Nanny State

New York City Freaking Out Over Topless Women in Times Square

Puritan urges in a progressive city.



When people can do as they please, limited only by rules preventing them from harming others, it's difficult to predict what they'll do and almost impossible to control it. After all, that's freedom, and it wouldn't be freedom if the outcomes were limited to ones approved by rulers. 

But that's not freedom for most politicians, who probably take a view closer to Summer's from the Adult Swim show Rick & Morty, that "freedom" is like the freedom to choose a cellphone carrier. In 2009 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg began the process of transforming Times Square from a traffic intersection into a pedestrian plaza, something local businesses opposed but the city said would lower pedestrian fatalities and ease traffic in the area.  

Opening up Times Square as a public space free of cars drew more tourists as well as more entrepreneurs of all kinds trying to service them. It's important to remember, obviously, that Times Square attracted tourists and street entrepreneurs even before it was closed to cars. In early 2006 my final journalism project at Columbia was about hip-hop artists who sold their CDS in Times Square (one of them was killed in a shootout with cops a couple of years later) and in late 2006, before I could get a job in media, I worked with a Gypsy family, dressing up as Shrek to take pictures with tourists at Times Square.  

There were all kinds of "First Amendment vendors," the phrase NYC uses to describe people who sell things they created themselves and are exempt from vending license requirements, sex workers, and what New York City politicians now call "panhandlers," entertainers who work on donations, in Times Square before the government transformed it into a pedestrian plaza. Only an idiot wouldn't have been able to predict that that decision would open the space up to more vendors, entertainers, and other entrepreneurs. But why is this a problem? 

Because progressive New York City has quite a bit of a Puritan streak. New Yorkers have been freaking out over the last few weeks, via their local media, about topless women performing at Times Square. Women. Topless. Asking for money. The horror! What do they think this is, America? Any complaints about the women physically harassing other people, of course, should be possible for police to handle using existing laws against things like harassment. The cops would rather take pictures with them—a telling sign of the "danger" these women actually pose. 

Now Mayor Bill de Blasio has set up a task force for the specific purpose of banning the topless women, and floated one solution to the "problem"—closing the pedestrian plazas in Times Square and bringing back the vehicular traffic. De Blasio believes this would also rid Times Square of the costumed children's characters some New Yorkers ridiculously fear. Because God forbid you live in New York and choose to spend your time and earn your money in a way some New Yorkers might find objectionable. They'll try to use the power of government to bully you away from your choice. 

But, as I mentioned above, Times Square had costumed characters and other people looking to earn a buck, including the semi-famous "naked cowboy," for a long time before Bloomberg transformed the area into a pedestrian plaza. That move only created space for more people to try to earn money there. New Yorkers' hate for the topless women, costumed characters, and other figures of Times Square comes from the same place that makes occupational licensing so popular around the country, even though even the Obama administration, at this point, acknowledged the negative effects overlicensing have on employment prospects and the economy.  

The same "progressive" New Yorkers have no problem complaining about the government not "creating" or "providing" enough jobs. And here they are, upset that women, and men, are making money on their own terms, in a way they don't approve of, as if living in the same city that someone earns a living gives you a right to have a say. 

Not everyone is a fan of de Blasio's proposed solution. Not because they support Times Square's entrepreneurs or understand bringing back traffic won't displace all of them, but rather because they consider the solution a "surrender" when the mayor should fight (peaceful New Yorkers trying to earn a dollar) instead.  "Sure, let's tear up Broadway. We can't govern, manage or police our public spaces, so we should just tear them up," Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, told The Wall Street Journal. "That's not a solution. It's a surrender." 

Let's unpack what Tompkins said because it, and the fact that topless women and other peaceful entrepreneurs in Times Square are a controversy, are pretty remarkable, especially given the political attention paid in the last year to overpolicing and police brutality. Tompkins, and those who want to see topless women removed from Times Square, want the police (who, remember, would prefer to take pictures with the women) to remove them. If the women don't want to go—and if they consider themselves free why would they?—the police would have to use force to accomplish what New Yorkers want done.  

This is not far off from the Eric Garner case last summer. Many New York City residents, and most New York City politicians, support the laws against selling loose untaxed cigarettes, because the sale of loosies, while it offers mostly poor people a way to have a cigarette without buying a whole pack, also takes away precious revenue from the city. New Yorkers demanded the government and the police enforce "quality of life" laws. It's why, in the aftermath of the Garner case, Bill de Blasio got away with saying he would continue to order police to strictly enforce petty laws. Some New Yorkers might protest police brutality, but many support all the laws that require police to interact with otherwise peaceful citizens to force compliance of a bullshit law. Like a ban on taking your top off and looking for donations in a public space where tourists come to gawk at behavior just like that. 

Even Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has expressed moral outrage over the topless women. That outrage is misplaced. While the country wakes up to the problems of police brutality and state violence around the nation, many New Yorkers want their government to deploy police to use force against women peacefully trying to earn a dollar. That should be the source of the real outrage.