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Monday, October 24, 2011

Real Talk: Roundtable with Mayor Sam Adams on the Oppression of Black Nightlife

In a medium-sized city like Portland, Oregon where Black people make up a dismal 6% of the population, it's not hard to imagine that African American culture is stifled at every turn. Two huge parts of any culture are music and attire... If you're local to this area, then you probably already know where I'm going with this.

"We" often talk about "they" and "the powers that be" holding "us" back. This sort of talk gets "us" nowhere, and more often then not leaves "us" both angry and frustrated at an unnamed enemy. Last Monday, a few of "us" got together to meet with some of "them" and delved into what may or may not be a futile attempt to make a change.

After a summer that featured the closure of one of Portland's few Black-owned establishments and the shut-down of Portland's biggest monthly hip-hop party (Massive), a good friend of mine and master networker, Keeara Taylor (of 360 Degrees Unlimited), used her City Hall contacts and some creative Twitter-jabbing to pull Mayor Sam Adams and some of his staff into a round-table discussion regarding the issues regarding Hip-Hop Culture and - to put it bluntly - racism in Portland's nightlife. Further fueling this discussion are issues such the blacklisting of hip-hop events and the use of vague dress codes to exclude (primarily) Black males from various clubs in the name of gang-enforcement.

During the summer, tensions reached a fever pitch. It seemed that every violent crime was labeled gang-related and every unsolved downtown assault and murder was blamed on a Black suspect in an over-sized white tee. As expected, this meeting was delayed until fall, and by now, most of us are over it as our focus on party-going has dwindled with the Northwest weather. How quickly we forget our past priorities in today's culture of disposable politics... But let me avoid that tangent for now.

The meeting went well. While a number of Portland's prominent hip-hop figures did not show up, a handful of intelligent, articulate and passionate members of the community did. The Mayor made sure to get the perspectives of the various attendees; Keeara discussed undercover racism, Chase Freeman (from Beauty Bar Portland) discussed difficulties in booking hip-hop artists, I discussed the difficulty for even a well dressed respectable Black male to gain entry to various establishments, Terminill (of Flatline Studios) discussed the lack of outlet for local hip-hop musicians. Alan Bell and Danny Davoodi echoed these sentiments, adding credence to the discussion. Danny also noted that the presence of foot patrols in high-occupancy areas have helped significantly and should continue.

On the proverbial other side of the table, the Mayor expressed, obviously, that public safety was his main concern. He noted that African-American gangs accounted for a large percentage of Portland's shootings and admitted that deterring the activity of Black gangs was a priority. Similarly, sergeants and lieutenants in charge of downtown operations and gang task forces discussed the ability of clubs to avoid violence with three simple rules: Don't Allow Entry to the Visibly Intoxicated, Consistently Enforce A Dress Code, and Consistent/Thorough Searching of Patrons. Unfortunately, we did not hear much of anything from the city's Director of Art & Culture, though I was especially interested in his take on the dilemma.

The major point of discussion revolved around the fact that dress codes are not consistently enforced; rather, they are used as a way to systematically exclude. We also touched on the blacklisting of hip-hop shows, or really any event that was expected to draw large crowds of Black people. The police countered that there was a lack of communication between promoters and police, causing a lack of trust, and admitted that events are blocked when they feel there will be violence. The Mayor added the claim that the police are able to predict violence at or immediately following certain events with remarkable accuracy. Everyone agreed that many people that should be at the discussion were not present, though it was not always agreed exactly whom those people were.

While seeds were planted on both sides of the table, there was no resolution attained. As such, the Mayor agreed to continue the discussion in November. One thing that I would love to further address is the dress code piece. After some prodding by yours truly, Lt. Steinbraun noted that while the police do not set the dress codes (or set quotas on the number Black people allowed in clubs), the club owners and security may be setting rules that are exclusionary in nature in order to ensure they meet police standards. In my opinion, it should be the duty of the city to ensure that business are not discriminating on protected classes (i.e., race, gender). Furthermore, if the city is not saying what the dress codes should be, why are most of the clubs setting the same dress code? Hats, sneakers, and athletic gear do not create or foster violence.. and what exactly is gang attire?

Clearly, there is a lot more work to be done here, but I'm happy we're setting the groundwork. When the lane's open, anything's possible.

Tis' all for now, kids. And remember, don't tweet about it, be about it.

~Mac, your undercover local activist.


  1. Well written piece and I support everything that you have pointed out here. One thing that has perplexed me, even as a youth, is how does a dress code deter violence?
    Where a grew up a gang banger was a gang banger no matter what he had on. He doesn't put on a suit and then all of a sudden become less violent.

  2. Glad to hear about the dialogue. I don't think it helps that many of the clubs are in China Town either. Not exactly the safest of areas. Getting venue owners out of there could be a start as well.

  3. Gillie - The police's explanation was that since gangs wear certain clothing to identify themselves, preventing such clothing from being worn in nightclubs will prevent rival gangs from identifying one another. Simple, right? Except gang members don't go downtown in their "colors" and gang members know who their rivals are, regardless of attire. I think we can find a better solution that doesn't hinder people's freedom of expression and/or set the stage for blatant discrimination.

    Anonymous - Grat suggestion. That's a new thought for me.

  4. I'm glad that this was finally discussed. Granted, a lot more still needs to be done, but at least its not just a though and a whispered complaint.
    In addition to talking to city officals, I think there needs to be an internal dialogue in the hip-hop community. We all know that there are indiviuals that perpetuate the sterotypes and if we ever really want to have a more positive light she don the hip-hp scene, we need to change from within.

  5. Couldn't agree more. Those of "us" that support a hip-hop culture that is not constantly policed by "them" need to be prepared to police ourselves, and take accountability when things go awry. Thanks, Sharde!