NEW YORK — Minnie Mouse and the Penguin from Batman huddled together, looking concerned. They were soon joined by Super Mario, Elmo, Hello Kitty and Goofy, who was carrying his big, plush head in his hands. After a few minutes of talking, they lined up in a row and began to clap and cheer: “Si se puede! Yes we can!’’
These and dozens of other cartoon characters who populate Times Square gathered Tuesday for a news conference to address their public image, which has recently devolved to seem more like the wicked stepmother’s than Cinderella’s.
The street performers have formed a group, New York Artists United for a Smile, that is hoping to create a culture of respect for them and for police officers, asking that the Police Department respect them in turn.
While the performers have pledged to create a system that would help internally regulate their organization and weed out the “bad apples’’ that have caused problems in the area, they also said they believed the police were singling them out unfairly.
Woody, the cowboy from “Toy Story,’’ held up a sign that said, “We have rights.’’
These costumed characters earn their living through the money that they sometimes receive after posing for pictures. City laws forbid street performers to demand tips or panhandle aggressively, but at the same time they are permitted to accept donations. (The laws creating the differences between the two types of solicitation are fuzzy at best.) Many of the performers do not speak English, and may not be fully aware of the rules.
Recently, police officers in Times Square have been handing out fliers to pedestrians to let them know that tipping in exchange for a picture is not required, said a spokeswoman for the Times Square Alliance, which was involved in the new effort.
The street performers’ organization is asking that the Police Department stop handing out these fliers, which they say severely limit their ability to make a living.
Last month, a Spider-Man refused to accept a dollar bill from two tourists in exchange for a picture, saying the tip was too small. A police officer stepped in to tell the couple that they could tip whatever amount they wanted. Spider-Man told the officer, “Mind your own business.’’ The police officer asked for identification, which Spider-Man did not have. When the officer moved to arrest him, the web-slinger punched the officer in the face, the police said. He was later charged with assaulting an officer and resisting arrest.
Other characters have had run-ins with the law in recent years: An Elmo was taken into police custody for shouting obscenities in 2012; another Spider-Man fought with a woman over a photo in 2013; a Cookie Monster was accused of shoving a toddler last year; and a Super Mario was said to have groped a pedestrian in 2012.
In several of these episodes, the police have asked performers for identification, which many do not carry. The performers’ organization said that its members would be willing to wear identification tags, and that they supported the creation of municipal identification cards under a law that goes into effect in January.
Andy King, a member of the City Council from the Bronx, is sponsoring legislation that would require all street performers who disguise themselves to register and go through a licensing process. They would then receive ID cards to wear.
King said his bill was a safety measure, largely meant to protect children and make sure that the performers do not have criminal pasts. He also said, “We expect these characters to educate our children and preserve their innocence, but when they’re behaving like the Wicked Witch of the West,’’ it can upset children and leave them with bad feelings about the city.
Sean Basinski, the director of the Street Vendors Project, which has a similar goal of uniting and protecting street vendors and which was supporting the performers on Tuesday, said that the city’s efforts to police these performers was misguided.
“The city created a new Times Square for tourists, and when the tourists come, people come to do business here,’’ he said.
“Now that they’re here, the city doesn’t like them anymore. The city created a Disneyland here, and now they’re upset that it’s Disneyland.’’