When I first heard about D.C. Council member Frank Smith's proposal to bar minors from go-go clubs after certain hours in Washington, I thought, "No way! I'm not for any curfew! That would violate these kids' civil liberties and be impractical as well."
But then, slowly, I've begun to reconsider this bill, and I'm not so sure where I stand anymore.
Part of the problem is that while the bill addresses a superficial, if serious, concern on the surface, it really touches on deep, simmering social problems and cultural conflict as well.
The prelude to Smith's bill was a shooting spree in which 11 young men were injured outside the Acacia Masonic Temple on U Street NW at a go-go dance attended largely by teen-agers. Two young males, one 17 and the other 20, were arrested and charged in the incident. A month later, four youths were shot outside the Panorama Room in Southeast Washington as they were leaving a go-go dance hall.
In the wake of these and other incidents, police officials reported that they routinely have trouble controlling the crowds of hundreds of young people who flood the streets after these establishments close their doors, usually at 3 a.m., but some as late as 5 a.m. And neighbors in residential areas surrounding the six or seven go-go establishments in the city bitterly complain that when the go-go clubs close, some youths move the partying to the sidewalks in front of their homes and even their front porches. At one club, 103 arrests were made and 75 complaints answered in 117 days of operation.
Smith's solution to halt youths from "roaming the streets" was to ban those under 18 from theaters, dances, skating rinks and other entertainment places after 11:30 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends, unless accompanied by an adult. Five other council members moved quickly to cosponsor his legislation.
In the two months since Smith made his proposal, a storm of criticism has erupted. The city's young people have coalesced to ward off what they see as an attempt by adults to kill their beloved go-go music -- D.C.'s gift to the music industry, born in the bowels of the inner city a decade ago, a percussion-driven sound accompanied by rap to which black kids, from rich to poor, love to dance and party.
Despite neighbors' complaints of weapons, drugs and liquor, owners of go-go establishments say they don't allow liquor, drugs or weapons in their clubs.
The debate raged on in a public forum this week. "If I started the go-go earlier, I'd have nobody there," testified the owner of a popular go-go club. Raising the all-important reality of family life for many youths in this city, Ralston Hall, 17, a senior at Ballou High School in Southeast, said: "People go to the go-go to escape from stresses at home. If it's earlier, people have responsibilities at home. You can't just walk out and say, 'I'll be back in a few hours.' " Meanwhile, the embattled residents point to their damaged cars and property and say, "Something has to change."
So while the issue appears to be the hour these establishments close, it really is about drugs, generations at cross purposes, crime and money-making go-go clubs that don't -- or can't -- supervise their young patrons. It is also about the bitter fruits of urban poverty and family breakdown -- mostly young, single parents whose lack of maturity and social organization leaves them unable to supervise properly their minor children, some of whom are, in turn, out of control.
I have so much respect and admiration for the creativity and hard-driving truths of the young people's music, especially its fury over the poverty, danger and anxiety of their lives. Go-go is a part of our culture.
But given the boiling cauldron in which it exists, what's to be done?
I admit that I don't know the answer but I know we can't just throw up our hands and do nothing. While I still object in principle to a curfew, I have some sympathy for sleep-starved residents. While a curfew sounds as though it deprives kids of freedom, what 13-year-old should be walking the streets of the District after 11:30 on a school night? But should the long arm of the law now become a surrogate parent? Where else will the young people go for emotional release -- further underground?
These and other questions will continue to be debated in forums and public hearings over the next few weeks. It's a proposal for which there are no easy choices, but a curfew of some kind may be the best of the options.