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In most ways, the landscape of last summer’s Fort Reno shows was pretty typical: beaten-up stage; scattered picnic blankets and toddlers; D.C. flag tattoos; Ian MacKaye. The only thing that felt amiss was the presence, at nearly every show, of a U.S. Park Police cruiser, usually resting on a hill, up a walkway from the stage and the cozy, placid crowd.
At one show, MacKaye spotted a group of teenagers sitting with their heads close together near the path. “They were all intently focused on something in the circle,” the former Minor Threat and Fugazi member recalls. When a Park Police officer noticed, he “came barreling down” the walkway in his vehicle, MacKaye says. It was around dusk, so the officer pointed the car’s spotlight at the kids and peered into the circle. “There was this weird freeze,” MacKaye says—but eventually, the officer turned off the spotlight and backed his car up the hill. MacKaye couldn’t hear any of the words exchanged, so he walked over, wondering “what were they engaging in? What were they doing that caught his attention?”
And? “They had a baby rabbit,” he says.
As with most good yarns—especially from well-known raconteurs like MacKaye—there might be a touch of apocrypha to that one. But it fits a pattern that several organizers and attendees of Fort Reno’s shows describe: that in 2013, there was a noticeable uptick in the presence and disruptiveness of the U.S. Park Police at the concert series, which has taken place in the Tenleytown park since 1968.
Before last year’s shows, officials asked concert organizers to foot the bill for Park Police officers at each concert—but when Amanda MacKaye, the series’ informal leader (and Ian MacKaye’s sister), pushed back, the request was dropped, she says. Instead, volunteers and attendees say, the police began showing up with greater frequency, sometimes clearing the park via megaphone after shows concluded.
This year, things got uglier. Amanda MacKaye says she usually applies for a permit and pays the $120 fee toward the beginning of the year; the Park Service says her 2014 application was dated March 28 but didn’t arrive until April 8. The plan was for eight shows beginning on July 7. But by early June, when the shows usually receive a final permit, the concerts’ park ranger contact said she could not issue the permit because Park Police were recommending that an officer be posted at every show, at a cost of $66 an hour for a minimum of five hours per show. MacKaye asked for a meeting, which the ranger said she’d set up; the ranger suggested MacKaye talk to a Park Police lieutenant, which she did. According to MacKaye, the lieutenant cited Park Police rules for events with a certain number of people as well as instances of crime during the shows, but wouldn’t elaborate. (A Park Service spokeswoman writes that “the need to assign an officer was based on the calls for service related to the concerts in previous years.” According to Metropolitan Police Department data, there was a very small increase in crime around nearby Alice Deal Middle School between June 2012 and June 2014, and a very small decrease in crime around nearby Wilson High School in the same period.) They didn’t reach a resolution and played phone tag over the next few days.
A meeting got scheduled, but when MacKaye showed up at the Park Service’s permits office in Southwest, none of the officials invited to the gathering—scheduled only the day before, MacKaye and a Park Service spokeswoman say—was there.
The next day, MacKaye contacted the Park Service to inform officials that this summer’s Fort Reno shows were off. She wrote to the bands she’d already asked to play. And then she posted a note to Fort Reno’s website, stating that officials had not explained the need for the sudden policy change, which would double the shows’ modest budget: “with the heaviest of hearts the decision is that the concert series will be dark for 2014 in an effort to resolve this for the future,” she wrote. The same day, she received a Park Police invoice for $2,640.
Local music journalists picked up the story, a #savefortreno hashtag proliferated on Twitter, and a Change.org petition netted, over the next few days, more than 1,600 signatures, including ones from veteran D.C. musicians like Eli Janney (Girls Against Boys, Edsel), James Canty (Nation of Ulysses, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists), John Stabb (Government Issue), and Jenny Toomey (Tsunami). Canty praised Fort Reno as “a neutral space (free of charge, free of corporate advertising and alcohol sales, free from judgement) for people to listen to music created and performed in a neutral space (bands do it for free!).” Toomey wrote that “the benefit to the local, regional and frankly, historic communities is impossible to measure. I cannot understand what would justify a change to something that has worked so well for so many years.”
That was the outrage MacKaye wanted. In an email to this summer’s scheduled performers last Thursday night, she wrote, “i hope that if we can get NPS and USPP to come to a different resolution, you will still be willing to go on with the show! I was careful in my timing hoping that we could still open on schedule when NPS and USPP hear the outcry. (and seems like they have been getting earfuls from all sorts of directions!)” She added, “i haven’t cancelled the porta-potties or the sound man so fingers crossed everyone!”
To her surprise—and to the relief, no doubt, of Fort Reno’s lavatory vendor—the cancellation of the shows was also becoming a minor political cause. After hearing from constituents, Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen sent a letter to the Park Service, as did D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. The little punk series in Tenleytown, it turned out, had some big friends.
On Monday, June 30, MacKaye sat down with Park Service Superintendent Tara Morrison, Park Police Lt. Allan Griffith, and D.C. shadow Sen. Paul Strauss, a former Fort Reno volunteer who brokered the meeting. A deal was struck, with MacKaye agreeing that the concert series would pay for uniformed security on-site, but not up front, and the Park Police promising a “more community-oriented police presence that’s more appropriate to the venue,” Strauss says. “You’ll see foot patrols or bike patrols.” (Strauss says police provided a document of crimes that had occurred at Fort Reno; he says they “were all pretty minor,” including marijuana and alcohol incidents, and that it wasn’t clear whether they took place in the concert area.) With a few details left to be worked out, the parties headed to the offices of WAMU-FM, where on The Kojo Nnamdi Show they announced the news. Morrison allowed that while the Park Service was asking Fort Reno to comply with broader regulations, it should have begun discussions about the change far earlier.
And so Fort Reno—the 47-year-old cultural gem, the field where 1,000 kids once could see Fugazi for free, the place where D.C.’s aging punks now hit the Whole Foods hot bar and then share their city’s music with their own children—is safe. Its brush with cancellation, however, offers other lessons—about the federal government’s sometimes confused stewardship of urban parks, about the endurance and limitations of D.C. punk, about the fragility of a D.C. institution.
Now the shows will go on, but before Monday, it seemed very possible that they wouldn’t. Asked on Sunday if she’d be open to agreeing to pay for security, MacKaye said, “there’s no need.”
MacKaye cites the series’ long history, a self-policing community, volunteers’ careful guardianship of the park, and the shows’ spartan scope—low-cost, all-volunteer, few frills, generally small crowds—as reasons why Fort Reno shouldn’t be subject to Park Police requirements that organizers pay for extra security. “I don’t understand what is causing the notion that we need to have [police] presence the entire time,” she says. “We are responsible citizens. If there was an emergency, we would call 9-1-1. If it was unsafe, we wouldn’t be there. If something was happening consistently that made the concerts unenjoyable, unsafe, and far departing from our mission, we would put a stop to it. Just like at any punk rock show, if a fight breaks out, the music stops.” In other words: No matter what the Park Service requires of events in parks it manages, Fort Reno is an exception.
But is it?
The Fort Reno concerts began in 1968 as part of Summer in the Parks, a program of free performances across Washington funded by the Park Service. The shows were to be a community-building balm to the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, which scarred much of the city. Residents like Barbara Luchs and Father George Dennis, a Jesuit priest, formed Neighborhood Planning Council No. 3, which put together Fort Reno’s shows with city and federal funds.
Today, Fort Reno may bring to mind strollers and Tupperware; in the late ’70s, when Ian MacKaye first went to a show there, “everyone was smoking pot and drinking.” (Well, except him.) If Park Police were posted there, they did little to curtail the hard-partying vibe.
Early on, Fort Reno was a spot for blues and psychedelic bands, but beginning in the late ’70s it began attracting new wave bands and eventually punk and hardcore acts; in the mid-’80s it also began to lose its federal funding, Strauss told Washington City Paper in 2011. But if there was ever an issue with officials, according to Strauss, “Father George was always our last card. If we were having trouble with the Park Police, as a last resort, we sent him in with a collar. He didn’t always wear a collar, but it helped when he did.”
Into the early 1990s, funds from D.C.’s Parks and Recreation Department covered small fees for bands as well as other costs, while some younger workers earned money through the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program. When the city slashed its budget in the early 1990s, Fort Reno’s funds went too. After Strauss unsuccessfully sued D.C. to restore the money, Fort Reno went all-volunteer, soon under the aegis of the Northwest Youth Alliance, a nonprofit founded by Father George. (He died in 2010.)
To raise Fort Reno’s budget of a few thousand dollars a year—which paid for a sound engineer, toilets, and water for bands—organizers in that era threw yearly benefit concerts, took individual donations, sold T-shirts, and in 1997 released a benefit compilation. “That raised a couple thousand bucks,” says Carleton Ingram, who played in the Better Automatic and was a volunteer and organizer from 1995 to 2002.
If there was problem with officials, “usually you’d know in January or February,” Ingram says. “The permit always came.”
While Ingram says Fort Reno organizers never had to pay security fees, Beth Baldwin, who organized the shows for much of the 2000s, says they were asked to pay for extra Park Police presence at shows they expected would draw more than 200 people—which really just meant shows featuring Fugazi, the Dismemberment Plan, or Q and Not U. “After Fugazi stopped, we were like, ‘No one really pulls over 200 people, ha ha,’” so they stopped paying for Park Police altogether about 10 years ago, Baldwin says. Today, some shows seem to draw only a few dozen attendees.
Until a few years ago, Baldwin and then Amanda MacKaye mostly coordinated with a park ranger named Brenda Hynson, who was “fantastic,” MacKaye says, and who mostly let organizers do their thing. Park Police would sometimes intervene if kids were repeat problems—like one troublemaker whom Baldwin called “Lord of the Flies,” who was eventually found by police with pot in his pocket. But mostly, the crowds were mellow, and any juvenile rambunctiousness seemed to take place in other parts of the park, both Baldwin and MacKaye say. When Park Police or MPD rolled up, organizers would walk over to greet them. MacKaye still does.
After Hynson retired, however, it “became a little more formal,” MacKaye says. “For example, the stage has been known as the big red stage forever, since we paint it red. At some point we went and painted the stage red [for the summer], and someone who lives in the neighborhood near the park emailed me one day and said, ‘Hey, the stage is brown.’” The feds had apparently taken it upon themselves to repaint it.
Around town, other free concert series on National Park Service land have had much closer contact with federal authorities.
Roger “Flash” Gordon stage-managed Fort Dupont’s summer shows for eight years with the Annapolis-based National Artists Corporation, and he still runs the D.C. Blues Society concerts at Carter Barron. At the beginning of each season, the Park Service paid the company to produce six Saturday concerts with a local opening act and a big-name headliner. “For people who didn’t have vacation money” in the neighborhood, he says, “that was their vacation.”
National Artists Corporation held the Fort Dupont contract from 2002 to 2012. Due to sequestration, in 2013 NPS booked the talent for a slimmed three-show schedule, replacing some funk and go-go favorites with U.S. military bands and shying away from larger, national acts. “[NPS has] done a piss-poor job taking it over,” says Gordon. “People in that area of Southeast don’t wanna see [those bands]. That’s crap to them.” NPS is currently accepting bids to run four shows this summer. A spokesperson says the Fort Dupont series will begin on July 19.
Since the shows are run by the Park Service, National Artists Corporation didn’t have to pay for security. Gordon says U.S. Park Police presence has increased, however. The officers on duty didn’t use to do much—“that’s where officers would go to try and pick up women,” he says. But over the past two or three years, they started asking audience members to open their purses and coolers, confiscating “cases and cases of beer.”
Aaron DeNu, a founding member and principal organizer of Dupont Festival, which puts on public events in Dupont Circle, has worked with the Park Service since 2009, and describes a logistical heavy-handedness Fort Reno has largely avoided. “My planning meetings with [NPS] begin months before my events,” he says. “I do have to always give payment for Park Police up front. That’s just mandatory for everything we’re doing.” Small events like chess tournaments don’t require police, but most gatherings, even movie screenings, do: DeNu says he pays for officers for “anything with equipment or anything that’s significant—and it doesn’t require much to be significant.” Park Police charges him $66 to $76 for each hour of officer work.
DeNu says he has a good working relationship with the Park Service, but it’s taken him a while to get there. “As the organizer, if I’m not super-proactive about reaching out, I’m not sure if they’d be getting back to let me know if my permit was accepted,” he says. “I have to be overly on top of it.”
The “special event” application used by Fort Reno organizers this year includes thisclause: “In the event that the NPS determines that it is necessary, a Permittee shall provide funds (in the form of a certified check or money order made payable to the National Park Service, irrevocable letter of credit, or cash) to cover costs incurred when NPS employees are required to work for event monitoring, for any needed site restoration following the event, and any other costs resulting from the special event.” On WAMU on Monday, the Park Police’s Griffith said officers from the agency’s Rock Creek station were once able to cover Fort Reno events without overtime pay, but because of staffing and budget cuts, the agency now needs to fund that by asking organizers to pay for OT. Retired U.S. Park Police chief Teresa Chambers told WUSA-9 as much last week: “We had to find ways to cut that included everything from overtime programs to training and travel that were all but eliminated. Tough times.”
Between fiscal years 2011 and 2014, national parks have had an 8 percent drop in their operating budget; in 2013, the Park Service took a $153 million hit due to sequestration. That year, bathroom cleaning at the Grand Canyon was scaled back to once a day while, in Maryland, Assateague Island National Seashore stopped monitoring the water quality of streams feeding into the park. And in D.C., for the first time MacKaye can remember, Park Police broached the possibility of Fort Reno concert organizers paying for overtime security at every show.
Statehood advocates like Strauss see this dispute as highlighting not just the impotence of the National Park Service but of D.C., as well. “The Park Service has been victimized by people with different national priorities,” he says, referring to Congress. “If we were a state and I was on an appropriations committee, we’d probably go back to the Park Service paying for these activities [like security].” He sees an irony in light of Fort Reno’s beginnings as a Park Service program: “It just shows the evolving role of the government in the arts. They want to charge the community for something the government used to pay for.”
First, there was outrage. “The Nat’l Park Service is competing w/ @wmata this summer for ‘Most Hated’ award,” wrote one Twitter user after MacKaye announced this summer’s shows were off. And quickly, from another: “Has [MacKaye] considered a fundraiser on gofundme to pay for Ft Reno security instead of canceling? Plenty of people would donate.”
Councilmember Mary Cheh, whose ward includes Fort Reno, thought the same thing. Her chief of staff, Jonathan Willingham, found a group of local businesses and advisory neighborhood commissioners willing to donate funds to keep the concert running at no cost to show organizers. “If the barrier to the concert is the cost, we’ve overcome that barrier,” he said, one day after MacKaye’s cancellation announcement, and Cheh was prepared to ask NPS to waive the Park Police fee if the concert series hadn’t been properly assessed. But first, she wanted to settle the financial issue, to assure participating bands and concerned concertgoers that the show would go on. “What we’ve heard from these constituents is that [they] want this to happen, so our first priority is to make it happen,” Willingham said. “Let’s resolve the uncertainty first, and we can worry about the policy questions later.”
But for MacKaye, it was the opposite.
Fort Reno could’ve raised the $2,640, she says—probably in a day. “If I as an individual received a bill to my house with no indication of why, am I gonna pay it?” she asks. “Absofucking not. No way, I’m not gonna do it.” First, MacKaye says, she’d need an explanation.
Fort Reno wasn’t born punk, but in D.C.’s hardcore years, it was reforged as a punk institution. These days, “it’s actually tamer than I might personally prefer,” says Mark Andersen, the Positive Force activist and longtime D.C. punk obsessive, who says the “unfocused” picnic atmosphere can be challenging for bands. But it was right, he says, to risk a summer without shows. “If you’re a punk rocker, you question authority,” he says. “You don’t necessarily reject authority, but you question it.”
MacKaye says that in 2013, she fielded lots of complaints from attendees that the enhanced police detail was “visually and energetically disruptive.” But the punk case against cops isn’t necessarily just instinctual. Kevin Erickson, a spokesman for the Future of Music Coalition who is involved in the All-Ages Music Project, a nonprofit network of DIY venues, points to provisions across the country like a “teen dance ordinance” in Seattle that required anyone hosting an all-ages concert to hire an off-duty police officer, no matter the size of the venue or crowd. “Security requirements can often be well-intentioned, but they tend to be one-size-fits-all,” he writes. “When these sort of requirements become policy, it can creates problems with the expense of hiring someone, but it can also be a cultural mismatch.” The problem, then, is how to explain ideas like “peer security”—at Fort Reno, volunteers ask attendees sneaking sips of booze to hand it over so they can trash it—to the bureaucracy of the National Park Service.
In the end, Fort Reno’s punk response did what punk does best: It made folks take a community institution a little less for granted, it humanized a bureaucratic dispute, it inspired folks to speak up. And in practical terms, it may have nudged officials to right-size their policing and demystify their decisions—results that may have occurred anyway, had the Park Service engaged with Fort Reno earlier in the year.
What Fort Reno didn’t get, of course, was an exception to the rule. Police will monitor every show, and donations will cover the expense. It’s telling that in the immediate aftermath of Monday’s announcement, Twitter feeds and comment sections mostly lit up with declarations of victory. For many fans, it seemed, the fight wasn’t about the presence of police or who pays for them. The prize was the shows, no matter what. (Even if organizers, not the feds, were the ones who canceled them.)
So was Fort Reno’s partial bluff, which might have resulted in a summer without shows, worth it? Take the ideologically D.C. punk view—in which your chief weapon in defense of virtue is your ability to walk—and the answer is yes. The next time the shows are threatened, however, organizers better hope they can gin up such a passionate outpouring of support.
Asked this weekend if she was worried she would be blamed if the concerts couldn’t continue, MacKaye says she “thought about that a lot—because those people are just looking at the dollars…I certainly don’t want people to blame me. I feel confident a larger group of people will understand the importance of saying, ‘Oh, wait a second—this is not on the level.’ We’re not just going to pay. We need to discuss this and figure out what’s going on here.”
When he saw that Fort Reno was canceled, Sean Gray’s “first reaction was that’s a bummer for the bands that are playing, but the reality was I was kind of glad in the sense that it kind of put things back against the wall,” he says. “I always thought punk was about building something and destroying it, and making that next thing better than what it was.” For Gray, an owner of local record labels Fan Death and Accidental Guest, the end of Fort Reno seemed like “a good opportunity for a group of people or bands or something to go, ‘What are we gonna do now?’”
Gray wishes there was an accessible, year-round venue for the small bands that make up much of Fort Reno’s schedule. There are few (and fewer) brick-and-mortar rock clubs. D.C. DIY venues are being pushed further north and east, often far from Metro stops. And music fans with disabilities like Gray, who has cerebral palsy, sometimes have trouble getting into rowhouse basements. “There really isn’t a central kind of venue that really facilitates these small bands,” he says. Maybe D.C.’s DIY scene needed things to get bad before it could get better.
Few venues reflect the promise of D.C.’s all-ages tradition better than Fort Reno, but talk to some showgoers, and there’s a sense it’s begun to atrophy. There are now fewer shows (at one point, Baldwin and MacKaye booked around 20 in a summer, but both say that was too many), irregular benefit concerts to bring in money, no T-shirts, and a lineup announcement that seems to arrive later and later each year. (This summer’s website, which went live Tuesday, is pretty slick, though.)
MacKaye says organizers decided to stop having concerts before July 4 because the holiday sometimes resulted in an awkward break in the schedule. And because Fort Reno abuts two schools, they don’t want the series to stretch too late into August. (There’s also MacKaye’s schedule to consider—she works for Arlington Public Schools.) Although MacKaye says average turnout tends to grow if the schedule is shorter, this year’s eight-show lineup isn’t necessarily the new normal. One of her concerns with paying for security was that the cost would grow if they booked more shows in the future.
The music series isn’t incorporated, with organizers depositing donations in a Fort Reno bank account. “The way that the concert series operated before, there’s no clear paperwork on how anything happened…there’s definitely no accountability for anything,” MacKaye says. That will change now that Fort Reno has secured a “fiscal sponsorship” agreement with the Washington Peace Center, which will help it receive large donations and keep a paper trail.
Fort Reno hasn’t done much fundraising recently because “I don’t think it’s right to suppose we’re going to need money for something and ask people to pony up,” MacKaye says. “For a long time, we have been existing on donations that were given a long time ago and were very generous.” Most years, the whole slate of concerts costs around $2,500. Still, she says Fort Reno doesn’t have enough money on hand to pay for $2,640 worth of security.
Fort Reno, as an organization, is as skeletal as possible, to the point that it seems to actively insist you not pay. (The current leadership is MacKaye and a small group of other volunteers, including Casey Jones, who helps her pick the bands. MacKaye, like organizers before her, inherited the unofficial leadership.) “If it came down to it, if our actual operating budget was going to fall short, I would know that and I would be able to clearly, easily say, ‘hey gang, things are a little bit different’ or, ‘next year things are going to be a little bit different,’” MacKaye says.
That’s why she balks at things like Kickstarters. “If a band wants to organize a benefit concert, we thank them very much and we wish them good luck,” she says. As things stand, “where else can you go and receive things and not be shaken down for money?” she says. “If we’re in a position to not ask ask ask, why not let it go for as long as we can responsibly can?”
The willingness of Fort Reno’s supporters to chip in, whenever, shouldn’t be dismissed as a possible source of corruption—there are few spaces that could benefit more from a tip jar. Everything else, though? The fireflies, the Ians, that teenage band from the suburbs getting its first chance, the utter lack of commerce (other than the ice cream truck), the tangible passing of generations and preservation of a cultural heritage, the feeling that this space is unmainstreamable—may they never be risked again.
Additional reporting by Christina Cauterucci and Perry Stein