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Downtown Street Performers Face Off With City Over Proposed Regulations

Downtown entertainers
Joe Schoenmann

Performer GP Entertainer singing to the crowd under the Fremont Street Experience canopy.

No matter the time of day, the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas always lives up to its name.

From the people watching to the blinking lights and the air temperature, always 20 degrees cooler because the casinos leave their doors wide open, it’s always an experience to visit the place.

And then there are the performers.

When GP Entertainer sings, dozens stop to listen. Some get caught up in the music and start dancing. A man from Detroit toting a backpack on wheels, his polo shirt tucked into his slacks, holds up both arms as though praising the sky.

And elderly man in a sharp black suit with a gold pocket pin nods and whispers “He’s good.”

GP Entertainer is a busker, a street performer, in downtown Las Vegas’ Fremont Street Experience.

He is one of the dozens, sometimes more than 100 people, who sing, drum on upside down plastic buckets, pose down here in nothing but jockstraps, showgirl feathers or SpongeBob and superhero costumes. All on the Fremont Street Experience. All of them are trying to make a buck or two from the thousands of tourists who visit the pedestrian casino-mall every day.

Street performers exist in every city, from street corners to subway entrances. But in the Fremont Street Experience, they're concentrated in a four to five block area. Fights over the best spots have erupted. Tourists have complained about being harassed. And two people who wore costumes down here for money a year ago murdered two Las Vegas police officers last June.

So, the Las Vegas City Council has drafted a new law that restricts where and how long performers can work in a specific spot.

"They will not be restricted unless they choose not to participate in the system," said Councilman Bob Beers as he surveyed a man attempting break dancing in front of the Four Queens hotel-casino.

"Recall that the two assassins of the two police officers last year were buskers and operated down here with masks and were undesirables ... So hopefully this will set up a base level of registration. So that people who are on the run from the law don’t come down here and bother our tourists.”

The regulations would restrict performers to designated six-foot circles where they could perform two hours at a time. The rules would be in effect from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Today, it’s about 3:30 p.m. A few hundred feet from GP Entertainer, Laurence T. Inkatha -- he goes by Laurence T -- is set up in front of The D hotel-casino.

"I’ve been down here for a year," he said. "I’ve been singing all my life. I come from a family of singers. I turned pro at 9 years old. I’ve played all the Strip, all the lounges and stuff like that but I’d rather do this now.”

And, Laurence T. views city regulation of buskers as a good thing.

"I think it’s good that they’re setting some restrictions, because it’s wild down here on a Friday night," he says. "You outta come down on a Friday or Saturday night and see what goes on."

Beers is a Republican and a businessman. As such, wouldn’t he rather let the free market reign, even on the streets?  Put another way: If a street performer is so awful, or doing something so distasteful, won’t people simply stop giving them money, and they’ll move away.

"That’s an interesting proposition," Beers replies. "And we have to weigh that against the many letters that members of the City Council get and the many more that the Fremont Street Experience management gets from citizens who come from around the country, come down here and say ‘I’m never coming back.'”

The proposed law was fashioned with input from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. That cooperation might surprise some people, given that starting in the late 1990s, the ACLU has fought the city on behalf of free speech rights in the Fremont Street Experience.

And the ACLU has won every one of those legal battles.

The city appears to have learned from all those defeats. This time, Beers said, the city has been very careful to craft the draft ordinance with the preservation of free speech at the top of a list of considerations.

”The Supreme Court has very clearly ruled time and again that the First Amendment is sacrosanct and we all have the right to free speech," he said. "It has also, at the 9 th Circuit Court level, also ruled that we do have as the city, have the ability to regulate not the message but the time and somewhat the location. And so I think what the intent of this legislation is to bring a little order to the chaos without at all interfering with people’s rights.”

But what about that “slippery slope,” a reference to the possibility that the enactment of an acceptable law will open the door for more heavy-handed laws down the road?

Could circles for performers today lead to circles for protesters tomorrow?

Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, doesn't think so.

"No, no," he replied. "(This is) strictly for street performers who are declared street performers. So anybody who is there to make a political statement, to express their free speech rights, they do not have to be in these circles.”

Enforcement, Story added, will be up to the city. Some kind of stand or kiosk may be set up on Fremont Street where buskers would potentially sign in for designated performances circles.

GP Entertainer doesn’t like it. He went to City Hall and listened when the draft ordinance was introduced a week ago. He doesn’t like the time restrictions. He says it will hurt his ability to make a living.

And while he won't say it directly, you get the hint that he doesn’t think some of the so-called performers should be given the same access to the street as those who have toiled years at their craft.

"I’ve been homeless, I’ve lived on Foremaster, slept on cardboard in front of the funeral home there, took my showers at St. Catholic charities. I’ve been there, I come from the bottom. I’ve got journals on what I’ve been through here," he said. "And I’m forced to be on the streets. But I’m here because I’m an entertainer first. Then I’m trying to survive, second. Unlike a lot of people here, they come out here to hustle money. And I can tell you about hustling. I’m from Chicago.”

The city will hold an open forum on the new law Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. in the City Council chambers.

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.