subdued and repeatedly punched a 12-year-old Black boy, and police crime against people, particularly young men, of color is increasing steadily into normalization:
Puppy Chow, like many other B-Boys and artists, argues that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police should focus more on “robbers” and “murderers,” and should acknowledge that artists are doing “something positive and not negative.”
In absolute terms, as the B-Boys are “citizens” (this terminology is problematic yet inevitable in discoursing the full extent of “civilian” violations), Plainclothes Gestapo have already been applied to “citizens,” that is, just dancing, artistic citizens.
Every act of police-based crime simultaneously obfuscates and justifies its own criminality. Because the cops stand for “the law,” a universal and nearly unsaid acceptance of their acting authority exists.
We therefore understand the grave disempowerment in “I can’t breathe.” A police’s acting authority presumes the police’s consciousness is aligned with truth or reality. The dissonance arises not only because of persistent racism, but also because the police officer is (really is, though not to excuse any behavior) “just following orders.” It is both the police officer and the orders who are at fault, yet it’s unclear the extent to which either the officers or the orders listen to the people.
The anti-protest law may have occurred in Spain, but its bureaucratic means parallel that of New York City, with the same financial and political structures feeding themselves for (ironically) petty money, and more deeply, the acquisition of human rights, novelty, expression and creation.
The dancers’ daring acrobatic moves are often mistaken for aggressive, violent movement. As with any other art forms, the paradox is the artistry, balance, and delicacy in harmonizing the dynamism of spirit through expression.
Art is both polarizing and unifying, dissonant and harmonious. All possibilities for other expressions emerge from it. If art is cut, there is no captain and no helm. As a result, the power opens itself for grabs, causing art and its subsequent forms of expression to lose.
To what end do we accrue our knowledge of systems, do we stack the protest banners, say goodbye to another young brother or occupy City Hall with a song? As the B-Boys say, “Let us dance!”
Daniel Vidal Soto grew up in the North Side barrio of Fort Worth, Texas, and spent his childhood summers visiting his family in Acuña, Coahuila, México. In 2008, he won the Loft Literary Center Fellowship in Poetry. He graduated from Macalester College with a degree in English and creative writing. He is an MFA candidate at Long Island University-Brooklyn.