NEW YORK—The chill of the handcuffs gripped Ainsley Brundage’s wrists as the police pushed him out of the subway. A sea of strangers’ eyes stared and judged. Hooligan. Rascal. Imp. Most would not guess that Brundage’s dearest dream is to attend a school like Harvard Law, or that it is likely that he will.
Brundage, 19, dances illegally inside subway cars to feed a small but steady flame inside him. He grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and is saving each dollar toward his dream of going to college upstate, far away from negative influences.
His mother and stepfather worry about tuition and test scores and would prefer that he register at Borough of Manhattan Community College. But Brundage is determined to break away from New York City and the confines of his sad past.
The signs of genius are there: Brundage skipped third grade, scored at a 12th grade reading level in the fourth grade, skipped the fifth grade. Then, a series of troubled periods eventually led to him to drop out of high school.
He began dancing on the subway five years ago, when he was too young to get a job but old enough to have self-determination. He needed to feed himself and his two hungry siblings.
“My mom had to work and we’d have no food to eat after school,” Brundage said.
One of his close friends in high school sold crack for $3,000 a week. He had nice clothes and pretty girlfriends. He asked Brundage to join the business, but Brundage chose to dance instead.
As the NYPD cracks down on subway performers with the return of its broken windows policing strategy, criminal law experts are divided on the merits of the tactic. More than 240 people have been arrested on misdemeanors related to acrobatics from the beginning of the year to July.
For performers like Brundage, dancing in the subway is a gleam of hope, an opportunity in lieu of gangs and drugs. The recent increase in arrests of subway dancers sheds light on the complex nuances of broken windows policing, and its effect on the community.
After watching some YouTube videos, Brundage picked up the act. In the late hours of the night, he’d ride an empty J train to the end of the line in Queens, often not returning until 4 a.m.
Brundage’s asthma threatened to act up as the wintry air gushed through doors that remained open, for it was ungodly hours at the last stop of the train.
But he’d continue to spin and swing between poles and railings anyway, to the rhythm of Lite Feet, the subgenre of hip hop that subway dancers move to.
He mastered the trick that required him to hang from train ceilings, despite his fear of heights.
When Brundage was 13, he used to make himself sit on a Bushwick projects’ rooftop, where he hung out after school, so that he could overcome his fear of heights. In front of a panorama of the city, he learned to control his anxiety.
“I believe the purpose to life is self-improvement,” he said. “I measure my value by how much better I can become.”
Once, Brundage said a police officer told him that he wouldn’t arrest him if he gave him all his money. The offer was cheaper than the fine he would have to pay, along with the money he wouldn’t make with a day behind bars. But Brundage refused. Many of his friends did not understand why.
From a young age Brundage has always had confidence in his intelligence and a strong sense of his value.
He has had chances to run away when a police officer approaches him in the subway, but he never does.
“I just feel like I shouldn’t have to do that,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to run from the police.” Instead, Brundage uses his court cases as a learning experience for his future career in law.
His nickname at home is “professor.”
He grew up reading books on constitutional law, and watched the television series Law and Order religiously.
To his mother’s dismay and wonder, as a child he’d have logical arguments with her. When she told him to turn the lights off to conserve energy, he’d respond that the most wasteful part was not keeping the lights on, but turning them back on frequently.
His dance name is Top Star. Brundage has a tattoo of a gust of wind blowing around four stars, three stars surrounding a larger one. His nature, not his nurturing, will carry him to unthinkable heights.
The three small stars represent those closest to him; but at this time, they are only symbolic emblems of the people he will meet.
“Sometimes I feel alone, I get a little sad,” Brundage said. “It’s hard for me to be around certain people I don’t relate to. I will be judged by some of my peers, because of the way I am and the way I think.”
Subway dancers can act bold, and sometimes reckless. They strut with their amplifiers in front of police; they say the police cannot arrest them if they’re not actually dancing.
“But all they need is probable cause,” Brundage said. “I have pride, too. But there’s a time and place for that.”
The rise in arrests of subway dancers is the result of Police Commissioner William Bratton bringing back broken window policing to New York City.
The broken windows theory is based on the idea that urban disorder—such as broken windows and graffiti—suggests that the area is uncared for; hence, the place is more susceptible to higher crime because criminals are less likely to be stopped there, according to the Community Oriented Policing Services of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It would be a stretch to subsume acrobatic dancers under the broken windows concept,” David Greenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, wrote in an email. “In fact, it would be ridiculous.”
Experts who both support and oppose the tactic agree that there is no empirical evidence that performing on the subway will lead to higher crime.
However, it can be dangerous to perform acrobatic movements inside moving subway cars. A subway dancer who did not wish to be named said he accidentally kicked a rider during his first performance.
And some experts feel that any support for dangerous behavior can have negative consequences.
“If you allow that behavior, what other behavior will you allow?” said George Kelling, one of the social scientists who introduced the concept of broken windows in 1982. He is currently a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
“The first step, in terms of dealing with acrobats, is to persuade them to stop. Educate them about the dangers. Warn them of the consequences,” Kelling said. “If they can’t be persuaded, then they need to be arrested.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has defended the NYPD’s broken windows policing as a practice that makes the city a safer place.
“Bill Bratton is one of the greatest police reformers and architects of effective policing in the history of this country,” de Blasio said.
Bratton served as commissioner of the NYPD from 1994 to 1996, a period of crime decline. His policing policies are influenced by the broken windows theory.
Since 1990, New York City has experienced the “largest and longest sustained drop in street crime ever experienced by a big city in the developed world,” Berkeley law professor Frank Zimring wrote in his book “The City that Became Safe: New York and the Future of Crime Control.” Data from the NYPD also shows an 80 percent drop in crime over the last two decades.
But the broken windows theory was not truly implemented in the ’90s either.
“Broken windows policing as originally designed would have avoided pouring resources in the highest crime rate areas that became a central priority … the New York strategy did not fit the ‘broken windows’ prescription either,” Zimring wrote in his book.
Whether the original broken windows was fully implemented or not, the key to successful policing is open dialogue.
“Broken windows, to me—I think I can say this also for Commissioner Bratton—is about addressing small things before they turn into big things,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “Arrest is not the only option. And we want to create a dialogue where we solve a lot of problems up front … that’s broken windows to me.”
But many subway performers said there has been no dialogue.
Legally, subway performers are allowed to perform on the platform as long as they are not interfering with construction work, according toMTA guidelines.
Performers can also use amplification on the mezzanine without a permit.
But many buskers feel that will stop them regardless, and that an open area like the platform is not a safe place to perform.
“We don’t want to do it because they’re going to find some type of excuse to lock us up,” said Andrew Saunders, 20, a dancer who stopped performing in the subway after his first arrest in 2013. “We don’t want to take that risk.”
Matthew Christian, an English teacher, said arrests often occur because the police mistakenly believe a permit is required to perform. That was the basis of Christian’s arrest in 2013, when he was playing Bach on his violin on the subway platform.
“If we’re going to get arrested anyway, it’s easier to evade police inside cars,” Brundage said.
Saunders said he believes most subway dancers would perform in a safe spot designated by the MTA if one existed.
“I would love to communicate with the MTA. … A lot would do it that way,” Saunders said. He said the problem could be solved if dance were included as a category in MTA’s “Music Under New York” program, which allows for performances at 30 locations throughout the transit system.
“There are over 200 dancers that perform on the train now … they perform on the train to get away from their problems,” Saunders said. “If we can’t dance anywhere else, a lot of people are going to go back to … other negative things.”
Some say that using the broken window tactic on subway performers is an extension of the police tactic stop, question, and frisk that has been curbed significantly under Bratton after new rules ordered by a judge, and new laws passed by City Council addressed community concerns about racial profiling.
“It’s a similar practice that requires discretionary stops and arrests,” said Bernard Harcourt, a professor at Columbia University who teaches criminal law.
“What is most problematic of the broken window theory is that the police commissioner gets to decide what is order and what is disorder, what is socially desirable,” Harcourt said. “And it has similar negative effects as stop and frisk.”
The MTA and NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.
Brundage said he was arrested 14 times in the last five years for dancing inside subway cars. NYPD verified seven of the arrests, plus additional sealed arrests. He spends one night, sometimes two, behind bars as he waits to see a judge. He has never been charged with a crime.
During one of his first arrests at age 14, at the 83rd precinct in Bushwick, it was winter. He said the police took away his jacket because there was a string on the hood that he could potentially use to commit suicide. But they did not close the window. As the bitter cold air seeped into the cell, Brundage had an asthma attack. He did not have his inhaler with him. He called out to the police but they did not respond.
After that his mother started keeping her phone on high volume when she slept, just in case the police called again and she needed to bring his pump.
“When he gets arrested I need to tell the precinct that he has a medical condition,” said Rashell-Lady Brundage-Johnson, his mother. “I’ve cried, I’ve prayed. It hasn’t been easy.”
But the most concerning part is not his physical treatment in jail.
“It’s a critical age,” said Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, director of the New York-based Juvenile Justice Project. “These labels affect their sense of self, which is still developing.”
Brundage strives to reason rather than feel angry.
“I’m disappointed more than angry when I get arrested,” he said. “The police are just doing their job. The person I should be angry at is de Blasio or Bratton.”
Since he doesn’t get charged, the arrest doesn’t go on his record. The judge usually gives him community service or a small fine.
Still, each arrest and court date is a financial setback for the family.
It’s very difficult for Brundage’s mother or stepfather to miss a day of work. They have children in college, and a 3-year-old toddler.
His mother is a clerk at a law firm; his stepfather has a graphic design degree, but currently works in maintenance.
Once, at a barbecue at Brooklyn’s Highland Park, Brundage saw a man get shot in front of him.
As Brundage and his sister ran, the shooter came toward the wounded man and shot him again. Brundage never forgot the yellow spark of the bullet as it left the gun.
At a party in East New York, at a popular spot under a barbershop, a man smashed speakers into another man’s face. A gang fight broke out.
As he and his sister were briskly leaving the party, a man approached him with anger in his eyes.
“Are you Weez Gang?” he asked.
Brundage said no, he was not in a gang. But his friends were.
After that incident, he decided not to hang out with that crowd anymore and turn his life around. He decided to get his GED and go to college.
But he knew he wouldn’t fare well at a school in New York City. He wanted to go somewhere where he’d be able to focus. He knows too many people here, too many bad crowds to drag him down.
His friends tell him, “If you need money you can always sell [drugs] with me.” He has thought about it. “I can’t lie,” he said.
But Brundage believes that a person’s true nature will triumph, and that it is in his nature to be good. So he stuck to dancing on the subway, and has inspired others through his performances.
Brundage and his best friend were paid to dance in an Intel commercial. Brundage even made an appearance on MTV.
Brundage and his best friend Malcolm Fraser perform in an Intel commercial.
Kids in his neighborhood look up to him. He has inspired other young people not to join gangs and dance instead, to keep working on their routines even if they are not good at it yet.
“At least he’s making an honest living,” Rashell-Lady Brundage said. “We don’t want them going out there doing anything illegal. But who will give them a chance?”
As a prequel to law school, Brundage dreams of attending Mohawk Valley, a community college six hours away from the city in Utica, N.Y.
It has a better environment. The campus has open, green spaces, and nice facilities; but most importantly, he has no bad connections there.
It’s a more expensive college experience, though. The tuition is $3,810, and it costs around $3,000 more to live on campus.
The school also requires a student to have a minimum GED score of 2400 in order to stay in the dormitory.
For some time, it seemed that Brundage would not get past these two hurdles.
Federal FAFSA rules deemed that his household income was too large to get full financial aid, but his family did not have the money to pay for his dorm.
Brundage asked his mother to take out a loan for him, but she did not think it was wise to do so.
From the money he made from dancing, Brundage could pay $1,000 out of his own pocket.
Since he didn’t have a credit history, he was only able to take a small $2,000 loan to pay for the first semester.
But he still needed around $4,000 more to cover his tuition and the school’s additional fees—a $130 student activity fee, a $140 technology fee, studio lab fees, etc. Not to mention he needed books, a laptop, and a hamper.
“I’m not going to be able to go, am I,” he thought.
His parents thought he should prepare to attend the local college. It was a safer bet. But Brundage did not want a plan B.
A month before school began, Brundage began starving himself to save money.
He ate one meal a day, and performed seven hours a day. He lived on $10 a day, spending it on some drinks and one deli sandwich at the end of his day at 3 a.m.
“It’s about how far you’re willing to go to get what you deserve,” Brundage said.
He once danced two days without eating, but he began to feel lightheaded.
Meanwhile, words from his stepfather rang in his head, “Mark my words, be prepared for disappointment. I don’t know why you’re putting all your eggs in one basket.”
Brundage makes more money than other subway dancers because he dances by himself.
“No matter how hard I try, I can’t do it by myself,” said Kayvon Wright, another dancer. “He’s brave.”
When he receives negative responses, there are no fellow dancers to lean on for solidarity.
“Hello ladies and gentlemen,” Brundage calls out by himself.
“Damn it, I had such a good streak,” a rider complains.
But Brundage doesn’t mind. He is goal-oriented. If his goal is to make $120 that day, he will not leave the station until he makes $120, no matter how long it takes.
“You can spin around the pole a hundred times, you can do the best flips,” he said. “But if you don’t have drive, you will never surpass your limits.”
A large factor of whether or not Brundage can go to Utica is how much studying he can get done while performing on the subway.
He takes breaks in the library to read GED preparation books when he is not dancing. He took a week off to prepare for the GED, but that was all. His parents worried.
He took the GED test last November. Three long weeks went by and there was no word on his results.
His parents reminded him that he should apply for nearby community colleges.
Then the scores came, in December. It showed that although he dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, in a short amount of time, he was essentially able to skip three grades, again.
He received a 2720 on his GED, more than 300 points higher than the entrance requirement. In the end, his aunt agreed to sign a loan for him to go to school.
Brundage went to Utica this summer and scored in the 90th percentile for his college placement tests.
Each year, 60 percent of first-year college students in the United States have to take remedial courses before they take college-level classes, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Brundage is not one of them.
“I’m very emotional about it … I’m like wow,” his mother said. “I would tell him it’s not too late to apply for other schools. But he made it happen. I am so happy and proud.”
His first week of school has been a surreal experience. New friends. A new life. His new nickname at school is Wiz Khalifa; kids say he looks like the rapper. “I’ve made a lot of friends,” he said proudly. “I’m popular already.”
Naturally, most of the parties are off-campus. Since Brundage does not have a license, he worries that whoever drives him may end up driving back drunk. Plus, he doesn’t drink or smoke and that might seem strange at a college party.
So Brundage has said no to many parties the first week, and has been reading about Supreme Court cases and American business law in his room instead.