Welcome to Dancing vs. The State, a week-long series on nightlife's complex, ever-evolving relationship to law enforcement. Starting Monday, March 6, we'll be running a slate of articles on the ways in which dancing and club culture are policed—with the aim of sussing out who and what is being targeted in the process, and to what end.
Back in December, the underground dance scene made international headlines when a deadly fire broke out at Oakland live/work space the Ghost Ship—killing 36 people, and raising serious questions around the safety of sub-legal music spaces. As we will explore in this series, the tragedy raised fears of a nation-wide crackdown on music venues by law enforcement. For some, it triggered wider existential conversations about the ways authorities try to control and contain our fundamental human impulse to congregate in public and express ourselves through music and dance—usually under the pretext of keeping us "safe," but too often with the effect of depriving certain communities of the only real-world spaces where they feel safe to begin with.
Of course, the post-Oakland crackdown, which we'll be tracking in real-time starting today, isn't the first instance of authorities policing music venues and the people who frequent them. Nightlife has been a target for law enforcement since at least as far back as the Prohibition era, when the City of New York instituted a ban on dancing in all music establishments that did not purchase a Cabaret license—then used the law, known as the "Cabaret" (or "no-dancing" law) to disproportionately target venues hosting jazz musicians and patrons of color. It's been a target since the nascent gay rights movement of the 1960s, when same-sex dancing was forbidden under draconian laws prohibiting any public display of homosexuality, and selling alcohol to LGBTQ people was deemed illegal. As veteran nightlife critic Michael Musto explains in this series, it continued to come under fire during through the Giuliani years, when the former New York mayor revived the Cabaret law and clamped down on the club scene as part of a broader initiative to reduce crime and improve the city's "quality of life" (read: make it safer for tourists and condo owners).
Throughout the week, we'll take you back through some of this history, and talk about some of the ways that dance culture continues to run up against law enforcement today, from illicit warehouse raves in Brooklyn to massive EDM festivals in California. We'll be looking into the best and worst cities to party in the US (from a law-enforcement perspective, at least), the legality of sex parties, and the subtle lessons of resistance embedded in the campy 1984 film Footloose. We'll zoom in on the history of New York's Cabaret law—which, somewhat bewilderingly, remains in effect to this day—as well as some of the ways the city continues to disproportionately target LGBTQ and POC nightlife. Along the way, we'll examine some of the ways that dancing is policed worldwide, from a temporary ban on raves in Toronto in 2000, to the role of the Thatcher government in the rise and fall of UK's rave scene—and do a deep dive on how left-wing activist groups in Germany used their organizational knowledge to establish some of the country's best clubs.
Follow our Dancing vs. The State coverage here—after this week is over, we'll continue to provide updates throughout the year. While we can't say that you'll be an expert in the history of nightlife law enforcement before 2017 is through, we hope that the next time the cops come break up the party where you're raving, it'll feel a little less out of the blue.