In Miami, Panhandling Ban Extends To Street Performers

Oct 21, 2014

Patrick Rogers Sr. plays trumpet on the sidewalks of downtown Miami, but sometimes he's told he can't play because of the area's anti panhandling zone.
Credit Wilson Sayre

A few days a week, Patrick Rogers, Sr., goes to downtown Miami to play trumpet on the sidewalk. But often enough, police stop him because they see street performance as a violation of Miami’s panhandling ban.

A couple musicians and lawyers are trying to figure out how to change that. Attorney Justin Wales and a few friends are drafting an ordinance whereby the city would allow street performers like Rogers to play unfettered.

The City of Miami’s controversial anti-panhandling zone was expanded in 2010. It sets out a perimeter, around most of downtown Miami, inside which panhandling is not allowed. The ordinance says panhandling “threatens the economic vitality” of the area and can drive away tourists and businesses.

Lazaro Ferro is the police commander for downtown Miami. He oversees enforcement of the ban.

“They may not be necessarily asking for the money but they may have a container where people are depositing the money,” Ferro explains. “That creates issues for us as police because even though they’re not directly asking for money, the intent is there to collect.”

Wales rejects this application of the ordinance, citing case law that protects street performance under the first amendment.

“The main goal is really expression,” Wales says, “and if someone puts a dollar in, that doesn't change that it’s an expressive act.”

Rogers plays in front of Starbucks in Downtown Miami.
Credit Wilson Sayre

Instead of suing the city over what he sees as an unjust application of law, he’s working with a group called Buskerfest to navigate city politics and set up a system to allow, and perhaps regulate, street performance.

The group needs to look no further than the City of Miami Beach, which has its own permitting system regulating where, when and who can perform in certain highly trafficked areas like Lincoln Road.

Two things make Miami Beach different than Miami: First, the Beach does not have a no-panhandling zone. Second, performers have to pay a hefty fee, which acts as a de-facto regulation.

Trumpet player Patrick Rogers doesn't think a similar payment system would be fair in downtown Miami. He says street performers wouldn’t be competing for the same large crowds the way performers do on the beach. That means there’s less money to bring in.

Despite the fact that there’s not a lot of money in the game, he says it’s a joy for him to play for anyone who will listen.

“People need music like they need a doctor,” says Rogers.  “When you're setting up a city like Miami… and you want to put on your big pants and be a big city… you got to do like New Orleans, you got to do like New York and you got to respect your musicians. Because outside of that, you’ve got a dead city.”

What concerns Commander Ferro, though, is who would qualify as a street performer.

“[Someone] may just start beating on a couple of cans. And how do we as officers determine what is art? Are we going to arrest [performer] and not the other?” he asks.

These concerns don’t bother Rogers, who plans to continue playing -- with or without permission.