For three years, Carey Johnson made much of his living as “The Telescope Guy.”

He would set up his personal telescope somewhere along Kalakaua Avenue almost every evening, inviting passers-by to have a peek.

Johnson knew he was subject to the city ordinance that restricts peddling on sidewalks. That’s why he was always careful to treat patrons’ payments as donations, which are legal.

Still, on Aug. 22 Waikiki police arrested Johnson for peddling. The arrest, he said, marked his first offense. And although he was released on $200 bail, the Honolulu Police Department took his telescope — along with a collection of photos he shot with it — into evidence.

He doesn’t expect to get those items back until his case is settled.

Waikiki street performers suspect that the HPD in recent weeks has been cracking down on them at the request of a Waikiki business group, citing a series of arrests that caught many of the entertainers off guard. A group of performers plans to gather at the Sept. 11 Waikiki Neighborhood Board meeting to discuss the incidents.

Johnson started noticing the arrests in mid-August.

“Walking up and down Kalakaua, it seems like everyone has been arrested,” he said.

Determining the exact number of performers who’ve been busted is difficult, in part because the ordinance they’re booked under prohibits peddling — not street performing in itself.

According to HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu, Waikiki police since July 1 have arrested 27 individuals for peddling. Minutes from a recent Waikiki Neighborhood Board meeting show that police arrested four people for peddling in July, suggesting that most of the arrests occurred in August.

Johnson and other performers think the spike in arrests traces back to a partnership the HPD maintains with the Waikiki Business Improvement District Association, also known as BID. The association has regularly gifted lump sums of money to the department in checks specifically earmarked to address illegal activity, namely peddling, on Waikiki’s sidewalks.

BID’s executive director Jan Yamane did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

But HPD’s Yu said that the arrests are unrelated to the BID funding.

Police officials recently shifted staffing to the district that includes Waikiki. Yu said they did so because of chronic community complaints about peddling, not at the request of the business group.

Street artist Michael Daly, founder of the Save Waikiki Sidewalk campaign, said he also noticed the surge in arrests, noting that they came out of nowhere.

“I’m shocked and surprised to hear that our street performers and artists and free voice activists are being arrested on the street,” he said. “The public property is gradually being taken away from under our feet.” Daly hasn’t been arrested.

HPD clamped down on Waikiki sidewalk entertainers in the weeks leading up to last year’s APEC summit in a plan known as “Operation Sidewalk Sweeper.”

But “it didn’t seem to amount to anything at the end of the day,” Daly said. “I don’t know why it’s come up in the last couple of weeks.”

Daly believes that BID has had a role in the arrests.

“Usually when there are raids, it’s not because the mayor or community has complained — it’s more to do with the business associations,” Daly said. “It’s far from the truth that the artists are dominating the sidewalk. Corporations are dominating. What they don’t like is the message of independent free speech. And that’s what we symbolize.”

Last October, HPD accepted a $75,000 gift from BID. That’s on top of the numerous donations — some for sums as large as $150,000 — that BID allocated to the department in previous years.

HPD interprets peddling as the act of setting a price for a transaction, according to a letter that former Honolulu Deputy Corporation Counsel Gordon Nelson wrote to the ACLU Hawaii in 2009. (The ACLU has regularly advocated on behalf of the Waikiki street performers.)

“A person offering goods or services in public places in Waikiki who does no more than solicit or accept a donation, leaving the amount to be determined solely and freely by the donor, is not in violation of the ordinance,” Nelson wrote. He added that the performers could avoid peddling by not specifying a donation amount and “not making change for a donor in a way that effectively sets the amount of the donation.”

But the street performers say they understand the distinction between peddling and performing.

“They try and trick you,” said Johnson.

“Many of these performing artists understand what’s at stake, and they’re careful about what they say and don’t say,” said Daly.

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