October 23, 2002

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Show's over
Why the hell do the cops get to decide what kind of music plays in San Francisco?

By Corbett Miller

CODY ROBERTSON HAD a big night planned for Aug. 1. Lingba Lounge was celebrating its first anniversary, and Robertson, the owner, had lined up several popular DJs for the festivities. But at 7 p.m. the cops showed up at his Potrero Hill club and told him if he proceeded with the party they would lock his doors, essentially shutting him down.

Robertson, a first-time business owner, had no idea he needed a place of entertainment permit to have DJs perform at his bar. But his neighbors in the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association knew it and called the cops. Since then, at the urging of the association, Robertson's permit request has been denied by the Bayview Police Station, and now his 18th Street bar's business is in limbo.

In San Francisco, Robertson's story is sad but typical. So too are the perplexing restrictions club owners like Robertson have been forced to accept in order to stay afloat. In most cases, clubs have agreed to stop playing rap and hip-hop, music that attracts young people, many of color.

For instance, according to guidelines given to Robertson by John De Castro, president of the Potrero Hill Boosters, Lingba Lounge must agree "there shall be no live rap, heavy metal or hard rock music at the premises." In addition, the bar wouldn't be allowed to promote its events "on any electronic media outlet that features rap, heavy metal or hard rock." Robertson needs the association to withdraw its opposition in order to get the permit.

In the middle of an economic recession, club owners heavily depend on live music – and the crowds it draws – to pay the bills. But now an alarming number of them are faced with having to permanently pull the plug on their live shows because of police interference and a small number of neighborhood activists determined to use the city's permitting process as a way to crack down on entertainment and nightlife, which have always been a central part of San Francisco.

Indeed, in recent months police have virtually dictated what music people in the city listen to. "There's something wrong when we empower the police department to choose our music," says Terence Alan of the San Francisco Late Night Coalition (SFLNC), who refers to the guideline as "music profiling."

With little recourse, the city's club owners say they hope the newly formed Entertainment Commission will take on the city's police department as its first order of business. And this November's election could put the commission firmly on their side. Proposition F, if passed, would allow the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to appoint half of the commission (rather than allowing Mayor Willie Brown to select all seven members). Many in the local music scene say supervisors will be more understanding when it comes to negotiating agreements between venues and their neighbors.

Until then, though, most in the industry cross their fingers when the phone rings and hope it's not the police.

"We've let the police run roughshod over entertainment for the past 20 to 30 years," says Mark Renne, a local attorney for the entertainment industry. "And now we wonder why there's nothing going on in San Francisco?"

Pulling the plug on permit police

The flap over the San Francisco Police Department's crackdown of nightclubs is nothing new. In 1999 the department's Southern District (which covers SOMA) attempted to suspend 1015 Folsom's permit, claiming increased crime and drug use in the neighborhood were directly related to the club's presence there. But the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury, which had decided to investigate the city's permitting process in general, disagreed.

The grand jury found at the time that 8,000 to 10,000 people were venturing into SOMA on any given weekend night to visit nightclubs. The SFPD contended that the area's crime and drug use were connected to the clubs and that the department was spending too much time and money responding to related incidents. But the grand jury saw things differently: "Recent police actions to suspend or revoke club permits are in part based upon incidents that are not fairly attributable to club management," it wrote. "The Civil Grand Jury recommends a reconsideration of the permit process to ensure equal treatment of applicants and permit holders."

The grand jury report led to the Entertainment Commission's creation this March (the commission is expected to be intact by July 2003).

The timing couldn't be more crucial for the city's clubs. But in many cases it's too late.

Le Colonial, Bruno's, the Odeon, Kimo's, Beauty Bar, Keur Baobab, Spanganga, Il Pirata, Bubble Lounge, Hush Hush Lounge, CELLSpace, and Edinburgh Castle Pub have all tangled with the police this year. In many cases, the clubs have been forced to either relinquish their music permits or agree to limit what music they offer.

Marco Senghor, owner of Keur Baobab on Mission Street, has haggled over the permit process for several months with no success. "It's so many businesses in the same neighborhood at the same time, it looks like something is going on," he says. "We're learning everyday that there's manipulation."

Senghor may be right. According to a Mission District restaurant-nightclub owner who doesn't want to be identified (his permit actually forbids him to publicly discuss his ongoing negotiations), Mission permit officer Sandra Ganster seems to have "a couple of bars on her radar that she was targeting. She did a sweep through the Mission, and she's going to start going after them."

Though club owners claim there's an all-out assault threatening their livelihood, the SFPD says it's simply enforcing the rules – rules, by the way, it didn't write.

"Our goal is to help any nightclub in the permit process. We don't go out looking for problems," says Capt. Gregory Corrales, who works out of the Mission Police Station.

In some ways he's right. Perhaps the real culprit has been the confusing permit process itself.

In the past nightclubs could be required to carry as many as three expensive permits. The place of entertainment permit is necessary for all clubs that offer live or recorded music. The dance-hall keeper's permit was needed by clubs that allowed dancing on premises. Then there was the cabaret permit required by venues staying open past 2 a.m.

It wasn't until last year that the supervisors attempted to streamline permitting requirements. Now, after an amendment sponsored by Sup. Chris Daly, clubs that obtain an entertainment permit don't need the dance-hall permit to offer dancing.

However, dancing hasn't fared as well as entertainment, which is protected by the First Amendment as a form of free speech.

According to John Wood of the SFLNC, this is where the SFPD used to add constitutionally questionable stipulations to its agreements with venues. "Dancing is not constitutionally protected, and that is why Daly's dance-hall legislation was fought by the police," Wood says.

As a result the guidelines are now often included in entertainment permits.

Target practice

Why rap music? Why not opera? Or country music? The question of discrimination and racial profiling inevitably comes up when local club owners talk about police censorship.

The foes of hip-hop nightclubs make no bones about their position. "Rap music attracts a certain 'element' that may or may not be desirable," De Castro tells us when asked why the Potrero Hill Boosters didn't want Lingba Lounge playing rap music. (When we contacted De Castro later to further discuss rap music at the club, he declined to comment.)

According to Captain Corrales, hip-hop music often draws gang members. And for him, avoiding rival gang confrontations is worth censoring the Mission's music choices. "We often prohibit hip-hop music. Historically there have been problems – fights and violence – at hip-hop events," he says.

However, Corrales doesn't have any evidence of this in the Mission. "There are no specific instances of this because we haven't had any hip-hop shows," he says. "But just look in the news at Oakland and Richmond."

When asked about Corrales's comments on hip-hop, Mission permit officer Ganster concedes the issue isn't clear. "It depends on the crowds that come," she says.

"It's not typically the type of music, but certain buildings can't hold certain sounds, like bass," Ganster says about why she may restrict rap music at a given venue.

Jeremy Paul, a permit consultant who helps bar and nightclub owners navigate the permit process, was stunned when we told him about the discriminatory guidelines. "It sounds like they don't want six young black men in a room together," Paul says. "It says who are desirable clientele and who aren't. The Potrero Hill Boosters want the south side of the hill to stay on their own side."

Paul, who is currently doing pro bono work for CELLspace, an artist collective in the Mission trying to win an entertainment permit, questions the "flavor limitations" the SFPD will lay down when deciding what is good music.

Without an entertainment permit, CELLspace has been holding events for artists, activists, youth groups, and even city government employees for more than six years. But July 6, 2002, the venue finally showed up on the SFPD's radar. "Captain Corrales is claiming that we only started to have these events, but he didn't do his homework – we've done hip-hop stuff for six and a half years," CELLspace spokesperson Jonathan Youtt says. "We offer positive events for youth with hip-hop."

"If the police department wants to impose conditions like that then it's up to CELLspace to decide if they can live with it," Paul adds. "But I don't think it will stand up in court."

Indeed, if someone were to file a legal challenge to the guidelines, the City Attorney's Office doesn't appear ready to mount a vigorous defense. When we asked city attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey who within city hall drafted the guidelines, he had no comment.

Sup. Mark Leno questions whether the guidelines will stand up to the First Amendment. "I have serious concerns about restrictions on certain types of music."

Voters can weigh in

Come November, voters will have a chance to send a message letting city officials know if San Francisco's nightlife is important.

Prop. F would allow both the Board of Supervisors and the mayor to appoint members to the Entertainment Commission. The proposition, its supporters say, would further reduce Mayor Willie Brown's influence on city government. Brown has been widely criticized for appointing members to city boards who have been beholden to him and not to San Francisco. Prop. F. supporters also maintain that a diverse commission would go a long way in quelling neighbors' complaints about noise, often a source of tension between residents and clubs.

A commission, for example, may have been just what Polk Street's Kimo's needed to draft a truce between the venue and a lone neighbor who complained so loudly the club was forced to stop offering amplified music this month even though it had recently completed about $20,000 in sound-proofing improvements (see "Kimo's Nemesis").

Il Pirata's Billy Catechi, who also had to agree to "no rap, heavy metal or hard rock type music," maintains the real problem is with the way the SFPD treats small businesses. "They are doing everything they can just to bust people that don't have their permits," Catechi says.

SFLNC's Alan agrees. "Now is definitely not the time to be skewering our small business owners."

Meanwhile, clubs like Lingba and Edinburgh Castle say they're waiting it out, hoping the Entertainment Commission instructs the police to back off.

Concludes Renne, a lawyer who handles pro bono work for the SFLNC: "All they [the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association] seem to care about is some upper-middle-class residents, with no regard to the economic vitality of San Francisco."

E-mail Corbett Miller at corbett@sfbg.com.