We’ve been here before: Young kids in baggy pants hanging around a dark corner of Southeast D.C. Menacing backbeats. Fistfuls of drugs. Ambient lawlessness.
Nothing that would make the evening news. Unless the kids are white.
Cue the cheesy announcer voice here: “Fox 5 blows the lid off of the rave scene.”
WTTG-TVFox 5 to youdidn’t pussyfoot around last Wednesday when it launched a two-part series on Buzz, a Friday night party held at the Nation nightclub in Southeast D.C. You could just see the parents and teenagers fighting over the remotethe parents wanting to turn it up and the kids wanting to turn it off.
“What did we find? More than we bargained for,” suggested Elisabeth Leamy, an investigative reporter who took a producer and a hidden camera into one of the most popular bar nights on the East Coast. Thousands of kidscoming from points north and south as far as Philly and Richmondhave been attending Buzz for five years to listen to techno music and writhe in the scene’s otherworldly diversions. Leamy called it a rave, but raves are generally unauthorized, gypsy affairs that spring up of their own accord. Buzz had managed to institutionalize some of the same vibe at Nation and ended up with a wildly popular event. The patrons were a goofy, licentious bunch, kids fascinated by dance grooves, Glow Sticks, pacifiers, and, in some cases, drugs. Guess which part Fox was interested in?
“At a rave I attended, I was offered six different illegal substances,” Leamy intoned in her voice-over. To judge from her on-air demeanor, patrons of Buzz probably thought she was a lost, hyperventilating alien who needed a little something to chill out. But Leamy wasn’t buyingher drug of choice was ratings, this being the first week of May and all.
“Pulsating music, illegal drugs, and even sex at a popular D.C. nightclub,” her promo promised.
Kids blatantly copping and using drugsmostly Ecstasyin a D.C. club is a plenty big story, but sex sells the best. Hearing the promos, you ran to the TV expecting to see teens popping pills in one end and being violated in several ways at the other. But the poorly lit candids from inside the bar revealed a lot of touchy-feely kidplayand not much else. What Leamy suggested was a sex act caught on camera looks like a quick grope, but it’s hard to tell given the grainy video. And just in case people didn’t understand the profligacy of what she had witnessed, Leamy kept talking about “young people stroking each other with lazy hands and vacant eyes.” That’s TV-speak for a back rub.
I wanted to ask Leamy or her news director about the standardafter the massive verdict against ABC in the Food Lion caseby which the station deploys hidden camera equipment, but she referred calls to the network’s corporate lawyer, Molly Pauker, who would only say, “We stand by the story.” I wanted to ask how Fox had concealed the camerainside a giant pacifier, a very large medallion, a balloon?and what the prim Leamy had chosen as a uniform for diving deep “inside the underground of rave.”
The guys who took the biggest hit were moonlighting D.C. cops. Leamy indicted them on air for hanging out at the entrance of the club while Ecstasy and other drugs were being consumed in various corners of the vast nightclub. She captured a simple kiss of greeting between a cop and a patron and turned it into a felony. Leamy confronted the cop with a crooked finger while he was sitting in his car, suggesting he was “necking” with a patron while Gomorrah indulged itself all around him, ripe for busting.
Cops are actually supposed to stay by the door of whatever bar they are working. Owners of any sort of club don’t hire uniforms to roam the bar giving customers the hairy eyeball. The cops are there in case real trouble starts; otherwise, policing the interior is left to bar security. And even if they did go in and start patting down customers and finding Ecstasy, or “X” as it is called by familiars, they wouldn’t have much of a bust on their hands. Leamy buried the lede at the end of her story: Turns out that, because of a typographical error in the D.C. drug laws made during the mid-’80s, MDMAthe chemical name of Ecstasy’s most popular incarnationis legal in D.C. It’s still a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the eyes of the feds, but locally, Ecstasy might as well be Rolaids.
In the follow-up broadcast on Thursday, May 6, Leamy was clearly ravished by all the attention her story was garnering. On the air, politicians and police officials willingly seconded her belief that a bar scene rife with chemical chasers was a major threat to civilization. Meanwhile, the texture of the hidden-cam videoakin to 8 mm porn without the money shotconvicted by appearance. Everybody looked guilty.
Buzz has been canceled. Nation’s management got out the 10-foot pole in the wake of the broadcast and emphasized that Buzz had been promoted and managed by others. Part of a statement by Nation management read:
The management of Nation is embarrassed and deeply disturbed by last night’s FOX Channel 5 report. The situations reported all were associated with the Friday night Buzz rave promotion at Nation….[E]ffective immediately, Nation has permanently canceled Buzz and all other rave events.
Lieven Degeyndt, one of the promoters of Buzz, declined comment and said a statement would be forthcoming later in the week. PureLove.com, a Web site that serves as a #back fence for the local scene, included a suggestion from Buzz promoters that kids who now had nothing to do on Friday nights should “stage peaceful protests at Fox’s studios in DC.”
Last Friday, Buzz proved once again that it can turn out a crowd. Hundreds of kids, accessorized with balloons, signs, Glow Sticks, and lots of yellow clothing (to protest yellow journalism), were chanting, dancing, andafter a fashionprotesting in front of Fox TV headquarters in the 5100 block of Wisconsin Ave.
I experienced a major flashback to a Yippie camp-in outside of the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane. I ate the brown acidand the red and the blue and the Spiro and the peace symbol varieties, if memory serves. Nixon was gone, the war was over, there was nothing left to fight for except the right to party. It was a sad, desultory sight back then, but the rave kids have found new mileage in the same aesthetic. At the protest, scheduled to go off every Friday night until Buzz comes back, it was all “PLUR”no X in that acronymwhich stands for “Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect.”
“It’s not about drugs, it’s not about sex,” read a statement that was handed out. “It’s about opening your mind to what’s around you, accepting people for who they are. It doesn’t matter to us what age, what you look like, what race, religion, sex or even if you are handicapped. It’s about enjoying life to the fullest extent, extending happiness and love to those that surround you and making friends.” (Nice to know that sort of perfect wisdom didn’t die out when hippies did.) Even the cops were in on the PLUR vibe.
“Hey, I can’t say that I am impressed by their right to do drugs, but in terms of what they are saying about the media, I am in complete agreement,” said one of the uniformed cops sent to keep watch over the protesters.
Twenty-year-old Charles Wallace, at a loss for words when I asked him about the importance of the scene, dropped down and executed a fluid, graceful spin move. Thus centered, he suggested, “I don’t know the ins and outs of all of the issues, but no matter what you think, they did a very one-sided story. This,” he says, indicating his now-departing pals, “is a family. It’s not about drugs.”
Jesse Hargraves was down with his dancing brother: “Hey, there are a lot of drugs everywhere. You have weed at rock concerts and alcohol at bars. You are not going to stop drugs by witch-hunting random targets.”
Sarah Wadley, 18, said that she is sober and derives ecstasy from the vibe alone. There’s something to that. Two blocks away, Hideous Kinky was playing at the Outer Circle. The movie is full of Sufis dancing their way to an enhanced consciousness, taking a different route to satisfying the same imperative. Drugs like Ecstasy seem harmless in context, but I’m old enough to know better. And there would probably not be thousands of kids lined up to get into Buzz if there weren’t some kind of buzz involved.
White kids are increasingly viewed through the prism of pathology, something generations of black kids have been subjected to since the day they were born. In the wake of Littleton, parents of all sorts of kids are scrambling to know more about what those kids do when they are out of sight. Leamy gave them a peek: Kids passed out on tables. A girl sitting in what Leamy said was a puddle of vomit. The reporter talked about one over-partied girl who was slapped and splashed with water by her friends, and still, “This teen was out cold.”
Nothing you wouldn’t see if you went to LuLu’s or Rumors on a busy night, but that’s just frat boys on a rampage, not teens rolling along on Ecstasy. Where did Fox get this stuff?
As it turns out, from Washington City Paper, among other places. Back on Feb.12, writer Holly Bass wrote what we thought was a funny, atmospheric story (“Home of the Rave”) after Nation renovated and Buzz reopened to huge crowds. Near the top of the story, the following paragraph appeared:
Kim does all the talking. She takes Anna’s $25 and gives it to James, along with her cup of soda. He holds Kim’s soda for a second and laughs. When he hands it back, there’s a small white pill in the palm of her hand. She gives it to Anna and hands her the cup. Just swallow it, Kim urges. Anna obliges. The girls wander away from James. Kim and the rest of her friends are already rollingthey have been for a while.
The drug stuff made it into our story because it contradicts what people think about white-boy nightlife D.C.that it’s full of government-issue neckties and lacks the energy of other big-city scenes. The drugs were noted less for their luridness than as signifiers, but on a practical level, it wasn’t really all that different from Leamy’s approach.
The people at Nation and Buzz went nuts when the story ran, suggesting that we had unfairly portrayed their scene in a one-dimensional, ham-fisted waypretty much how I felt when I watched the Buzz story on Fox. But amidst all of the kvetching about the coverage, the promoters might have considered that their management of the event was completely out of pocket. There are ways to create a scene, one that might include chemical users, that don’t foster the kind of permissions that the kids at Buzz took. Leamy may not have seen kids screwing on tabletops, but she had no trouble finding numerous drug transactions. Kids at Buzz partied with impunity because they thought they had immunity. A hidden camera changed that equation.
The day after Fox’s rave story broke, it was the talk of One Judiciary Square. At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazilwho once represented Buzz’s Ward 6 home turfwas vowing to correct the oversight that had left MDMA legal in the District. Sharon Ambrose, Brazil’s successor as ward councilmember, also waxed irate. Government employees chatted about the story in hallways and elevators. When a bomb scare emptied the building, the conversation moved outside. “I wouldn’t want to be those cops this morning,” said one staffer. Those cops are on suspension, the drug law in D.C. has been amended by emergency legislation, and Nation has been put on notice to clean up its act. Even Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a former hippie who reportedly did his share of inhaling, played the stern municipal parent who was “deeply disturbed” by Fox’s story.
Everybody profits in one way or another: Promoters commodify the underground and charges $15 bucks to get in. Dealers catch a wave and cash in. Local weekly covers the event in a way that adds to its edgy conceit. Television scares the shit out of suburban parents and gooses ratings. Politicians pontificate. Columnists opine. The kids, after they finish protesting at 11 p.m. this weekwell, the night will still be young. And the Buzz may be gone, but somebody who wants to make a buck will reinvent it somewhere else. And for a hefty fee at the door, the kids will again be able to swim in a sea of Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect. David Carr
E-mail Paper Trail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (202) 332-2100.