The War on Fun continues with a proposal to electronically track every nightclub visitor
The War on Fun — a term coined by the Guardian in 2006 to describe the crackdowns on nightclubs, special events, and urban culture by police, NIMBY neighbors, and moderate politicians — continues to grind on in San Francisco.
The latest attack was launched by Mayor Gavin Newsom and the San Francisco Police Department, which has proposed a series of measures to monitor and regulate individuals who visit bars or entertainment venues, proposals that the embattled Entertainment Commission will consider at its Dec. 14 meeting.
Perhaps most controversial among the dozens of new conditions that the SFPD would require of nightclubs is an Orwellian proposal to require all clubs with an occupancy of 100 persons or more to electronically scan every patron's identification card and retain that information for 15 days. Civil libertarians and many club owners call this a blatantly unconstitutional invasion of privacy.
Driving the latest calls for a crackdown is a stated concern over isolated incidents of violence outside a few nightclubs in recent years, something Newsom and police blame on the clubs and that they say warrants greater scrutiny by police and city regulators.
But the proposals also come in the wake of overzealous policing of nightclubs and parties — including improper personal property destruction and seizures, wrongful arrests and violence by police, harassment of disfavored club operators, and even dumping booze down the drain — mostly led by SFPD Officer Larry Bertrand and his former partner, Michelle Ott, an agent with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Those actions were documented in back-to-back cover stories by the Guardian ("The New War on Fun," March 24) and SF Weekly ("Turning the Tables," March 17), and they are the subject of multiple ongoing lawsuits by nightclub owners, patrons, and employees, including a racketeering lawsuit alleging that officials are criminally conspiring against lawful activities.
Yet rather than atoning for that enforcement overreach, Newsom and SFPD officials seem to be doubling down on their bets that San Franciscans will tolerate a more heavily policed nightlife scene in the hopes of eliminating the possibility of random violence.
A series of nighttime shootings this year has grabbed headlines and prompted calls to action by the Mayor's Office and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, whose District 3 includes North Beach. In February, there were shootings at Blue Macaw in the Mission and Club Suede at Fisherman's Wharf, followed by a shooting at the Pink Saturday fair in June, one outside Jelly's in SoMa in July, and the high-profile murder of a German tourist near Union Square in August.
Chiu responded with legislation to give the Entertainment Commission greater authority to close down problem nightclubs and, more recently, with legislation to require party promoters to register with the city so that officials can take actions against those who act irresponsibly.
In September, Newsom asked the SFPD for its recommendations and he received a laundry list of proposals now before the Entertainment Commission. That body held a closed session hearing Nov. 30 to discuss a confidential legal opinion by the City Attorney's Office on whether the identification scan would pass constitutional muster, an opinion that has so far been denied to the Guardian and the public, although officials say it may be discussed in open session during the Dec. 14 hearing.
"Everything is being considered," Jocelyn Kane, acting executive director of the Entertainment Commission, told the Guardian. Her office already has looked at the different types of scanners that clubs could use and has discussed the idea with several technology companies.
SFPD Inspector Dave Falzon, the department's liaison to the nightclubs and ABC, told the Guardian that he believes the data gathered from nightclub patrons would allow police to more easily find witnesses and suspects to solve any crimes committed at or near the nightclubs.
"It's not intended to be exploited," Falzon said, stressing that the recommendations are a work in progress and part of an ongoing dialogue with the Entertainment Commission — an agency Newsom, SFPD officials, and some media voices have been highly critical of over the last two years.
Along with the proposal for the ID scanners, SFPD proposed many other measures such as increased security personnel (including requiring clubs to hire more so-called 10-B officers, or SFPD officials on overtime wages), metal detectors at club entrances, surveillance cameras at the entrances and exits, and extra lighting on the exterior of the night clubs.
Though this may sound to many like heading down the dystopian rabbit hole with Big Brother potentially watching your every move, Falzon thinks it's the opposite. "It isn't that police department is acting as a militant state," Falzon said. "All we're trying to do is to make these clubs safer so they can be more fun."
Yet critics of the proposals don't think they sound like much fun at all, and fear that employing such overzealous policing tools will hurt one of San Francisco's most vital economic sectors while doing little to make anyone safer.
Jamie Zawinski is the owner of the DNA Lounge, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. He has been a leading voice in pushing back against the War of Fun, including running a blog that chronicles SFPD excesses. He said the proposed regulations go way too far.
"It's gang violence happening on the street. The nightclubs are being scapegoated. You don't solve the problem by increased security in the clubs," Zawinski told us, adding that the lack of proper policing on the streets should be addressed before putting the financial strain on the entertainment industry.
"It's ridiculously insulting. I will not do that to my customers. It's not a way to solve any problems," Zawinski said. "It sets the tone for the evening when you start demanding papers."
It's also a gross violation of people's rights, says Nicole Ozer, the director of Technology and Civil Liberties Policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. She said that recording people's personal information when they enter a public venue raises troubling legal issues.
"There are some real implications of tracking and monitoring personal data. The details of what you visit reveal things about your sexuality and political views," Ozer said, adding that the ACLU would also have issues with how that information is used and safeguarded.
In response to police crackdowns on nightlife, club owners and advocates earlier this year formed the California Music and Culture Association (CMAC) to advocate for nightlife and offer advice and legal assistance to members. CMAC officials say they are concerned about the latest proposals.
"The rise in violence has to be looked at from a societal point of view," said Sean Manchester, president of CMAC and owner of the nightclub Mighty. He noted that most of the violence that has been associated with nightclubs took place in alleys and parking lots away from the bars and involved underage perpetrators. "In many instances [the increased security measures] wouldn't have done anything to stop it," he said.
While there are plenty of ideas to combat crime at nightclubs, nightlife advocates say the city is going to have to look beyond club venues to address what can be done to combat crime without infringing on any civil liberties or damaging the vibrant nightlife. Or officials can just listens to the cops, act on their fears, and make the experience of seeing live music in San Francisco more like boarding an airplane.
The Entertainment Commission meets Dec. 14 at 6:30 p.m., Room 400, City Hall.