NEW YORK (AP) — Some costumed characters in Times Square ripped off their mammoth heads on Tuesday, showing their real faces to protest what they call a "hostile move" by police telling tourists they don't have to tip for photos.
The giant Elmos, Mickey Mouses, Statues of Liberty and other beloved children's characters — mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants — held a news conference to proclaim their right to the meager survival cash.
"Si se puede!" they chanted in Spanish, meaning "Yes we can!"
One of their protest signs read: "We make the world smile," and another, "Let us work."
Earlier this month, the New York Police Department started distributing leaflets and posting signs in five languages telling visitors that tips are optional. As a result, tip intake has plummeted.
The crackdown followed a string of harrowing incidents in which some of the characters assaulted tourists, including children. Others harassed people and groped women. The face-offs peaked last month when a Spider-Man demanding money punched a police officer telling a woman she was not obliged to pay.
The performers argue that most of them don't demand money; they only suggest they be tipped.
More than 130 formed a group this week called NYC Artists United for a Smile to explore how the characters might regulate themselves instead of the licensing now being proposed in the City Council.
On Tuesday, some took off their characters' masks to speak passionately about their right to earn a living.
"We need to be respected, not to be a police target!" said Jiovanna Melendez, a native of Peru who was dressed Minnie Mouse.
She said she and the others were aware of the prior incidents and were uniting to create a set of rules to avert further trouble, working with police and possibly including IDs.
The $50 to $70 dollars a day they make is well below minimum wage for shifts of up to 12 hours, but many are desperate to feed their families — especially those without proper U.S. documents.
Lucia Gomez, executive director of La Fuente, a pro-immigrant nonprofit that helped organize the performers, said it's their First Amendment right to entertain people.
"Once you start putting forward any kind of regulation on a group of workers, you better be prepared to do it to all workers, because you cannot single out one set of workers and not provide the same kind of regulations for everyone within the performance art industry," Gomez said.
She said the police tactics are a "hostile move on the part of the NYPD and the Times Square Alliance" that represents local businesses.
City Councilman Andy King is drafting a bill that would require a mandatory license for anyone in a costume trolling for tips, possibly including a small fee and a background check. Some of the costumed workers support licensing.