get helping hand from federal judge
By Robert Jablon, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Batman, Superman and other superheroes are getting some help from the feds for their caped crusades along Hollywood Boulevard.
U.S. Judge Dean Pregerson on Wednesday blocked police from cracking down on the costumed characters who perform and pose for pictures for tips along the fabled street.
It may not seem like a traditional form of free speech, but their right to perform is protected under that provision of the U.S. Constitution, Pregerson wrote in the ruling that was welcomed by the performers.
"If cops want to do their job correctly, go find a real criminal," Michael Jackson impersonator Sean Vezina said Thursday.
Reports of aggressive panhandling and even fights involving unlicensed street performers led to a crackdown in May and June that led to about two dozen arrests for petty crimes such as blocking the sidewalk.
Since then, some performers said, police have threatened to arrest them if they didn't leave — although on any given day Superman, Spider-Man and Capt. Jack Sparrow can still be seen preening and flexing.
"This is a cultural activity," said Fikret Sahin, 40, a Turkish immigrant who studies music at Los Angeles City College and occasionally portrays Yoda from Star Wars.
The federal injunction was issued in a lawsuit brought by some of the characters. Police have not decided whether to appeal.
Officers stepped up their presence after receiving numerous complaints from business owners and the public that costumed performers had made violent threats against tourists who refused to hand over cash after snapping photos, said Hollywood area police Sgt. Robert McDonald.
The Chamber of Commerce disagreed with the judge's decision, noting that police are sometimes needed to protect tourists from large crowds of impersonators.
Chamber President Leron Gubler said as many as 60 characters sometimes congregate before dawn in front of the famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where they crowd tourists into the street and refuse to move unless their photos are taken.
"We think that the judge did not bother to take into consideration the situation on the street," Gubler said. "I would just say it's basically a license for these characters to harass the public.
"We have had no one — and I repeat not one person — who has said they miss the characters," he said.
Vezina, who has been a Jackson impersonator for six years, said he takes pains not to be aggressive when asking for tips. Yet on Wednesday, an officer still told him to beat it, he said.
Vezina said police legitimately arrested a Batman impersonator who got drunk on his birthday and a Shrek who fought a homeless man.
Performers say they offer a valuable service in an area with little more than stores, souvenirs and cheap eateries.
"It's like a souvenir for the people," Jordi Bellon, a 26-year-old from Spain, said, peering through his black Zorro mask as he wielded a rose and a plastic sword outside Grauman's.
Yvonne Haug, 53, a visitor from Ontario, Canada, agreed.
"It's kind of neat, having Zorro standing next to you," she said. "This is what we came to see."