Police Apply Sit/Lie law to Sitar Player Saying He Can Only Play Standing Up
Guest post and photos by Lara Hannawi
Indian melodies form the soundtrack of a Haight Ashbury color explosion. David Scott, Davey for everyone he meets, wearing a brightly colored cape and matching dyed hair is playing sitar in front of the Evolutionary Rainbow mural on the corner of Haight and Cole. An older passerby informed us that the God of all sitar players, Ravi Shankar, supposedly played in front of this mural in 1967; the year it was designed and first painted.
Davey drove from New York City early July to escape the heat and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. He busks in the Haight to “keep the scene going and interact with people”. Playing the sitar since 2000, he earns his money with it back home. In his forty-eight years he has lead an eclectic musical life: he was a multi-instrumentalist for hip hop legend Guru from 2004 until his passing in 2010.
But playing sitar in the Haight is not what it used to be. After a week or so of playing at the rainbow mural, for a few hours each day, complaints from the neighborhood got him facing the police numerous times. They told Davey: “There is this law, that you probably haven’t heard of: you can’t sit on the street.”
This is the so-called sit/lie law, or the Civil Sidewalk ordinance, passed in November 2010 in San Francisco. The law criminalizes sitting or lying on sidewalks.
The law is explained by the San Francisco police department here.
No person can be cited under this section without having been warned about the law. The police will approach people who are sitting or lying on the sidewalk and let them know about the City ordinance. If someone refuses to stand after being warned about the law, however, the police can write a citation.
Davey doesn’t know who complained, but he does know that his street neighbours, Cafe Cole, and the Earth Song shop, have both appreciated his music, with a staff member of Earth Song even saying: “Are you that beautiful sounding instrument around the corner?”
On July 18th, on Haight and Belvedere, Davey got approached by police once more, and they said again: “You can stand and play, if it’s not too loud.” When Davey said he can’t play standing because a sitar is too heavy, they replied: “You can take it up with the mayor.” Click here to hear his latest encounter with the police. He is worried that he will get ticketed if he plays the Haight again. He has temporarily stopped playing sitar and has turned to his tabla drums, which he can play standing up with the right table.
This sit/lie law is controversial. Criminalizing ordinary activities is a questionable use of law. Many believe it is used to criminalize homeless people. Technically, everyone who uses the sidewalk to sit down, can get in trouble. Of course, whoever does not look homeless will most likely never be bothered, which is why this law is discriminatory in the same way the “stop and frisk” programs discriminate against people of color. The stop-and-frisk tactics allow police to stop anyone who looks like they may have committed or will be committing a crime. In reality this has mostly resulted in harassment by police towards people of color minding their business in front of their own home. In the past years, stop and frisk programs in New York City have all ceased due to years of public outcry and judges deeming elements of these programs unconstitutional.
A few weeks ago, Officer O’Neill walked by and was glad to see Davey’s improvised solution. He appreciates the tunes: “He is actually good!” He explained how noise complaints work in California: “All it takes is someone to say ‘I’m annoyed’. If you’re making any sound and it disturbs someone else’s peace, whatever that peace may be, they can complain about it, and we are required to tell the person to stop (…) but you can ignore that advice. But the sit/lie law is different. I don’t enforce the sit/lie law unless people complain. I let people sit on the sidewalk, but if it’s a big group I’ll say, fellows, you have to understand there is a sit/lie law that you’re not allowed to do this. The thing is, we try to do the minimal amount of enforcement.”
Cops don’t deal with the validity of the law either, judges do that. O’Neill was 99% certain that a judge would dismiss any sit/lie ticket that Davey would get from playing sitar.
He concluded: “I don’t know that anyone has an appreciation for what music is being played by anyone. ‘You’re doing something I don’t want you to do and I know how to make you stop.'”
Davey’s thoughts on the Haight: “There is so much musical history here. You feel deep energy but it’s become harder to tap into. There’s a contradiction between the Summer of Love and what you see here on the street.”
It is rare to see a hyper skilled musician play the streets these days and they need to be cherished. Davey returned to New York last week, but plans to be back. Next time, can we please organize a sit-in for the sitar?