GLAA testifies on ABC Board: March 1997

STATEMENT FOR THE RECORD
ON OVERSIGHT HEARINGS
FOR THE ABC BOARD

Committee on Consumer & Regulatory Affairs

SUBMITTED MARCH 18, 1997

Chairman Brazil and Other Members of the Council:

My name is Rick Rosendall. I am President of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the oldest gay and lesbian civil rights group in the country. I am pleased to submit this formal statement for myself and Mr. Craig Howell, our present Secretary, for the record of your committee's oversight hearings on the ABC Board, held March 11; both of us testified in person at that hearing.

We strongly support the broad objectives of the crackdown on licensed nightclubs that irresponsibly wink at or otherwise condone violent or illegal acts on their premises or that allow their businesses to become public nuisances to their neighbors. We can only wonder why the city had to wait until the tragic and pointless death of Officer Gibson near the Club Ibex last month before any kind of concerted action was implemented. In general, we applaud the enhanced coordination now being emphasized among the Police Department, the Fire Department, the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs, and the ABC Board.

At the same time, we are greatly alarmed and distressed by some of the less praiseworthy, ulterior motives that threaten to discredit this enhanced coordination program from the outset. Specifically, we are worried that the innocent may be needlessly sacrificed in order to meet the personal or political agendas being imposed on the enhanced coordination program by some of the District's top officials. It is disturbing when enforcement actions and policies affecting civil liberties as well as public safety appear to be driven by today's headlines. Such a short-sighted, reactive approach lends itself more readily to demagoguery and pandering than to serving the commonweal. The latter cause would be far better advanced by a proactive approach in which those who are paid to protect us are regularly given both the resources and the oversight that they need to perform their jobs professionally and with due regard for justice.

In particular, we were outraged to learn from an article in the March 7 edition of the Washington Post that Police Chief Larry Soulsby already has a "hit list" of licensed establishments that he intends to close down regardless of the evidence. To quote from the Post article, "400 Officers to Hit Streets In Blitz on Crime in D.C.," by Sari Horwitz and Cheryl W. Thompson:

"Seventeen officers, as well as public health inspectors and investigators from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, will work to revoke the liquor licenses of nightclubs that they characterized as magnets for violence and to ultimately shut them down.

"The targeted nightclubs include the Foxy Playground in the 4th [Police] District; Deno's, Taj Mahal and De' Zulu Cave in the 5th District; the Mirage, Tracks, and the Edge in the 1st District; and Bravo-Bravo and Club Zei in the 2nd District."

In short, Chief Soulsby has decided to follow the policy so aptly satirized in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland: "Sentence First — Verdict Afterwards." It is certainly odd, on its face, that out of the nine clubs singled out for execution by Chief Soulsby, three — the Edge, Tracks, and Club Zei — cater to a gay clientele, at least in part.

We at GLAA are particularly baffled by the inclusion of the Edge on the Chief's hit list. We became quite familiar with the background of this club a few months ago when its companion club, Wet, was excessively penalized and temporarily shut down by the ABC Board for trivial violations (about which more later). We learned that Wet and the Edge have traditionally enjoyed excellent community relations, including the support of the local ANC. The only major misstep taken by the management of these clubs was a few "go-go" parties recently held at the Edge to boost attendance during the ill-advised shutdown of Wet. These nights were marred by some violent incidents, and we gather the management has learned their lesson because they are not scheduling any more such events. So what does Chief Soulsby have against them? Now that the Chief has publicly slated them for destruction, won't the investigators from the ABC Board, DCRA, and the Fire Department feel constrained to trump up some spurious charges against the Edge so that the Chief won't be further humiliated?

We are aware that there have been a number of violent and other troublesome incidents at Tracks over an extended period, chiefly on those nights when a non-gay clientele predominates; but we understand that the club's original owners have installed a new management team to combat those ongoing problems more aggressively. Here, as perhaps in some non-gay clubs as well, it is absolutely vital to distinguish between clubs that condone violence and illegal activities and clubs that are themselves victims of violent criminals and other anti-social elements.

The Chief seems to forget that if he closes down the innocent clubs without locking away the violent troublemakers, the crooks will merely take their business elsewhere. Is the Chief prepared to shut down every club in the city that might attract the crooks? Or shouldn't his job be to work constructively with those club owners and managers that want to act responsibly and to concentrate his crackdowns on the clubs that are indifferent or hostile to the public's safety?

We fear that the Chief has put out his hit list primarily in an effort to look "tough on crime" at a time when his leadership has been subjected to withering criticism from many quarters. But District residents should not be prepared to abandon basic rules of due process and the rule of law solely to help one embattled public official save his own neck. Chief Soulsby has created an appearance of improper command influence that casts a cloud over the objectivity and fairness of the enhanced coordination program with the ABC Board, DCRA, and the Fire Department. This committee would be performing a great public service by urging him to repudiate and apologize for his hit list, and let the investigations proceed unimpaired.

We must point out to this committee that even in the best of circumstances, we in the gay and lesbian community have solid reason to suspect the objectivity of each of the city agencies that is involved in this enhanced coordination program. Each one of these agencies has been guilty of improper behavior against gay businesses over the last year.

We believe the District should get more seriously into the business of protecting the public's health and safety, and out of the business of imposing one group's ideas on morality upon the entertainment choices of other segments of the population. The law-abiding residents who enjoy our city's nightlife, as well as the law-abiding licensees who serve them, deserve a better response from our sworn defenders than to be told, in effect, Just stay home and lock your doors. Our Nation's Capital — a city heavily dependent on the entertainment and tourist trade, after all — can scarcely afford to divert our limited public safety resources to support misadventures in prudery and bigotry.

Thank you for your attention.


See related testimony from September 1996

See DCRA testimony from March 3, 1997

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