Cover photo: A sign on the Las Vegas Strip displaying the city ordinance restricting the use of public sidewalks, Las Vegas, NV, by Brandon Summers
Reporting by: Brandon Summers
Multimedia by: Jason Adams, Danielle Carson, Shannon Miller, Brandon Summers and Nissa Tzun
Brandon Summers: Performers Not Welcome. An audio piece by Danielle Carson, Shannon Miller and Brandon Summers.
Las Vegas, NV - After receiving my sixth criminal citation for street performing, the reality that Las Vegas hates street performers became clearer than ever— and when I say “Las Vegas”, I really mean politicians, casinos, cops, and courts.
Street performing, also known as busking, is old (probably just as old as the world’s oldest profession). Most of us have seen busking in person or depicted in film. Whether it’s someone strumming the guitar— case open, or a fire-breathing snake charmer, we all feel moved to part ways with a few coins in exchange for one’s display of talent. My foray into this ancient hustle began in late 2009. I started playing violin on a pedestrian bridge between Planet Hollywood and the Cosmopolitan. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this bridge was the birthplace of my career as a professional musician. I wasn’t discovered overnight like we’re led to believe by television, but regularly performing my craft in public provided me with invaluable experience and opportunities. Over several years and countless hours of busking, I gradually got hired for paid gigs. Many of those gigs were (and continue to be) on casino property.
Vegas Violin, a documentary short by Jason Adams, featuring Brandon Summers. Published on December 16, 2015.
My unadulterated joy as a busker, however, was short-lived. The volume of street performers, especially those who pose for photos in exchange for [coerced] tips, exploded due to the Great Recession and a 2010 preliminary injunction by the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU NV). By 2012, the Las Vegas Strip had become a circus of musicians, costumed characters, water vendors, and homeless panhandlers (with their dogs of course). Politicians, at the request of the casinos, reacted accordingly. The Clark County Board of County Commissioners enacted new ordinances and compelled the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) to cite the aforementioned individuals with low-level misdemeanors. Their favorite catch-all is “obstructive use of public sidewalk”, and I’ve been cited for this offense six times— two of which landed me in jail. I’m much more acquainted with cops and court than any law abiding citizen should be.
Portrait of Brandon Summers. Las Vegas, NV, August 23, 2019. Photo by Nissa Tzun
Most performers made the necessary adjustments to avoid tickets and survive the annual sweeps by Metro. However, the looming threat of police encounters, tickets, jail, and court was a source of constant worry during the summer months. In 2017, a new draconian wave of zero-tolerance enforcement emerged— one that has effectively pushed musicians off The Strip. The police, unencumbered by the ACLU, unilaterally decided that any performer who wasn’t constantly walking needed to be cited for obstruction of sidewalk. They also began impounding musicians’ instruments. To make things worse, Metro conducts video surveillance from a remote counter-terrorism fusion watch center to keep pedestrian bridges free and clear of “non-permanent obstructions“. It’s a brave new world.
Screenshot from the Las Vegas Justice Court’s online database
I recognize that attention spans are short, so I won’t bore you with details. However, let it be known that street performing is universally tolerated rather than embraced, criminalized by city councils regardless of political ideology, and despised by businesses everywhere. Police departments are the agencies that do the dirty work of expelling performers from public spaces. Courts are often complicit in prosecuting performers for frivolous, non-violent offenses. Despite the intangible benefits of spontaneous free expression, and the public’s overwhelming appreciation of busking, performers are not welcome.