Under threat of legal action, the Oxford City Council has postponed debate on its most recent Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), proposed in May to rid the Oxford city centre of what they’re calling “antisocial behavior.”
Once only a problem for parents of toddlers and angst-ridden teenagers, antisocial behavior has apparently become a pressing issue in public areas like parks, malls and courtyards. People wander through streets without waving, no one holds doors for anyone else, anad—worst of all—street performers have begun to stay in one place for far too long and ask people for money.
If those don’t sound like criminal matters, to be published with criminal records, it’s because common sense tells us they’re not.
However, members of the Labour-led city council seem to believe otherwise. If you haven’t been following the story—or have no idea what a Public Space Protection Order is—don’t worry. We’ll do a quick recap before starting things up.
Most of what follows is true.
January-February – Frigid, unceasing winds blow over England. Days are short; nights are inhospitably long. Government workers have grown downtrodden and disheartened. Sleep is a distant memory.
March (early) – Things get slow around the City Council. Members are cranky from the cold and a lack of rest, often bickering for no clear reason. Some make paper airplanes, others resort to coloring books. One particular morning a younger member, (while leafing through old tickets and ordinances for fun), points out that there are, in fact, areas of citizen life that the council has not yet attempted to control.
“They’re called public spaces,” he says, “and they’re everywhere!”
The legislators are ecstatic, and become reinvigorated. Work begins immediately.
13 March – After hours of furious deliberation, the council unveils its first ever Public Space Protection Order. This is a legal document that sets out clear limits on what can and cannot be done in public areas. It allows for the imposition of fines of up to £1,000 ($1,500 USD) for citizens who fail to uphold vague, shifting standards of conduct, and turns previously unsatisfactory actions into criminal offenses.
In the evening, members of the council gather at their windows, listening for the sweet sound of tickets ripping, stopping orders and dying amplifiers. The first citations are written that night, and the council awaits new revenues in suspense.
October – The Anti-Social Behavior, Crime and Policing Act becomes law, as do all Public Space Protection Orders.
The council holds a wonderful celebration in the lobby, where chocolate cake, martinis, and raucous laughs at the expense of the public are had in abundance.
May (early) – While leaving Starbucks, one of the senior councilmen encounters Jeff, a local busker, singing a perfectly adequate rendition of Wonderwall. The song rings familiar, and stirs up long-buried memories in the councilman. He is reminded of his ex-girlfriend Karen, who broke his heart and left many years ago with a sofa that they bought together.
He drops his latte and walks back to the city council in a huff, muttering and kicking pebbles the whole way.
12 May – After relating his story to the rest of the council, he convinces them that all of these loud, troublesome buskers must be the first item on the following day’s agenda. They agree wholeheartedly, and arrange a group screening of Love Actually.
18 May – The council posts a preliminary version of its PSPO for Oxford City Centre, along with its existing code of conduct for Oxford buskers.
Johnny Walker, professional street performer and founder of the Keep the Streets Live campaign, reads the document in disgust. He circulates a petition, which gets over 5,000 signatures, and begins speaking out against the measure with other Oxford buskers while wearing a floppy hat.
21 May – Local street performers engage in a full day of non-compliant busking. Singers, guitarists and accordion players come from all over, in a show of solidarity with Oxford performers. The event is covered by the Oxford Mail, and inspires a flurry of online comments. (One is from the council’s press office.)
23 May – Comedian and activist Mark Thomas joins the discussion, taking to the streets in protest alongside local performers. “If you want to do something,” he says in an interview, “use the current laws to catch the criminals that are already out there. Don’t invent a bunch of new silly crimes to criminalize the populace.”
29 May – ITV News catches Johnny Walker on camera being confronted by a police officer while busking, though no arrest is made. Both men actually look kind of amused.
The council moves its discussion of the order from June 2nd to June 11th.
11 June (morning) – The council receives a letter from civil liberties/human rights group Liberty, in which specific legal action is threatened should the order be passed.
Karen reads the news on her sofa during breakfast. She discusses the matter with her new boyfriend Jeff, who busks with his guitar in the city centre a few days a week. They seem happy.
11 June (evening) – Debate on the order is postponed indefinitely…
Why This Matters
According to the existing code of conduct, all Oxford buskers in the city centre are required to “smile, enjoy [themselves] and entertain others.” Although this might seem like a silly thing to put on a legal document, we should keep in mind that this list of rules is not presently enforceable by any means.
In fact, before the code was attached to a Public Space Protection Order, it was viewed, along with most everything on it, as a mere list of suggestions. Writing these words on a ‘code of conduct’ didn’t make them legally binding any more than putting them on a dinner menu would’ve made them food.
However, should the order be passed, each of the code’s fourteen points—including strict limits on amplification, a weird ban on blankets, and this bit about smiling—would, theoretically, be enforceable by law.
These rules, if backed by threat of court dates and fines, would effectively forbid any and all non-compulsory action by the citizenry. Under such a vague and capricious set of regulations, “the ruled,” if I may borrow from Christopher Hitchens’ most astute definition of tyranny, “could always be found to be in the wrong.”
Performers would be beholden to subjective standards of what is too loud, too close, and not smiley enough, and threatened with fines for failing to meet them.
The Council’s Response
Although the Oxford City Council’s press office has, in the Oxford Mail’s comment section, assured us that this area of the code “would not be the subject of enforcement action,” they have failed to make such a distinction in any area of the actual written law. And that, as anyone who’s ever been caught with an open container in the United States will tell you, is where it really counts.
In other words, no one’s ever gotten out of punishment for a crime by way of ‘online comment exoneration.’ Whether or not the beat cops actually would impose fines for a lack of smiles or good cheer seems irrelevant, so long as the authorities remain in good legal standing to do so.
“Point four,” writes the council’s representative, “is there to encourage people to regard busking as fun, rather than just a way to make money.”
And that’s at the heart of the council’s attitude towards street performance – the wrong-headed notion that busking falls just short of an actual, productive job. The representative’s comment, while well-intentioned, does nothing but perpetuate the stereotype of street performers as beggars, failures and hopelessly untalented hobbyists.
Can you imagine a doctor being told they have to have fun?
“Look champ, we know you’ve been going at that ruptured organ for a few hours now, but we’d really like you to treat this like it’s more than just your job, yeah? Now wipe up that blood and put a smile on your face before you land yourself a citation.”
Yet it happens to buskers all over the world. Constantly, they’re mentioned in the same breath as gypsies, vagabonds and homeless people. The distinction between busking and begging is attenuated at best, and orders like this one don’t make things any better.
In the language of this very piece of legislation, in fact, making too much noise while singing is listed, quite explicitly, as an offense commensurate with “persistent begging” or “sleeping in public toilets.”
Homelessness and poverty remain very important, pressing issues. They can’t be torn up and swept away with the protection order’s pages.
The problem of people who’ve been driven from their homes and forced out onto public streets has plagued civilized society since we’ve had money to beg for and sidewalks to sleep on.
Though we’ve made unprecedented leaps forward in dealing with it, things are still pretty grim.
We’ve got a bunch of people who’ve resorted to begging for change, and—in extreme cases—sleeping in public toilets. No one would argue that this isn’t a problem.
Luckily the council has recognized it, and agreed to act swiftly, in much the same manner as the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa: with criminal charges, court dates, and heavy fines. Now that all the bums know that being homeless is a crime, we should have this whole thing cleared up in a month, right?
A final point—and one that I will not concede—is that the criminalization of poverty and homelessness is an affront not only to the legal system, but to morality and fundamental human decency. We should treat any measure that purports to do so with utter contempt, and take any and all measures necessary to ensure its immediate, much-publicized repeal.
What We Can Do From Here
Freedom of expression is dead, and you’ve all helped kill it. The government won the streets, and they’re going for your thoughts next. Go buy a rifle and start making your tinfoil hat, because we’re finished.
Our friends from Keep the Streets Live are still alive and kicking. Until every piece of anti-busking legislation is done away with, they’ll have to be. So, you can sign up to their newsletter here, and join their facebook fan page.
You can also sign up to The Busking Project’s mailing list, make an account on busk.co or send us a little donation.