Kazoo protest over Camden’s draconian new busking bye-laws

This afternoon, Mark Thomas joined a ‘Citizens’ Kazoo Orchestra’ of buskers in Camden, to highlight and protest proposed new bye-laws criminalising street music of all kinds. The presence of senior officers and intelligence suggested to me the possibility of future use against protestors.

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Camden High Street is a world-renowned tourist centre famed for its market, and its street culture. Part of that culture has always included music, with performers and buskers of all types entertaining visitors throughout the year.

But Labour-controlled Camden Borough Council apparently believes that current laws covering general and noise nuisance, already often used to move or close down performance, are nowhere near powerful enough. They want to bring in a licence system, charging more than a hundred pounds for a permit which must then be on display and which still allows ‘authorised’ officials to stop performances for any reason.

Anyone playing wind or percussion instruments (including any home-made perc like plastic bottles or bins!) and anyone using ANY amplification, will then be committing a CRIMINAL offence (with a £1000 max fine) if they are not displaying their licence.

New powers will also give police, council officials, and even authorised private contractors, the power to seize and confiscate instruments, and if any fine is not paid within 28 days, then the instruments can be sold. This is, I believe, the first time in UK law that the state can seize a person’s tools of trade, and it is certainly one of the most restrictive busking laws in the land.

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In response to the proposals, Johnny Walker, a well-established and accomplished travelling busker, has formed the campaign group, ‘Keep Streets Live’, and in association with comedian/activist Mark Thomas, who sees it as one of his ‘100 Acts of Minor Dissent’, they have formed the CKO (Citizens’ Kazoo Orchestra) who performed this afternoon, in rather soggy conditions, outside Camden tube.

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At around 4.30, they set up an open mic, and handed out leaflets and kazoos, inviting all to brave the rain and join them in a medley of popular tunes.

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They were visited briefly by Johnny Bucknell, a local Tory councillor, who made a short speech despite some heckling. When I questioned him later, he told me he was in favour of special ‘busking areas’ rather than a licence system. So although against the Labour plans, he is, as is often the case with opposition politicians on either side, only offering something incrementally better, and while potentially an ally for the moment, is certainly not promoting any real freedom on behalf of buskers and street musicians.

Due to concerns over legal challenges under religion and equality laws, there is already a clause that gives exemption to Morris Dancers, and so, in solidarity, a folk violinist turned up this afternoon along with a Morris Dancer to entertain the kazooers during a well-earned break.

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Campaigners point out that buskers often travel from borough to borough, and even between cities, and if licences were required in each area it would be prohibitively expensive. Also, busking is by nature often a spontaneous business, and there is no recognition of this in any licensing system.

Kazoos are a great means of protest against the proposal, and should the law come in, they will be cheap to replace if seized. The orchestra has vowed to continue performances in Camden whether ‘legal’ or not, and they welcome all to join them (no experience necessary).

Although the proposals appear to be Council driven, there was a lot of interest from the Met this afternoon. Apart from around half a dozen police keeping an eye on proceedings, the campaigners received a visit from a Chief Inspector, an Inspector, and from Constable Catrell, who is well-known to activists as an intelligence-gathering baby-blue-tabarded Police Liaison Officer. Her cover story was that she was just a Camden bobby on the beat today, but she swiftly pocketed copies of the campaign literature, and was later seen driving away with the superiors in an unmarked car.

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Could the Met be a driving force in this attack on freedom? Perhaps Camden is a testing ground? It would make sense that the new bye-law be tried in an area particularly busy with buskers, and if “successful” as a control mechanism, could then be rolled out across the City. Could it then be used against noisy protests, or samba-driven marches? Given the current proposals I can’t see why not!

More info at The Association of Street Artists and Performers campaign site http://www.keepstreetslive.com where you can also sign their PETITION, or follow @keepstreetslive

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