By Jack Burns
Oklahoma City, OK – In the land of the free, playing music in public can get you arrested and extorted. A street musician has found himself in a legal battle after a judge charged him with “soliciting without a license,” stemming from an incident in which he was approached by police, and he responded by asking where he was legally allowed to play his guitar.
Ryan Dalee Strader was first hired by the Oklahoma City Arts Council in the early 2000s as a street performer. He said he typically “makes up songs on the spot about pedestrians as they were walking by.” But his red carpet welcome was jerked out from under his feet, even though his act “Ry Dalee and Evangeline” has performed all over the state.
“I would watch as the cops would come and arrest people for performing on the street without a license, even though they had a license to do so,” Strader said. After a while, he said he simply stopped buying the license to perform. In his mind, it did not matter to Oklahoma City who had a license, as all street performers were getting caught in the police state’s dragnet. Strader decided to see if free speech was dead in America.
He said he showed up on the street on Nov. 15, 2016, and started singing. He was approached by four armed police officers who told him he was, in essence, panhandling—soliciting money from passersby.
Strader attempted to reason with them, “I never sold anything so I don’t know what I could be peddling,” he said. But he agreed to leave the Bricktown district where he was first hired to sing.
As he was leaving Bricktown, passing over the Freede Bridge, Strader said he turned to face the officers once again, and he asked them where he could go to exercise his First Amendment right to sing. When he did, he was immediately arrested for “obstruction of justice” and received a ticket for “soliciting without a license.”
“We were on a 16 foot-wide pedestrian bridge, and it was just me and four officers. It’s still mind-boggling to me,” Strader said.
It was a rude awakening for the artist, who said he was harassed and ultimately arrested for “asking questions.” As The Free Thought Project has reported on numerous occasions, police will arrest citizens for questioning their orders, and will charge them with “obstruction of justice.”
When Strader went to trial on Dec. 7, the judge found him guilty and ordered him to pay fines totaling $240, for the crime of asking the police where he could sing, and where he was allowed to exercise his freedom of speech.
Strader described the ordeal as humiliating. He said he was stripped of his clothing, placed in an orange jumpsuit, and spent 27 hours in jail, all for singing without a license and getting on a few officers’ nerves.
When asked if the judge would have mercy on him, Strader told The Free Thought Project that he thought the court was a “rubber stamp” court but praised his lawyer for representing him. “I feel lucky for that. I have an amazing lawyer,” he said as he stated he is now appealing the judge’s verdict.
“They won,” Strader said. “Because I told them that I was leaving and I would not be back. It’s been over a year. No, I’m never going back. I’m out of their city. I’ll never go back and perform again.”
We asked Strader what he thinks a victory would look like.
“For the unconstitutional statutes to be removed from the criminal code, and for the cops to stop harassing peaceful citizens who are just sharing some art,” he replied.
Strader said several of his friends who are also artists have been constantly harassed by police, and the consistent manipulation of the law and harassment by police have led several performers to simply stop attempting to entertain.
Strader told TFTP that Megan Armstrong, who works for the OKC licensing division, relayed information to him from the city’s attorneys assuring him the police would not bother him or arrest him if he would put up signs around himself, when he is singing, which warn people “not to engage” the artist. But Strader said that human interaction is what it is all about for him.
I never would have done this on my own. I was way too introverted as a person. That first time out I met people I never would have met otherwise, friendships that have lasted to this day, because we were playing music live in public.
Strader and his wife will continue to play classical piano, guitar and harmonica to anyone who will invite them. In 2012, Ry Strader won the David Wilcox Emerging Artist award, left his job in the oil field, and embarked into the music industry. Together, he and Evangeline have four children and live in Guthrie, Oklahoma.