Music muted: Buskers sing of SFPD crackdown near Union Square

On a recent chilly December night, the boisterous sounds of the Backyard Party Kings bounced off a downtown sidewalk as tourists strolled by on their way to Union Square.

Nearly every night, the band’s 54-year-old leader, Harold Wilson, can be found working the streets as part of San Francisco’s urban landscape like any number of other downtown street musicians who are, collectively, known as “buskers.”

And like many downtown street musicians, Wilson has come to expect the annual winter police crackdown, which often only involves officers shooing musicians away from hotels and the like.

City law does allow enforcement of disturbances of the peace because of loud instruments or sounds, but enforcement requires someone being offended, which can be tricky to define. Still, street performers say police unevenly enforce the law, often simply acting on whims.

“Ten [officers] can pass and none say anything,” said a drummer on Market Street who goes by the name Tony Light. “Then, the one.”

But this year, police are seemingly using a different tactic: They are confiscating instruments, literally leaving the musicians silenced.

Street performers Lawrence Wilburn, left, and Jack Jefferson, center, jam with other musicians on the corner of Geary and Powell streets in San Francisco’s Union Square on Tuesday. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
Street performers Lawrence Wilburn, left, and Jack Jefferson, center, jam with other musicians on the corner of Geary and Powell streets in San Francisco’s Union Square on Tuesday. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Wilson, other street performers and a public defender dealing with many such cases say it’s coming at the behest of downtown hotels, which are worried about their bottom line instead of residents — even if no laws are being broken.

“What they’re really doing is they are seizing their instruments to intimidate those musicians,” said Seth Meisels, a deputy public defender. Meisels noted, in most cases, the musicians aren’t charged but rather are cited and lose their instruments for long periods because police say the seized items are evidence.

“These musicians have told me that SFPD is working as private security for the St. Francis — that seems about right,” Meisels said.

In other words, police may be using a delay tactic that gets musicians off the streets for weeks.

“I guess they’re trying to, like, hold you off,” Wilson said.

Wilson had instruments taken away on two occasions — once on Oct. 18, and again on Nov. 1 — and though the charges were dropped, his equipment has not been returned.

“The officers asked for the drum set off the truck, and an employee came over from the St. Francis and she basically told the police officer what she wanted was the drum set confiscated,” said Parris Lane, an occasional bandmate of Wilson.

In Wilson’s case, Meisels suspects the St. Francis is behind the police crackdown, along with other hotels.

St. Francis directed all questions on the matter to the Hotel Council, whose executive director simply said the noise violates the law but did not address that matter further.

“The Hotel Council of San Francisco believes that unpermitted use
of amplified and consistently loud sound on city sidewalks should be addressed by law enforcement to ensure our guests, our employees and our city’s businesses can operate without disturbances that are violating city laws,” said Kevin Carroll, executive director of the Hotel Council.

The San Francisco Police Department did not respond directly to most of the allegations but addressed noise complaints in general.

“When a call for service is generated, we ask the reporting party if their ‘peace has been disturbed’ by the loud noise. If so, they are asked if they would like to sign a citizen’s arrest and complete a statement regarding the problem they have with the noise,” said SFPD spokesperson Officer Carlos Manfredi in a statement. “The officer then cites the person 415.2 PC disturbing the peace and will confiscate whatever instrument (or in some cases buckets) as evidence.”

Over the past two years the District Attorney’s Office has reviewed 38 noise complaints for disturbing the peace but has only taken action in three cases.

“Even if the music is plain awful, it’s our belief that a citation rather than a misdemeanor strikes a more appropriate chord,” said District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Max Szabo.

Despite the numbers from the DA’s Office, street performers say the unofficial message sent by local cops is to stay away from the St. Francis.

A Spanish guitar player, who declined to provide his name, said police told him to stay away from the corner of Powell and Geary streets, which happens to be right next to the St. Francis.

Another performer, Kevin Hirt, was cited Nov. 23 and had his keyboard and amp seized, according Meisels. Hirt told Meisels that the officer said his captain, Capt. David Lazar, had called the officer from home and told him to take the instruments. The citation has a Dec. 30 appearance date, which means Hirt has no chance of getting his instrument back until the New Year.

Another musician, Brian Compton, has launched a crowdfunding page to raise money for legal fees to fight the seizure of his instrument.

“After nearly 30 years of performing music on the sidewalks of San Francisco, the San Francisco Police Dept. recently banned my music trio from performing at our famous Union Square location,” Compton wrote on the GoFundMe page he created. Drummer Larry Hunt also had his equipment taken away without receiving a citation.

Despite the ongoing issues facing street musicians, Wilson still heads downtown every day with his band. After all, Union Square is a prime place to perform.

“You are in a high-end area. You don’t get no bigger than Union Square in downtown San Francisco,” he said.

In the meantime, performing should be less of an issue for Wilson. Police have finally agreed to give back his instruments — a month after the first seizure.