Last Thursday night, the folks at the Crew Club, a spa on 14th Street NW, got a surprise visit from about 10 city officials carrying clipboards and walkie-talkies. The visitors took a keen interest in everything the club had to offer. They took down the descriptions of employees, down to tattoos and piercings. They checked out the bathrooms and massage tables. They videotaped the condom displays and genital paintings on the walls. Wandering among the 30 overstuffed corduroy chairs and industrial designs in the club, one reportedly exclaimed on his cellular phone after seeing men in towels and boxers, “Oh my God!”
In all, the visitors lingered for over two hourslong enough to admire the gym equipment, play with the cash register, and cite the club for a bogus occupancy permit.
“It was like Keystone Kops on parade. There was very little direction. They didn’t know what they were doing,” explains Crew Club owner D.C. Allen. “They seemed disappointed that they didn’t find an opium den. They seemed to be disappointed that everyone was sober. They seemed to be disappointed that they didn’t find a huge cache of perverts.”
Allen figures the phalanx wound up in the wrong place. “I’d be very surprised if they came back,” he says. “They didn’t find anything.”
Which made it a pretty typical night for the city’s newly created liquor task force, a team of police officers and health- and fire-code inspectors assembled by Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Larry Soulsby. Enforcement of city liquor regulations became a sudden priority for Soulsby on Feb. 5, when a patron of the Ibex Club on Georgia Avenue allegedly shot and killed MPD officer Brian Gibson, who was waiting in his squad car at a stoplight outside the club. The task force has answered Soulsby’s call with a bar-hopping campaign to over 50 nightclubs in the past month.
The campaign has baffled District club owners, who have enjoyed a decadelong hiatus in the enforcement of city liquor regulations. According to MPD Sgt. Ralph Wax, inspectors would raid one of the city’s roughly 1,600 liquor-licensed establishments per month before Gibson’s killing. That meant clubs could expect to meet the long arm of the law once every 140 years. “[Liquor] violations went to a lower priority,” explains Wax, who serves as one of the task force’s supervisors. “We didn’t do our job. Now we’re doing our job.”
That depends on how you define the job. Sure, the task force has embraced Soulsby’s zero-tolerance policing binge by hassling bar owners all over town for not having liquid soap in their bathrooms and using illegal extension cords. And the squad has made numerous appearances at local gay clubs to crack down on illicit bar sex. But the task force has made little progress toward its charter goal: to shut down clubs that attract thugs.
Scandalous liquor-license violations take place every night in District nightclubs. At a downtown gay club on a recent Sunday night, for example, a buff male stripper gyrates before a mob of eager admirers. The club’s liquor license authorizes the show, but not the action it inspires: men grabbing at the dancer, caressing his penis. The District’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) regulations mandate a 3-foot buffer zone between stripper and would-be groper.
And it’s just the sort of violation that tops the task force’s priority list.
In the eight weeks since it assembled, the task force has raided nearly half the roughly 20 gay establishments in town. Steve Michael, spokesperson for ACT UP Washington and a member of the mayor’s gay and lesbian advisory group, says officials at the ABC Board told him that the task force would target gay clubs because they were “safer.” Raiding a club full of guys dancing and kissing, after all, hardly poses the same level of risk as hitting a club like the Ibex, where patrons were frisked for knives and guns before entering. Wax admits that the first places they hit were gay bars. “We went [to the gay clubs] at the insistence of the ABC Board,” says Wax. “I don’t recall any specific complaints.”
But Michael has some. “I think the mayor is looking at his re-election campaign. I think it’s OK to bash gays,” says Michael. “I will lead the campaign against Marion Barry….He’s not going to go after my community’s culture to save his political hide.”
Martin Chernoff, president of Tracks, a Capitol Hill club that caters to gays, says five ABC inspections in eight weeks turned up only a misused extension cord and poorly positioned liquor licenses. The task force asked him to move the licenses 4 feet closer to the entrance and came back the following week to make sure the move had been properly executed.
The task force happened upon a trove of extension-cord violations at Bachelor’s Mill, another Capitol Hill gay club. Abe, an assistant manager at the Mill who declined to give his last name, recalls that the approximately 15 task force members stormed the place with an attitude. “They were really rude and abrasive in their questions,” explains Abe. “They continually berated and belittled. They repeated questions, looked at each other, and then repeated the questions. I didn’t know what they wanted….They couldn’t decide whether that was the right response. They were a little green under the gills,” he says. The task force eventually closed down the bar for using extension cords.
The task force’s activism has put club owners in an awkward predicament: Since the targets of the liquor-enforcement sweep are selected partially on the basis of police calls, owners think twice about calling in the police in case of an emergency. “You’re being punished for calling the police to do their job,” says one bar owner who requested anonymity.
The nitpicking ways of the task force come as a surprise to Paul Waters, program manager for the ABC Board, which meets every week to grant, renew, or revoke liquor licenses. “We’re not really looking for license [placement],” he says, referring to Tracks’ run-in with the inspectors. “The bottom line is they’re supposed to have the licenses,” he says. He adds that repeated visits to verify compliance with minor quibbles is a waste of resources. “It doesn’t make sense if there’s another visit.”
And just as the task force has cowed gay-bar owners, it’s making its presence felt among purveyors of go-go, the pulsing music that is often blamed for riling violent crowds at local clubs. Since the task force started its citywide tour, the Edge and Bravo Bravo have canceled their regular go-go events. George Christacos, owner of Bravo Bravo, says he decided to stop the go-go after the task forceoccasionally accompanied by agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearmsmade several visits to his ritzy downtown club. “The police were down our throats. You had a cop sitting on top of you, half the department, anything to find an excuse,” he explains, adding that his club played go-go records, not live tunes. “The police don’t want a night life.”
At a recent go-go forum organized and hosted by D.W. Clayton at his bar, Deno’s, members of go-go bands Northeast Groovers and Rare Essence hammered the task force for taking aim at the go-go scene and skewered the media for linking Gibson’s death to the Ibex Club. Maurice Shorter, chairman of the Go-Go Alliance, says that he and others are currently discussing a truce with the police department. Still, club owners have failed to show up for the dialogue.
“They didn’t have the balls to come forward,” admits Shorter. “Go-go is not illegal. It’s making us definitely more wary about [the clubs]. We’ve been trying to help them. We said, ‘Let’s fight this issue,’ and no one wanted to come to the table. We’re going to do what we have to do to preserve the entertainment industry even it means fighting for them.”
MPD’s Wax believes that the bars shouldn’t be afraid. “I know go-go clubs themselves are being targeted,” he explains. “It’s usually going to be where younger people go. We go to all levels; we go to the upscale. When we go into black establishments, we hear complaints. We heard it from the white establishments. We heard it from the gay community. That means we’re doing our thing. We want everybody in line.”
He says this is a far cry from the pre-Ibex days. “Face it, a lot of these establishments pay a lot of taxes to the city,” he adds. “I can understand [the ABC Board’s] reluctance to close an establishment that’s helping the city.”
Even if the task force winds up documenting serious liquor-license violations at targeted joints, the fate of Soulsby’s crackdown ultimately rests with the ABC Board. And getting a handle on the board’s approach to granting licenses is tricky business. Charles Reischel, the city’s deputy corporation counsel for appeals, says the board’s zeal for liquor-license enforcement goes in cycles. In the mid-1980s, for example, the board shuttered a host of sleazy bars on 14th Street, and in 1992 the board got tough on go-go clubs, including the Ibex.
Aside from those anomalies, however, the board has treated liquor licenses as a birthright for District businesses. Community types from Glover Park to North Lincoln Park can produce cabinets full of documents attesting to the board’s historic tendency to rule in favor of liquor establishments. The District’s political class gets fed up, too.
“They are slow to act,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, who has testified before the board several times to protest liquor establishments in his ward. “They allow these nuisances to go on despite the fact of growing problems.”
Some activists say the board is so beholden to liquor interests that it conspires with bar owners. Robert Pittman, a former Adams Morgan advisory neighborhood commissioner, says the city’s liquor regulators have helped Bill Duggan, owner of Madam’s Organ, a noisy 18th Street club, to fend off liquor-license protests from the neighborhood.
“He knows when the ABC inspectors are coming out. He told me they call up the street and let everybody know,” says Pittman. “To him it’s just a game. It makes you feel…I don’t want to say raped. I want to say vulnerable.”
Duggan acknowledges his close ties to several ABC Board members but insists they have not worked in his favor.
Even if the board were stacked with the city’s most vicious prohibitionists, however, it would have trouble taking swift action against liquor-license scofflaws. A cumbersome set of dispute-resolution procedures governs the board’s mediation of community complaints against liquor establishments. The process, activists claim, gives bars every opportunity to violate ABC regulations with impunity.
“It’s the whole system. It’s ridiculous,” says Zina Greene, owner of the building in which the Ibex formerly operated (the club closed after Gibson’s shooting). “The court closed the Ibex before the ABC Board did. They’re still having hearings….Why bother having a board?”
At this point there is no evidence that the ABC Board will use the task force’s findings to shut places for good. The board is currently reviewing complaints that date back to last fall. It will be several months before it gets around to the cases the task force is now compiling.
James O’Dea III, a former board member, says all the case building is unlikely to wipe any clubs from the city’s bar-hopping map. “The board is a judiciary body,” explains O’Dea, who left the board two months ago. “Our job is to regulate them, not eliminate them.” In his seven years on the board, O’Dea was the standard-bearer for the board’s liberal bent and earned the disdain of an entire generation of District anti-liquor warriors.
No matter how remote the threat of closure, clubs targeted by the task force are scrambling to show compliance with ABC regulations. At “underwear night” at Tracks, Chernoff, wary of the task force’s frequent visits, does everything in his power to show he’s running a safe nightclub. Poised before a line of revelers clad in Jockeys, neon G-strings, lacey bras, and strap-ons stand about a half-dozen off-duty police officers, two metal detectors, and club personnel bearing hand stamps and fists full of arm bands.
The security precautions, coupled with the newly positioned liquor licenses in the club’s entranceway, should be enough to keep the inspectors at bay if they decide to drop in for their sixth visit. Chernoff has been expecting them but suggests that city officials focus on real trouble spots.
“The only police you see in Southeast are the ones the clubs pay for,” says Chernoff. Jonathan Swinson, one of the off-duty officers on patrol at Tracks for underwear night, suggests that heading off crime by venturing into nightclubs is just bad policing. “[Tracks doesn’t] have any problems with patrons,” he says. “It’s the neighborhood, so to speak. There should be more policing outside of the club.”CP