For years, Club U has been a mecca of sorts for aficionados of D.C.’s indigenous go-go music. Located just off the lobby of the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U Streets NW, the cafeteria-cum-live-music-venue has served as a launching pad for some of the local genre’s best-known groups.
“Once a band starts playing Club U—boom, they on their way,” says Kevin “Kato” Hammond, editor of the Glenn Dale, Md.–based online magazine Take Me Out to the Go-Go. “Groups like Soul Patrol, Sugar Bear, and the Hip Huggers… you have bands that really got their names going at that spot.”
But to city officials, the go-go club isn’t exactly an ideal tenant, what with all the fights, broken glass in the lobby, and “urine in the stairwells,” according to court papers filed by D.C.’s Office of Property Management, which unsuccessfully moved to evict Club U back in 1999. After a five-year legal battle, the two sides settled out of court this past December, with club owner Levelle Inc. agreeing to move out. Eventually. Sometime before January 2007.
But earlier this week, the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board had an opportunity to speed up the controversial venue’s exit, following repeated and increasingly urgent requests from Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Charles Ramsey to revoke its liquor license.
He was joined by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Edward D. Reiskin, among others, in urging the ABC Board to take decisive action. “In this case,” Reiskin said in a written statement, “merely suspending its license, which is the equivalent to a slap on the wrist, is grossly insufficient.”
How’d the board react to all the pressure? Well, it delivered a decisive slap on the wrist—standard procedure for a body that only rarely lets a little public-safety problem stand in the way of economic development.
Make that public-safety problems. Since June 2003, the MPD has documented more than a dozen serious crimes that were “reported at or within one block of this nightclub,” according to the chief’s Nov. 10, 2004, letter to Maria Delaney, executive director of the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA). These incidents include five robberies involving guns or violence, seven assaults with knives or other dangerous weapons, two assaults on police officers, and one homicide—the death of 37-year-old Terry Bullock, who, police say, was stabbed in the neck after leaving the club on Sept. 17, 2004.
Make that two homicides, if you go back to March 16, 2003, when police say 26-year-old Randy Elijah Staton was shot in the chest outside Club U on the way to his car. Now make it three: 31-year-old Terrence Brown, police say, was found lying on the floor of the Reeves Center lobby shortly after last call this past weekend, the victim of a fatal stabbing.
Brown’s death on Feb. 13 was just one of “several other incidents that night” that included, according to an ABRA report, “the assault of a female, then shots fired, and an accident in the street of pedestrian being hit by a vehicle.”
“We have complained about this club for years,” notes Graham, who calls the weekend’s incidents “absolute madness.” “It’s outrageous that our attempts to shut this club down in the past have been unsuccessful.”
But not unreasonable. D.C. law most certainly grants the mayoral-appointed ABC Board that authority: “If the Board determines, after investigation, that the operations of a licensee present an imminent danger to the health and safety of the public, the Board may summarily revoke, suspend, or restrict, without a hearing, the license to sell alcoholic beverages in the District.” And in the case of Club U, ABC Chair Charles Burger has openly declared the board’s “imminent danger” determination.
But revocation would be quite a change in tactics for this ABC Board, which has permanently yanked only two licenses out of more than 1,500 over the past two years. Under this board, ABC-licensed pubs, clubs, and grub spots almost always retain their licenses—no matter how severe or numerous the violations. After all, booze-fueled businesses stock the District’s coffers. In fiscal 2004 alone, liquor licensees generated more than $3.3 million in licensing and permit fees and $147,150 in fines and citations. Taxes collected on alcohol sales accounted for even more: More than $16.4 million in retail sales alone last year, according to D.C.’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer. And that doesn’t even include booze sales at restaurants, bars, and nightclubs.
As Burger himself noted, in a recent hearing on another case: “This board is not one that looks to revoke a license.”
And, sure enough, after nearly two hours of deliberations behind closed doors on Feb. 14, the ABC Board’s vote to suspend, not revoke, Club U’s license was unanimous. The edict would take effect just as soon as ABRA officials could serve formal notice to owners Warren Williams Sr. and Warren Williams Jr. As of press time, the Club U bar is temporarily closed.
But even after stabbings such as those associated with Club U, venues are often allowed to reopen. Take the case of So Much More, a downtown tavern where seven patrons were slashed on May 12, 2004. Two weeks later, with one victim still in the hospital, the ABC Board voted to shut the place down. For eight days (Show & Tell, 6/11/2004). That’s, what, one for each person cut, plus an extra day for good measure? After that, the L Street NW bar was back in business.
Some stabbing-stained spots have avoided suspension altogether. At another L Street NW watering hole, the Ascot Restaurant, a patron stabbed outside the venue on Feb. 12, 2004, was allowed to re-enter the club—and continue drinking. As punishment, the ABC Board directed Ascot managers to revise their security plan.
The board has yet to take any action in response to separate November 2004 stabbings at Tom Tom and Timehri International in Adams Morgan. Nor has it acted after two patrons were stabbed last month at Dream in Northeast.
When it comes to go-go–related violence, the board has a clear record: Take away the music, not the license. After eight people were shot outside longtime go-go spot Deno’s on Bladensburg Road NE back in August 2003, the board ultimately allowed that club to reopen after a lengthy 45-day suspension—on one condition: “no live or recorded go-go or hiphop music” (“Go-Go: No Go,” 10/3/2003).
“Certain music draws a violent element,” Burger stated at the time. “They may only represent a minority, but the consequences of this minority are unacceptable.”
The board would later also ban go-go at Between Friends—located just a few blocks east of Club U—after three patrons were stabbed, one fatally, during a go-go show there this past March.
That isn’t the revocation that Ramsey had requested in the case. But it seems to have had a similar effect: Between Friends has since shut down on its own.—Chris Shott
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