When Abrome decided to launch an Austin chapter of Flying Squads, we hoped to be joining a fun, liberatory, and supportive community of Flying Squads from across the country (and someday the world!). What we didn’t expect was how seriously they took the fun part. After a big box scavenger hunt challenge that we, along with the Brooklyn, Eugene, and Portland Flying Squads all participated in, we moved on to a busking challenge. Specifically, our squads would go out into the city, set up on some street corner, and busk. Busking is when one performs in public for monetary donations, usually by singing or playing music. The Flying Squads would then donate to a cause or organization they believed was doing good in their community. 

We decided that we would take to the streets on Thursday, March 5th, the last time we would meet as a squad before our spring break. However, between family emergencies, community members supporting our March 1st communication about taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of the flu and the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) which we anticipated would soon hit Austin, uneasy conversations about how Austin police have harassed buskers, and perhaps some stage fright, we only had two young people and one Facilitator show up for the busking challenge.

There’s certainly strength in numbers, and having only two other folks to provide each of us with emotional backup made the challenge all that more daunting. We procrastinated on getting out the door of the public library where we had our initial meeting, and then we hopped on a bus and made our way north toward our favorite anarchist bookstore. We decided to get off the bus in the Hyde Park neighborhood at an intersection with multiple restaurants, a bakery, a grocery store, and some other businesses. We figured this place would have enough foot traffic to make busking worth the effort while not being so overrun with people that they would fail to notice us. 

One of the Learners decided it was best to ask permission to perform in front of one of the restaurants, and with their blessing we secured our spot next to the sidewalk, placed our tip jar in front of us … and stalled. Standing up and performing in front of others is difficult, and being the first to stand up and perform is doubly so. After we found enough excuses to not perform (e.g., I want to eat my lunch first, I want to wait until more people start walking by, I will go after you) we finally bit the bullet and began. One Learner planned to sing she knew by heart, the other Learner planned to play his guitar or sing songs by the band Queen, and I planned to sing songs on demand by looking them up on my phone and just feeling my way through the song. The Learners called it “cringe singing,” and I think the Learners felt a bit more at ease once they realized how painful my experience would be (for me and for those listening). 


Not many folks walked by us while we performed, and no one stopped to listen. We decided to throw a dollar bill in the tip jar to prime the pump, but that had no effect. The only engagement we had with anyone was when we recognized a University of Texas student who stopped by our booth at a recent alternative education school fair. When he met us the first time he was blown away by the notion of trusting young people to control their own education and lives, and he was beyond thrilled to see that these young people chose to exercise their autonomy by coming to a random corner in his neighborhood to busk. But he didn’t leave a tip. 

The Learners and I discussed relocating to a place with more potential spectators. We considered moving toward the bakery where people were sitting outside in the sun enjoying cake, cookies, and coffee, but decided against it because it would take us too far away from the main street. We settled on moving next to the bus stop because it guaranteed a steady flow of people coming and going, and it also left us with a captive audience who couldn’t just walk past us if they were hoping to hop on the bus. But despite the superior location, we still received no tips or even acknowledgements for our efforts. 

The experience was humbling. Singing solo, a cappella to an audience of strangers is nothing like singing karaoke with friends. And while we were doing it for the experience of it, as a challenge, we know that many people busk to survive. The experience was also quite informative. We became comfortable with public embarrassment, at least for one afternoon. We were able to piece together why performers are found in some parts of the city and not others (e.g., foot traffic, law enforcement, neighborhood). And we decided that if we were going to do it again, we would have to take it more seriously by accepting and embracing our feelings of embarrassment. And we need to practice. 


 Cross posted on the Flying Squads blog.