A Misguided Nightlife Crackdown

There is an atmosphere—maybe in New York, perhaps nationwide; call it a political-cultural mood—that is curtailing expression based on nightlife, sex, fun, and more. And it plays into a larger notion of “safety”— which from airlines to being quiet on the beach is pervasive right now.

A federal parks administrator absorbed that ethic when she initially ruled that a gathering of black gays—fighting HIV transmission with music and AIDS testing—was a threat to public safety in Riis Park. The ostensible reason for the proposed sound system ban was that there were two recent drownings and lifeguards need to be able to hear the swimmers—even though the gathering was stuck in a ball field on the other side of the boardwalk from the beach. It would be a sad day if the beaches are turned into libraries, with everyone telling each other not to make a sound.

Now the New York Post and the police department are engaged in a full scale battle against Chelsea nightclubs in the name of safety. Tens of thousands of young people go out every night of the week. As has ever been the case, some of the resulting trysts end badly, and some even end in kidnappings. But with safety the ruling value in today’s post-9/11 world, the public is being primed to accept the idea that drinking and dancing and hooking up are nuisances that place youth at risk. This is a prohibitionist view and it represents a sharp departure from this city’s traditions.

Speaker Christine Quinn has proposed Intro. 366 and assigned it to the Public Safety Committee chaired by Peter Vallone, Jr. of Astoria. It will require that bouncers be given criminal background checks, but is silent on the vital question of determining if they have the temperament to resist violence in the face of provocations. In rock concerts, the security companies hire school teachers because they know how to remind people to stay in line without challenging them. The bruisers are there but they are in the background.

The most constructive of Quinn’s proposals would create a local enforcement unit of the State Liquor Authority, but that body should be given a more imaginative role than the one she specified. Her initiative prejudges the guilt of these establishments and presumes that the NYPD treats clubs fairly. The local enforcement unit “will have the power to more expeditiously revoke or suspend liquor licenses, levy fines for violations, and work collaboratively with local law enforcement. The special unit would help the city effectively police its bars and clubs by itself taking action to revoke or suspend liquor licenses,” Quinn explained.

Her system only works if it permits the SLA to resume its rightful place as the promulgator and interpreter of rules. The unit should have the power to hire local police to patrol the streets outside of clubs where the most tension exists between neighbors and party-goers in the early hours of the morning. The police correctly don’t want bars to hire cops, but they should have no objection to the local SLA unit doing so. The future of regulation hinges on whether the SLA retains its traditional powers to regulate or if it is reduced to a satellite of the NYPD and its harsh enforcement regime.

The police crackdown that was prelude to the present crisis had cadets under 21, trained in fooling bartenders, shopping the clubs. This is no casual once or twice a year operation. It is constant, it is ongoing, and the police then seek the closure of the club because they have enabled a 19-year-old to buy a drink. The surveillance society advances. Quinn has proposed using electronic scanners to detect false IDs used by young people who are serious about their drinking. And of course she wants security cameras.

But the arguments for prohibiting the over-18 from going to clubs are bogus. Does it really make sense to tell undergraduates that they can’t drink? The legal age of 21 might serve as a deterrent to excessive drinking, but stringent enforcement makes no sense. The distinction is crucial. It’s possible to pass a law and then decline to aggressively enforce it. Coercing is unwise. Youthful drinking is accepted and prevalent—and not socially corrosive—throughout Europe, except for Protestant Scandinavia.

This was the system in New York City until Rudolf Giuliani became mayor and police started their undercover operations, which now regularly threaten gay clubs. And the prohibitionist press is trumpeting that crackdown. To the New York Post, the path from adolescent drinking to murders is a given. The reality is that people die tragically—in New York and everywhere—and that is no reason to remake the culture of New York. The linkage is driven by emotions, not the facts.

And you can bet that when a police crackdown after two murders in straight bars escalates, it will lead to intense harassment of gay bars.