Opinion by Franzisha Fenger, staff writer
|The shiny and happy world of the Kalakaua street
performers rests on a strange interpretation of Honolulu’s
city law prohibiting peddling. Because freedom of speech is the
right of every American citizen, the Honolulu Police Department
cannot prohibit performing on Kalakaua Avenue, so long as the
performers do not request money. Viewers can make donations,
however, if the performers ask for money, they can be ticketed
or even arrested. In 2005, eight performers were arrested.
The biggest problem, the police have been quoted as saying in
a number of articles in the local newspapers, is not the performers
themselves, but the viewers. When a crowd gathers because of
an artist, it blocks the whole sidewalk, police say, and pedestrians
must step onto the street to get past. This safety problem is
potentially dangerous part. People could get hurt, but because
of the performer’s freedom of speech, police say, they
must ask the crowd to move, which it usually doesn’t do
Passing pedestrians have little influence with city government,
especially if they enjoy the performers and aren’t complaining.
Merchants are another group altogether; they pay high rents,
they vote in local elections; they support local politicians;
and they complain loudly about too many performers in front of
their stores that won’t let potential shoppers pass.
In 1994, after being arrested, saxophone player Steve Sunn, known
as Sonny Beethoven, sued Honolulu and its police department for
violating his constitutional right of freedom of speech. He won,
and got $45,000 from the city. Beethoven performed regularly
until a few years ago.
In April 2000, merchant complaints, primarily, pushed the City
Council and the Mayor to pass a law restricting street performers
to six designated sidewalk locations. These designated areas
were either far away from the storefronts of Kalakaua Avenue,
or they were so small no crowd could gather.
The American Civil Liberal Union (ACLU), in support of the Kalakaua
street performers’ free speech rights, sued the city of
Honolulu, and more than a year later, in December 2001, the law
was found unconstitutional. By then, of course, deprived of their
livelihood, many of the street performers had moved away.
Over the past four years, the performers returned to Kalakaua,
and they have recently been so successful that merchant jealousy
has again reared its ugly head, and a new proposal has gained
early approval by Honolulu’s City Council. This bill would
prohibit the performers from staying on Kalakaua Avenue between
Lewers Street and Uluniu Avenue during the hours of 7 to 10 p.m.,
Again, the ACLU has stated its opposition to the prohibition
based on First Amendment considerations.
At a second hearing Dec. 7, the City Council passed these restrictions
into law, but on Jan. 3, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hanneman threatened
to veto it, rather than face another ACLU lawsuit, and proposed
his own bill, which would restrict performers to specific locations
and require purchase of a $20 semiannual permit.
The first performing artists came to the Kalakaua Avenue in the
early 1980s. Nowadays, there are so many performers, it is hard
to keep track of them all. Most of the artists are from the mainland:
henna painters, gold men, silver men, music machines, acrobats,
freestylers, and more. There are more male than female performers,
but no apparent age distinction. Performers in their middle 20s
stand right next to 50-year-old painters.
Do the street performers really earn their living by showing
their talent on Kalakaua? One of the most popular performers
reported that he made $300 an hour by demonstrating his soccer
skills. A local resident who used to be a soccer coach, he rarely
performs now, although he was seen recently in television news
clips featuring the performers.
Visitors and residents have different opinions about the performers.
Some enjoy the art, others are just annoyed, especially if they
have been harassed been by a performer demanding money. (Mayor
Hanneman has indicated that his office has received complaints.)
For HPU student Toraya Basiliali, the Kalakaua street performers
add a lot of color to the Waikiki nights. She has never seen
anything like them before.
Lucy Van Moeren, who came here for vacation, was also impressed
by the variety of performances.
Although the relationship between the performers and the police,
and the performers and the local merchants, has occasionally
been adversarial, the entertainment they provide now is one of
the attractions that draws people to the golden sidewalks of
Kalakaua Avenue for which Waikiki is so famous.