‘Freedoms Being Stepped On’ Leads To Street Performer Protest; Task Force Member Opposes New Regs

‘Freedoms Being Stepped On’ Leads To Street Performer Protest; Task Force Member Opposes New Regs
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OCEAN CITY – Street performers have banded together in protest as the town’s newly implemented regulations governing them went into effect.

On Monday morning, performers lined up at City Hall signing up for designated spaces to perform on the Boardwalk Monday, Aug. 3, through Thursday, Aug. 6. However, a group of street performers have become disgruntled over the Town of Ocean City’s newly implemented street performer regulations and later that afternoon gathered in front of City Hall to protest.

The Town of Ocean City has been struggling with the proliferation of street performers on the Boardwalk for several years. A Boardwalk Task Force was created to specifically look into the growing concerns. After two public hearings over the winter, the task force’s recommendations were submitted to the Mayor and City Council and presented in an ordinance form.

“Everything is going smoothly for it being the beginning of a new policy. There are some that are disappointed this is the route it has taken but I tell them the Task Force is going to meet again in the fall and to note their suggestions and concerns. We will take a step back and look at what worked or what didn’t work,” City Clerk Diana Chavis said on Monday afternoon.

As of that time, there were still five designated spaces left for next week.

“They are choosing their own spots, and it seems like everybody is looking for the right size they need at this point. They are concerned about being next to another similar act, but that is coordinated among them. I can’t dictate where they can be,” Chavis said.

In mid-June, the Mayor and City Council passed an ordinance implementing 32 designated spaces on the street ends of the Boardwalk from the Inlet to 9th Street.

The ordinance states, “The Town Clerk shall designate spaces on the Boardwalk between and including South 1st Street and 9th Street … will be available on a first-come, first-serve allocation and selection system for two periods of use; the first period shall be Monday through Thursday and the second period shall be Friday through Sunday…the Designated Spaces will be available for selection twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays one week in advance …”

In most cases, there are two designates spaces per street end from the Inlet to 9th Street ranging from 10 feet by 10 feet, five feet by 10 feet and 5 feet by five feet. At all street ends, from the Inlet to 27th Street, there must be a three-foot clear area around each fire hydrant as well as a safe separation from the Boardwalk tram lane.

Other regulations governing the entire Boardwalk include no performer or vendor can place or allow any item exceeding five feet above ground, or affix props or equipment to the Boardwalk; leave items unattended for a period of 15 consecutive minutes; occupy more than one designated space at any given time or solicit persons to obtain or occupy an additional space on his or her behalf; purchase, sell, barter or exchange any designated space; attempt to reserve a designated space in any fashion other than the selection system; fuel or refuel generators on the Boardwalk or possess fuel on the Boardwalk not contained in the generator; advertise, or employ an individual to advertise, his or her performance or vending outside of the occupied designated space or street end area; connect to any municipal electric outlet for use in any display or performance; use nudity, pornographic materials, or obscenity in any display or performance; use animals except for legitimate purposes pursuant to ADA; use fire or similarly hazardous materials, including, but not limited to, knives, swords or other sharply bladed instruments; or touch other persons as in hair-braiding, nail painting or apply substances to other persons, including, but not limited to, paints, dyes and inks.

On Monday, the first day the ordinance went into effect, performers gathered outside City Hall wearing T-shirts reading “Free Speech Prisoner” and holding up signs stating “Expression not Suppression.”

Performer George Gilbert, who puts on comedy magic shows across the country, voiced his concern over the limitation in space.

“There are two, 10-foot by 10-foot square spaces on each street end, and if you get a crowd right next to another performer … it is like we are in a cage,” Gilbert said. “The squares are right at the edge of the Boardwalk but they tell you, you can’t block the Boardwalk with a crowd, so basically they don’t want actual shows, actual entertainment. We can’t work that way, and I believe they are making these regulations so it will encourage us to leave.”

Gilbert recognized his act could be taken above 9th Street but his crowds still have to be out of the way of the tram lane.

“The tram runs down the middle of the Boardwalk and when you’re putting on a show you don’t want to put people in the way of the tram. It will come back to me if somebody gets hit by a tram,” he said.

The sign-up process is not working for performers who do not live in Ocean City, Gilbert stated.

“Now they are making us register every Monday and Friday morning but that is impossible for me because I don’t even live here. I live in Tampa, Fla. What about all the traveling performers? They are taking away the spontaneity of street performing,” he said.

When asked if he was aware of the process throughout the past year in working with the performers to come up with the regulations, Gilbert reiterated most of the performers do no live in Ocean City during the off-season to provide input.

“There is nobody here and no way to make a living, and again they know that and are being strategic in making performers leave,” he said.

Young singer Connor McAllister’s father, Doug McAllister, who served in the U.S. Army and is a retired police officer, agreed with Gilbert in the sign-up process being inconvenient for those who live out of state.

“I fought for freedom. I have done everything I could for freedom of expression,” he said. “We came all the way from Gettysburg to find out that everything has changed since last year. We weren’t aware of anything going on. We thought we could come back and set up on the Boardwalk. As long as you’re not bothering anybody you should be able to perform.”

Spray paint artist Mark Chase, who served on the Boardwalk Task Force, participated in the protest.

“I was against most of it [regulations],” Chase said, as he pointed out he was the only performer who served on the Task Force. “The system they implemented is not working whatsoever … It has segregated us to the point of first-come, first-serve. People are showing up at midnight and sleeping in front of City Hall just to be allowed to express themselves. That is excessive and over burdensome. It describes everything that free speech is not.”

Chase also pointed out that most Boardwalk performers protesting live in other areas of the country and could not participate in the public hearings.

“Even though we reached out, a lot of performers don’t have the funding to come here for one day and leave, especially when they know the council is going to ignore him,” he said. “If you look at the council videos of these guys [performers] talking to them, the council has pretty much fallen asleep, ignored them and retaliated sarcastically. You can see how they view us, and how they treat us.”

In 2011, Chase sued the Town of Ocean City over violating street performer’s first amendment rights by restricting them from selling their wares on the Boardwalk, and the federal court ruled street performers and artists are allowed to sell or collect money for certain expressive materials.

When The Dispatch asked if Chase was considering a subsequent law suit over the newly implemented regulations, Chase responded he has not made a decision at this time.

“There has been talk of it off and on but we are hoping it will be resolved first,” Chase said. “We want the city to notice we are a decent group. We are Americans and when we see our freedoms being stepped on we band together. That is what America is all about.”