Yesterday I was arrested for the first time. Run-ins with the police are an occupational hazard for buskers, but generally if things escalate it’ll stop just short of the point of being arrested. The supposed charge was ‘breach of the peace’, a vaguely defined law that has received criticism from human rights groups for making it too easy for the police to arrest law-abiding citizens.
The issue was that I was busking on private land in an area called Bicester Village. Now, I’m fully aware that I was probably trespassing. Trespass, though, is a civil offence rather than a criminal one, and as such I was confident that I wasn’t breaking any laws by refusing politely to leave (aggravated trespass is a criminal offence, but there has to be abuse or threats involved to reach this threshold, and I remained calm throughout).
I know that a lot of people reading this will have no sympathy with a busker who was arrested after refusing to leave a piece of privately owned land. But for me, this opens up a wider issue. The creeping privatisation of public space should be of huge concern to everyone, yet it is an issue that flies under the radar and many people are completely unaware of it. Coventry, for example, sold off their entire city centre a few years ago to a private company to make up a budget shortfall. It looks the same, and most people wouldn’t have noticed any difference but the entire area is now controlled by a little-known private entity called CV1 (though, in this case, it remains a public highway due to Section 31 of the HIghways Act 1980 – unfortunately for me it’s unlikely that Bicester Village comes under this).
I stood my ground in Bicester Village because I believe the area should be a public highway. I don’t think it’s either right or OK that huge swathes of land are becoming increasingly sanitised, identikit, soulless spaces controlled by companies whose motives are purely profit-based, rather than having the interests of local citizens at heart. It angers me when the response to an incident such as the one I encountered this week is along the lines of ‘well, if it’s their land, then what can you do?’.
In 1932 a group of ramblers took it upon themselves to climb up Kinder Scout, an area of natural beauty that fell into private ownership and thus off-limits to hikers. Benny Rothman, a 20-year-old political activist, led this group on an intentional trespass, had a scuffle with some security guards, and in doing so helped to spark the ‘right to roam’ movement. This movement resulted in a new law being created by the post-war government that gave people the right to access land, primarily in rural areas, that had previously been forbidden. It is now seen as a fundamental right in the British countryside that few argue with. Of course we should have the right to stroll through this green and pleasant land unhindered. But at the time Rothman, a Communist, and his associates were no doubt seen as radicals. The Kinder Trespass would have been viewed as unreasonable by many in 1932. If they knew they weren’t supposed to be there, then they shouldn’t have done it, should they? Today it is widely acknowledged that they acted fairly and that the change they helped to force through has had a positive impact.
We now need a new movement focused on our towns and cities. Away with privatising areas of public space. Away with the idea that profit should be the only driving factor behind the success of a community. Away with the private security firms that threaten and intimidate us into submission. It is no exaggeration to say that if we allow this trend to continue, we will gradually slip into a situation where the default assumption is that all land is private. Obviously my main concern here is: where will I busk? But this has implications for all of us. The social cleansing of our spiralling homeless population; enforced blandness in our communities; the Starbuckification of our city centres where the capitalist dogma of ‘choice’ perversely results in the destruction of independent businesses and the flourishing of multinational corporations.
As a side note and a slight positive to come out of this, if you put the wrongful arrest and aggressive use of handcuffs to one side, I ended up having a delightful chat with the police officers. Just before letting me go without charge, one said,
‘Hold on, did you release an album called Busking Beyond Borders?’
Fame at last? No, sadly not. His senior officer, having viewed the bodycam footage back at the station, had seen the sign in my busking case and was listening to my songs on Spotify. At least I got a few more streams out of all of this.
I’ll continue to busk on private land where I am sure that I am not causing any unreasonable disturbance to local residents or shopkeepers. If I didn’t, then I’d be out of a job. If we don’t push back against privatisation, then by the time we notice what’s happened, it will be too late.