Cut the Music
June 19, 2015: It was a slow night at Palisades, an underground music venue in Bushwick. Less than twenty audience members filled the space, a midsize room near the JMZ station with walls painted black. Even with the performers and the staff, there couldn’t have been more than thirty people present, remembers Ariel Bitran, who booked that night’s bands: Tecate Predator, textiles, Mature, Smhoak Mosheein, and Peter Fonda. The music was experimental but relatively quiet, low-key, synthesizer stuff.
“Then, during one of the sets, the police bum-rushed the place,” says Bitran. “They actually [opened] our emergency exit from the other side.” The cops were confused. “They barged into the space and were like, ‘What’s goin’ on? There’s ten people in here right now.’ It was kind of funny.”
These raids are the scheme of an NYPD-led task force called M.A.R.C.H., which stands for Multi-Agency Responses to Community Hotspots.
First came the police officers, who then led everyone else: reps from the Fire Department, Health Department, State Liquor Authority, and Department of Buildings, all at once. The group of officers stopped the show, made everyone leave, and proceeded to inspect the place, ultimately issuing a number of citations and fines.
These types of coordinated, multi-agency raids have become a thing of lore around New York’s underground music worlds over the past few years. They are the scheme of an NYPD-led task force called M.A.R.C.H., which stands for Multi-Agency Responses to Community Hotspots. An operation that swarms and shutters venues during peak weekend hours, it has been described as unpredictable and SWAT-like, employing a mystified style of enforcement that keeps venues and business owners living in perpetual fear. The violations and fines are often numerous, and they come all at once, meaning the raids are often deployed as a tool for swiftly closing bars and venues. And as some venue owners report, D.I.Y. music spaces comprise only a portion of businesses affected by these operations.
The M.A.R.C.H. taskforce seems intentionally opaque. Its history, and the basis on which establishments are listed for inclusion, are mysterious to many I spoke with. I first heard about its existence in 2014, the year I started working at the Bushwick music venue Silent Barn, a space that has existed in two different locations. The Barn was originally located in Ridgewood, until a M.A.R.C.H. raid shut the first iteration of the project down in 2011. After two years of fundraising and organizing, a properly up-to-code version of Silent Barn opened in a new location in Bushwick in 2013.
“It’s supposed to be an economic hit,” Joe Ahearn, a longtime Silent Barn co-organizer told me, reflecting on what he’d gleaned about the M.A.R.C.H. raids over the years. “It is the end for any venue that it happens to. It’s like death. It’s like the grim reaper.”
Most music venue operators I’ve encountered are familiar with M.A.R.C.H. to some extent—it’s part of the vocabulary of running a venue in New York City. But its inner workings remain obscure, even to many of the venues the task force threatens; most known information about the M.A.R.C.H. operations is anecdotal or else pieced together from first-hand experience.
Last January, a little over one month after the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland, the Department of Cultural Affairs held an open meeting titled “CreateNYC Office Hours: Alternative and DIY Art Spaces,” intended for DCLA Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl to learn more about the needs of these spaces as the city prepared its first-ever all-city “cultural plan.” At the meeting, representatives from many of the city’s underground and aboveground venues alike expressed frustration with the M.A.R.C.H. program. The Commissioner himself noted that he wasn’t familiar with the M.A.R.C.H. task force, speaking to its secrecy even amongst city officials trying to help the cultural spaces it affects.
Rafael Espinal, the City Council Member who last year introduced legislation that successfully overturned NYC’s archaic and racist Cabaret Law (following years of grassroots efforts from artists and organizers), also notes the lack of transparency about how M.A.R.C.H. operates—even his understanding of the task force comes from observing trends: “It’s not an official task force that you can look at under any city website that will tell you ‘this task force exists’ and ‘what we do.’” According to Espinal, the need to demystify M.A.R.C.H. operations was a motivating factor in the recent decision to establish an NYC Office of Nightlife.
Last year’s conversations surrounding the Cabaret Law inevitably led to growing public conversations about M.A.R.C.H. “History will tell you that most often it was communities of color, and marginalized communities [who were most affected],” Espinal says, regarding the Cabaret Law, but adding: “A lot of the businesses that were being preyed upon because of the Cabaret Law also were victims [of] the M.A.R.C.H. taskforce. For the most part, if any business received a cabaret violation, it was through the M.A.R.C.H. task force.”
The Cabaret Law, which made dancing illegal in any public space without a cabaret license, was passed in 1926. At the time, it was used to shut down black clubs, especially jazz venues; later, in the ’90s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used it to crack down on nightlife. The law continued to be implemented by M.A.R.C.H. to fine and shutter bars and DIY venues up until last year, when a number of activists including a group called the Dance Liberation Network re-energized the opposition. During their organizing campaign, the group accessed a list of a year’s worth of venues that had been targeted and closed for cabaret violations. For some perspective, only about 100 out of the city’s 25,000 bars and restaurants possess a cabaret license, yet when the DLN surveyed the list, they found it was mostly Latino, Dominican and black-owned businesses that were being shut down for allowing dancing without cabaret licenses. (Note: The Baffler has filed a request with the NYPD’s Legal Bureau for a list of all establishments visited by M.A.R.C.H. operations in 2017.)
At a June 19, 2017, City Council meeting dedicated to the Cabaret Law, Espinal called the M.A.R.C.H. task force “notorious” for the role it plays in “whether nightlife establishments can open or remain open.” The meeting was attended by venue operators, bar owners, musicians, dancers, artist advocates, and community organizers, and the M.A.R.C.H. program was largely discussed. One club owner noted that his establishment had never received a M.A.R.C.H raid until he hosted a hip-hop night. The co-owner of a Caribbean club and restaurant in Queens felt that the M.A.R.C.H. officers treat local business owners like “criminals.”
Also discussed was the role of M.A.R.C.H. raids in speeding up the process of gentrification, and the reality that when officers issue thousands of dollars of fines in a single night, it’s more likely that gentrifying businesses would be able to afford those fines—not to mention the pending legal fees—than longstanding minority-owned businesses.
“I call it M.A.R.C.H. madness,” says Elvis Silverio of the New York State Latino Restaurant, Bar & Lounge Association, a non-profit established in 2016. He says the businesses that comprise his organization are handed tickets “left and right” by M.A.R.C.H. operations. “When they come to inspect the location, they just come in and shut the whole place down. If you have a busy place that night, most of your customers will leave. Because the minute they see the police department, the fire department, the health department, the department of buildings coming to your location, people feel afraid.”
Silverio says the lack of transparency on the task force and its guidelines are serious issues, but so too are the ways these raids interrupt commerce. “If you come in, and you want to inspect my place, we have no issues with that. But there should be a way that they can gather the information that they need without disrupting the business. You lose revenue, you lose customers.”
“No one knows how you end up on their list,” says John Barclay, owner of Bossa Nova Civic Club and member of Dance Liberation Network. “They send everyone at the same time, at peak hours, and they write you up for every single thing under the sun.” Barclay’s club has been raided by M.A.R.C.H. a couple of times. “They take a flashlight, they go through all your bottles, potentially look through your office. We don’t know why they showed up. They won’t tell you. They just show up, they’re super mean, they write a bunch of tickets, and they leave and go to the next one.”
“They hit up a Latino pool hall on Flushing the same night as us and that place never reopened,” Barclay adds. “It’s been a couple yuppie restaurants ever since. They raided the spot across from us. . . . They raid everybody. It’s overwhelming.”
A 2014 NYPD Operations Order, retrieved by The Baffler last year via a Freedom of Information Law request, officially explains the task force as follows:
[The] Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots (M.A.R.C.H.) Operation [has been] designed to direct enforcement efforts at specific establishments which have become a source of complaints from the community and have a negative impact on quality of life conditions in the surrounding neighborhood. A M.A.R.C.H. Operation is overseen by the Criminal Justice Coordinator’s (CJC) Office and is coordinated by the New York City Police Department’s Civil Enforcement Unit with assistance from the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA), the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).
A venue’s placement on the M.A.R.C.H. list is largely driven by 311 calls, like noise and “quality of life” complaints, confirms the document. But there are also two other factors: the number of “incidents” that have happened within the space or even just in the vicinity of the address, meaning any incidents requiring police attention inside or nearby (they reference the online booking system arrest worksheets), and whether the venue has a history of cooperating with authorities.
2014 NYPD Operations Order Retrieved by Foil Request by The Baffler
The procedure for choosing spaces for these raids involves at least six people: a special operations lieutenant/designated supervisor, a community affairs officer, the precinct detective squad commander, crime prevention officer, a field intelligence officer and commanding officer.
Together, these officers track commercial spaces with New York State Liquor Authority licenses, as well as venues that trigger the aforementioned criteria, and this information gets passed to the community affairs officer, who also keeps tabs on 311 notices and complaints from the Community Board. Within five days, the community affairs officer will visit the establishment to gather more information, but the venue or bar owners will never know: “DO NOT alert person(s) affiliated with the establishment, its patrons, or community members of the ongoing investigation/operation,” the procedure reads. All of the information gathered is passed back to the crime prevention officer and field intelligence officer, with the special operations lieutenant/designated supervisor looped in.
The detective squad commander then compiles a list of “prior criminal incidents,” and notes any unwillingness to cooperate on the part of the venue. The crime prevention officer is supposed to routinely visit local establishments to “ensure establishments are familiar with crime prevention strategies and receive related crime prevention written materials.” The field intelligence officer compiles information and data from the designated supervisor, crime prevention officer, and community affairs officers, and delivers all of the findings to the commanding officer, who determines if a space will be included in a M.A.R.C.H. operation.
“If the problem is noise complaints, why are they sending the health department to write you up for the way you are cutting limes?”
In short: the anonymous and fairly complicated nature of the 2014 Operations Order confirms that 311 notices, noise complaints, and the number of incidents involving police activity within the vicinity of the location are the underlying factors for placing venues on M.A.R.C.H.’s radar. The city then responds by sending the departments of health, buildings, environment, and additional departments to write up tickets and administer fines.
Noise complaints are listed in an official “Music in New York City” report from 2017, which cites them as a growing reason for the shuttering of venues. “In the past 15 years, more than 20 percent of New York City’s smaller venues have closed,” the report states.
“If the problem is noise complaints, why are they sending the health department to write you up for the way you are cutting limes?” says Barclay. “If their problem with an establishment is noise, or if it is a problem with capacity, they should deal with that directly. They shouldn’t send the health department to punish you over noise complaints. That’s not how the justice system is supposed to work. If you apply that to civilian life, let’s say you have a number of parking tickets, I shouldn’t send social services to see if you’re treating your kids right. I don’t call the IRS to see if you’re paying your taxes. Deal with things directly.”
The secret nature of the task force means that venues may not know whether they’re being raided by M.A.R.C.H.; nor are neighbors aware of the gravity of their 311 complaints. One Brooklyn music venue employee, who wished to remain anonymous, recalled a recent multi-agency visit. “Our show had wrapped up early that night,” they said. “They rolled in right at midnight. I was shutting down the P.A. and these two cops walk in, and the first thing they say is, ‘Looks like we missed the party.’” The cops claimed to be doing a business investigation. A plainclothes cop made his way behind the bar. Uniformed officers checked the IDs of everyone there, looking for underage drinkers. Someone from the FDNY investigated the whole place. “We were pretty much up to code. They wanted to see the exits, our building plan. All our customers were one by one leaving.”
As it turned out, a new neighbor had been calling 311 to make noise complaints. “They showed us a list of all the complaints. I guess we kind of floated to the top of their list,” the employee said. “We ended up talking to our neighbor the next day, who was like, ‘Oh, I feel so bad, I didn’t know the cops were going to come.’ We’d been aware of it for a while, the M.A.R.C.H. thing. And we had some neighbors before that we’d had some trouble with, so we gave them our phone number and said, ‘If it’s ever getting too loud, just text us and we’ll try to deal with it.’ But we hadn’t met this person yet.”
The venue got two tickets, one for noise and another related to its kitchen. “When we asked why they were there, they didn’t even seem to know the rhetoric they were supposed to use,” the employee told me. “They were very much trying to not give us information about what they were doing. They came in three or four cars. The whole street was lit up. It seems like they just get their cop caravan and one by one hit as many places as they can.”
Palisades survived two raids from M.A.R.C.H. (that sparsely attended June 2015 show bust was the second) before the third raid shut the space down for good. That final M.A.R.C.H. was the next year during the weekend of Northside festival. (Even those who never visited Palisades have possibly seen it: in April 2016, an illustration of the venue was featured on the cover of The New Yorker.) They were given a number of fines, including for having no sprinkler system and operating without a place of assembly permit. The space was issued a partial vacate order.
“I think that might have been an overextension of their rights,” Bitran says. But ultimately, he remains conflicted, knowing that the space operated in a grey area, that there were aspects of the operations that were illegal and unsafe, like not having enough exits. “Yeah, they’re brutish,” he says. “[But] if you design your venue following the health and safety and infrastructure requirements of the state and the city of New York, you end up with something nice and safe for a lot of people to attend.”
Most venue operators don’t want to put their communities in harm’s way. The majority would likely be happy to comply if the violations could realistically be addressed, presented in a way that allowed for recovery instead of innumerable fines. But the M.A.R.C.H. task force’s current deployment doesn’t allow bars and venues a stable way to meet those health and safety requirements. More often than not, M.A.R.C.H. operates arbitrarily, in the manner of the now-defunct Cabaret Law. It aims to shut down any businesses it would rather not deal with, to shutter venues that lack the financial and legal resources needed to bounce back.
“It’s definitely a ‘gotcha!’ [kind of thing],” says Bitran. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s kind of inhuman, Fahrenheit 451-type censorship.”
More transparency would be a step in the right direction, but others believe this task force shouldn’t exist at all, that it criminalizes and confuses local businesses and arts spaces instead of encouraging safety, and operates largely as an intimidation tactic—an abuse of power.
Barclay puts it simply: “I think it should be completely abolished.”