Brian Logan is a businessman. He owns a hair salon, does landscaping and works as a DJ. But what Logan cannot do is run a go-go club in his native Prince George’s County.
In July 2011, after a string of homicides linked to clubs in the area, the county passed a law prohibiting anyone convicted of a felony from operating a dance hall that plays music. That means Logan, who was convicted in 2000 of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute, cannot operate a club, something he says he was unaware of until after he had invested in a dance hall in Landover.
“People with prior convictions own other businesses,” Logan argued. And after serving 18 months in jail and a year of probation, he was able to have his voting rights reinstated. So, he asks, why can’t he run a dance club?
The reasons have much to do with how the music is perceived in the region.
Go-go music is the District’s own indigenous style of music. Steeped in a heavy bass line and backed by a heavy beat, the music has been the soundtrack for a number of black Washingtonians and others in the close in suburbs. Over the years, violence has sometimes overlapped with clubs playing the music.
That violence led Prince George’s officials to pass a law that many hoped would dissuade those with criminal inclinations. But for lovers of the music, the law is seen as overly restrictive — and worse.
This summer, club owners — most with no criminal record — filed a $10 million lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging discrimination, but the case was dismissed. Logan was among the plaintiffs.
“I know that I’m a productive man,” he added. He conservatively estimates that approval of the legislation has cost the club $120,000 in revenue and that he’s also lost money because he had to give up majority share in the business. “I’ve paid my debt to society, and I’ve been rehabilitated. Nobody’s perfect, but everyone does have the right to do better and change.”
The suit was part of a wave of activism by local advocates who also tried to unseat Karen Toles (D-Suitland), a council member who was the bill’s sponsor. And although both efforts failed, activists said they are unbowed as they ramp up their efforts and continue their lobbying work.
“We’re going back to the drawing board, but we haven’t quit,” said longtime regional activist Ronald L. Moten, who has helped organize residents around the issue. “There’s some things we need to do better on our end, but the county has to be willing to work with us.”
County officials maintain that the law is not targeted toward a particular group or music but is simply a way of managing late-night crime that often involves places that serve alcohol. After the bill was passed in July 2011, many go-go venues vanished.
Toles said the dismissal of the lawsuit affirms the bill. The first-term council member, whose district includes Capital Heights, Temple Hills and Suitland, chairs the county’s public safety committee. The law, she said, ensures the safety of county businesses and residents.
Prince George's crime: By the numbers
In 2005 the county reported 8,229 violent crimes according to data submitted to the FBI. The number began to decrease by as much as 17 percent over the next eight years where the county reported 3,794 violent crimes. As of July 3, the 1,751 violent crimes had occurred, putting the county on pace for about 2,773 crimes this year, which would be down almost 27 percent from last year.
|Year||Total violent crime||Percent change|
|YTD July 3||2,773||-26.91%|
Source: Prince George's Police Department
But Moten said that crime was declining in Prince George’s long before the bill became law. Community organizers worked with police in 2007 to help curb violence, he added, but still provide an outlet for go-go music.
Statistics reported to the FBI show that since 2006, violent crime in the county has fallen. The rate dropped 7.4 percent from 2005 to 2006 and has fallen every year since by at least 3 percent, through 2012. This year, violent crime is on pace to be nearly 27 percent lower than last year.
Moten said that the law has prevented people from operating makeshift dance halls in barbershops and other ill-equipped venues but that it also has been to the detriment of legitimate business.
Police officials in Prince George’s said that continued strict code enforcement ensure that crime rates drop annually. They said the department doesn’t discriminate against any specific business and goes only after venues violating code, adding that businesses are not targeted and checks of premises are random or a result of citizen complains.
Indeed, some residents said that the law has helped curb violence in their communities late at night.
Alice Bishop, president of the Templeton Knolls Civic Association, called the bill a good idea but said it isn’t tough enough.
There are still issues with violence and lewd behavior, she said, adding that the county isn’t doing a good job enforcing the bill and that violators aren’t always being held accountable .
“Enforcement is bad,” she said. “If the Board of License Commissioners and liquor inspectors do their job well, then the bill works.”
Dominic Hobson, known as Nico of GoGORadio.com, believes that the issue is one of class discrimination more than race. He added that go-go continues to fight an uphill battle because of a lack of legal representation and poor publicity.
“If go-go was doing what it was supposed to be, we should have a venue in each quadrant of the city that we’ve paid for within our own structure,” Hobson said. “If we did this, we wouldn’t have an issue.”
William Tucker Jr., a Prince George’s resident who was born in the District, said the issue is people within the music community are not compromising with the public will.
“This is something within the local culture in which many people, not all, simply aren’t professional,” Tucker said. “They want to be seen as artists, taken as promoters, consultants, et cetera, but they won’t do what it takes to be seen as legitimate businessmen.”
Tucker, president and founder of WOOK-LP (103.1 FM), said he plays go-go and has done so to help erase the genre’s stigma. He noted that the bill requires only that businesses submit plans and pay for a license, which is hardly discriminatory.
Issues of violence had been tied to a venue formerly owned by Dan Richardson. Before the legislation took effect, a man was fatally shot outside Plaza 23 in Temple Hills. Richardson said an outside promoter rented the space for the night and that four off-duty local and municipal police officers were working there. The killing remains unsolved, he said.
“That was the only incident that ever happened at my establishment,” Richardson said. “We didn’t understand how they were able to get off the premises without being caught.”
People without criminal records who have applied for licenses also have qualms with the bill and the difficulty of getting a license.
Richardson said his business struggled after the bill took effect. While the council discussed the measure before its approval, he couldn’t apply for a license. Richardson said he didn’t receive a license until February 2012 and was nine months behind on bills. The city reports the venue was closed in 2012 as a result of violations.
“A lot of people praise it, because clubs are shutting down. I don’t think that’s an answer to the safety issues.” Richardson said. “Why are you putting all of these stipulations on a dance license?”