Brooklyn Activists Fight for ‘Right to Party’

New York City’s Cabaret law dates back to the Prohibition and forbids any city venue without a special license from allowing more than three patrons to dance at once. Establishments that break it are subject to fines and closures but some say the law selectively targets small venues that can’t afford the license. Last night, activists from the Brooklyn music community met with local politicians to talk about what the law’s repeal might mean for music venues in New York City. Here’s Rebecca Scott with the story.

SCOTT: Usually, when Market Hotel is this packed, everybody is dancing. Tonight, however, the Brooklyn performance space is filled wall-to-wall with New Yorkers who have to come to support the repeal of the Cabaret Law. Councilman Rafael Espinal kicked off the night with a simple message.

ESPINAL: There’s no reason the city should get in the way of fun. Let’s fight for our right to party.

SCOTT: Espinal introduced a bill to repeal the Cabaret Law about a year ago. The law was originally passed in 1926 and was used to break up black jazz clubs. Frankie Decaza Hutchinson of the Dance Liberation Network says it’s impossible to separate the law from its racist past.

HUTCHISON: The connection between Cabaret Law and the Jim Crow laws of the South exposes itself, similarly operating with the intent to segregate and disrupt the activities of black folk. To be explicit here, saxophones weren’t allowed but accordions were.

SCOTT: Hutchison is referring to regulations that banned instruments commonly used to make jazz music. These regulations were repealed in 2003 but Hutchison says that’s not enough.

HUTCHISON: It’s essential to think about when addressing its oppressive origins, who is getting penalized here and why are we still holding on to a law that did this?

SCOTT: It’s small venues that are paying the price now – oftentimes, literally. And breaking the Cabaret Law is just one reason a performance space might be fined or closed. Rachel Nelson owns three venues in Brooklyn. She says there are a lot of rules – and it’s not easy to avoid a citation.

NELSON: You might get it for a fire exit, you might get it for capacity, you might get it because you have a cockroach, you might get it because you have too many chairs …

SCOTT: The list goes on. But city officials say enforcing the law is now more important than ever, especially after the November Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland that killed 36 people. John Barclay is the owner of Brooklyn dance venue Bossa Nova Civic Club. He says that after the Ghost Ship fire, his venue was visited dozens of times by the FDNY. Barclays says he understands the safety concerns. But he says the Cabaret law doesn’t protect patrons and, in fact, can make them less safe.

BARCLAYS`1: So if you kick them out of a legitimate place that’s hyper regulated like mine and like so many other places, they’re gonna go to a warehouse and dance. And if you close down their warehouse or that DIY spot, they’ll go anywhere. They’ll go into a pit of alligators and snakes and dance. There’s no doubt about that.

SCOTT: New York City is not the only place with strict legal standards for dancing in bars. Iran, Kuwait, and Afghanistan all have similar laws. Rebecca Scott, Columbia Radio News.

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