All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1992

Street Performers and the Social Contract

Mr. Zimmerman, who was a film producer in New York when he wrote this article, is now a writer and historian, specializing in science and the history of space exploration. No further reproduction of this article is allowed without written permission of the author.

Albert Owens is a rugged-faced black man with a wonderful sense of humor. As he says, “I have an emotional need to make people laugh.” For 10 years he has performed stand-up comedy every day on the streets of New York City. In less than 15 minutes he can gather over a hundred laughing people, and hold them to watch his entire act. No one is required to pay admission, yet when he passes the hat near the end of his performance he invariably collects between 50 and several hundred dollars. People give gladly.

Joe “Joey-Joey” Colone once worked for a circus. He is a skilled juggler, sword swallower, and unicyclist (sometimes all at once!). Each day during good weather he can be found performing in New York City’s Washington Square Park. As with Mr. Owens, he requires nothing from his audience but that they laugh at his comedy and gasp at his stunts. Yet, before he finishes a performance, he can easily collect over $200, given eagerly by people appreciative of his skills.

Both these men are part of a wonderfully talented subculture of street performers that exists in every major city throughout the world. They work for no one but themselves, require no one to pay them, and yet earn a good and productive livelihood.

Street performing has its drawbacks, however. Because street performers are considered outside “normal” society, they enjoy few legal protections and often are harassed. In addition, there are no official laws or rules to enforce good behavior from within or without.

Harassment is the main problem. All street performers fear the police, who often not only prevent them from earning a living but can seriously harm them as well. “My only review in The New York Times came about because I was arrested for attracting too large a crowd,” says Owens. The police handcuffed him, confiscated his equipment, and jailed him overnight.

“I try to tread lightly where the police are concerned,” says Victor McSurley, a music composer who plays his new-age music daily in Washington Square Park. “Often the police will ask me to move on, for no reason but they’ve had a bad day.”

Being considered outside the law causes other problems. The performers, having no recourse or protection, can be harassed by hecklers, the homeless, and the disreputable characters who thrive on the vulnerable. The homeless and insane often interfere with performances, and can even pose a physical threat. All the performers can do is use this harassment as a tool for improving their repertoire.

Thugs and extortionists are another problem. Following one of Joey-Joey’s performances, a man came up and demanded “his share” of the earnings. Without this share, the man threatened to break up Joey’s next performance. Joey shrugged and ignored the threats. “This happens all the time. I can easily handle him in front of a crowd of 500.” And calling the police over did not help. The officer shrugged as well. “I don’t see anything happening. Call me when something happens.”

Being outside the law also means there are no established rules of behavior for the street performers themselves. At the center of Washington Square Park is an unused fountain. “It’s a natural amphitheater, one of the best places in the world to perform,” says William “Master” Lee, kung fu comedian and juggler. Around its circle are several steps, allowing people to sit and watch. It is possible for almost a thousand people to enjoy a performance.

Competition for access to this space became intense in the 1980s. The number of talented per formers had grown so large that they began to trip over each other. “You’d be working the foun tain, and another performer would set up right next to you, and steal your audience. That could get pretty ugly,” says William Lee. “They go too long,” says Albert Owens. “I want to get out there and perform.”

However, unlike their problems with the police and hecklers, this was a situation the performers could do something about. They didn’t hold protest demonstrations; they didn’t demand government action and laws; nor did they use force among themselves to solve the problem.

Instead, they talked to each other and worked the problem out among themselves. They now wait their turn for access to the fountain, and introduce the performer who follows them. New performers are allowed time and space to perform, though not during the prime slots. If they are good, however, they will earn the right to the best slots. As William Lee says: “If you’re a good performer and can attract and hold a crowd, we can’t stop you from performing. All we do is accommodate each other.”

Common respect for their dignity as human beings led them to establish reasonable rules that all could agree with. No government agency did this. Nor are these rules enforced by law. The performers did it themselves to improve their working conditions without submitting to control from an outside source.


A “Social Contract”?

A finer, more obvious demonstration of John Locke’s concept of the “social contract” cannot be found.

Meanwhile, the homeless, the thugs, and the police harass and interfere with these free souls, refusing to allow them to make their way peaceably in a difficult world. It is as if certain parts of society have decided that the social contract does not have to include everyone for it to be just.

Locke said that when legislators deny the people their share of the social contract, and “. . . either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power, the people had put into their hands, . . .” (The Second Treatise of Government, paragraph 222)

While it is unfortunate that there are those who act to harm the social contract, either because they are incapable of participating in it (the homeless and the insane), or because they are willing to destroy it (the violent and the criminal), no social order is perfect, and such individuals exist in all societies.

It is the function of the social order to prevent these souls from harming others. In New York City, however, society no longer does this. Instead, represented by the police, government no longer applies the social contract equally to all citizens, and even allows some citizens to wield power arbitrarily over others. This indicates a breaking down of the social contract and, as Locke describes, the eventual failure of all government.