Danger: how New York City targets minority nightlife

BERTHA LEWIS, Executive Director of The Black Institute. | 8/29/2019, 2:42 p.m.
In 1926, during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, New York City enacted the Cabaret Law.
Bertha Lewis

In 1926, during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, New York City enacted the Cabaret Law. This ban on dancing became a way for the city and its police force to crack down on jazz clubs and other establishments owned or frequented by Black people. 

The law made it illegal for patrons to dance in bars and restaurants unless an establishment had a cabaret license. It was continuously used up to its appeal in 2017 to target minority communities. Whether Black, Latino or gay, the law became a weapon for the NYPD and city agencies. 

When it was finally repealed, we celebrated. Finally, we thought, this racially designed law was done, and our communities would be able to enjoy themselves during a night out on the town. 

However, there are still ways that the NYPD, alongside city and state agencies, terrorize these businesses that are often a fixture in communities of color.  They’re called Multi-Agency Response Community Hotspots Operations or MARCH Operations.

These operations are coordinated by the NYPD’s Civil Enforcement Unit (CEU). The CEU is joined on these raids by the New York State Liquor Authority, the NYC Department of Buildings, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, the NYC Fire Department, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 

These raids can involve up to 30 people storming an establishment, shutting it down and sometimes leaving $40,000 worth of alleged violations.  There is ZERO transparency, accountability or fairness in how these raids are conducted. All of the details surrounding why a location was targeted, how it can remove itself from the NYPD’s hit list or the eventual judgments that stem from a MARCH raid are unclear.

The NYPD has admitted openly that there is discrimination in the way that they police the City of New York, how can we expect anything different in the way they police bars, restaurants and other nightlife establishments? 

Councilman Rafael Espinal and Councilman Stephen Levin sponsored and, last year, introduced Intro. 1156, this bill would require the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to provide quarterly reports on MARCH Operations that include information on locations subject to MARCH Operations, complaints or issues that led to interventions, what summonses were issued pursuant to MARCH Operations and business closures resulting from such summonses. 

Restaurants like Woodland in Brooklyn, with a majority Black clientele, have seen the full weight of the City and State of New York come crashing down on top of them.  Baseless accusations led to unwarranted and excessive enforcement measures. As a result, the owners are facing the revocation of their liquor license and the loss of their business. Young Black and Brown professionals in Brooklyn will see their cultural and community hubs gentrified and taken away. 

Our report paints a clear picture of discrimination and racially motivated targeting of businesses that are affected by these laws. 

That is why we are fighting this dangerous threat to New York City’s minority nightlife.

Bertha Lewis is the founder and president of The Black Institute (TBI), a nonprofit “action-tank.”