(photo: Cassidy Dawn Graves)

Brooklyn DIY staples Palisades and Silent Barn are just two of many nightlife spaces that have been subject to a Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots, or MARCH—a Giuliani-era creation that summons members of the NYPD, FDNY, State Liquor Authority, Department of Buildings, and more to an establishment that’s been deemed problematic, usually at peak weekend hours and usually without warning.

On Monday morning, members of the NYPD and FDNY, nightclub owners, and advocates gathered at City Hall to testify in regards to Intro 1156, a bill introduced by City Council members Stephen Levin and Rafael Espinal in October that aims to “bring oversight and accountability” to the historically cryptic and venue-dooming MARCH.

According to the NYPD, a “typical MARCH” is fairly simple. Described by NYPD Assistant Deputy Commissioner Robert Messner as a way to address “chronic safety and crime” issues, MARCH is a multi-agency intervention sent to establishments that have accrued a significant amount of complaints from 311 and 911 calls, community boards, and other sources. They “make the establishment aware” of these complaints, and if they’re not addressed, the offending venues are submitted to the chief of patrol, then to the assistant deputy commissioner, who decides which ones will get “MARCHed.”

When they arrive at one of these establishments, they explain, it’s usually a Friday or Saturday evening, because many establishments aren’t open early and city agencies don’t normally come at night (Levin questioned this, and a FDNY rep noted some agencies do conduct inspections at night). Patrons are allegedly not told to leave, but rather “continue enjoying their night out” while inspections are conducted. NYPD Executive Director of Legislative Affairs Oleg Chernyavsky said he wouldn’t call MARCH a “raid,” which he said would involve “guns drawn” and “bulletproof vests.”

(image courtesy of NYC Artist Coalition)

Nightlife business owners tell a different story. Diana Mora, owner of Crown Heights bar Friends and Lovers, said she’s in “great standing with the community board” and sends weekly updates to her Neighborhood Coordination Officer. “Whatever they asked, I did. Yet I still get MARCHed,” she said. The first of two raids involved “25 men in SWAT jackets” arriving at nearly 3 am, which she said affected both her mental health and her bar’s reputation, and cost her tens of thousands of dollars, while the second one was brief and resulted in only a small citation.

Marva Babel-Tucker, Brooklyn native and owner of Crown Heights bar Ode to Babel, said she experienced a MARCH in October. Fifty officers in riot gear gathered inside and outside the bar. They cut the music and doled out fines while customers fled. “We were a spectacle,” she said, explaining that such a scene made her bar look like it was associated with “illegal activity.”

John Barclay, who identified himself in written testimony as manager of Bushwick’s Bossa Nova Civic Club and who also co-founded the advocacy group Dance Liberation Network, articulated a desire for MARCH to be abolished entirely (he wasn’t the only one; Levin mentioned being “skeptical there’s a need for this type of enforcement”). Barclay said his 2013 MARCH experience felt like “a targeted, federal counter-terrorism raid” that was far more “hostile” than any experience with his local precinct.

“The train of thought here,” his statement continued, “is that if an entity is perceived of violating one law, that … justifies strong-armed physical inquiries into every other legal aspect of their operation.”

The NYPD said MARCH is a “last resort,” so Council Member Levin asked the business owners if they knew why they experienced MARCH. None had particularly clear ideas—Rachel Nelson, who owns Bushwick spaces Happyfun Hideaway, Flowers For All Occasions, and Secret Project Robot, said she thought one of her establishments was targeted due to the building’s prior tenants having a history of “gunfights 15 years ago.” Mora said the area around her bar experienced an increased level of 311 calls prior to her first MARCH, while her bar itself had none.

Babel-Tucker noted Ode to Babel, which is in a gentrifying neighborhood and has a clientele that’s predominantly people of color, had garnered “disdain” from new neighbors, whose “weapon of choice is 311 and 911 calls.” Some had even less of a clue: Barclay said he was “not informed of any wrongdoing” and did not know any MARCH victim who had been. When asked if the new “Night Mayor” Ariel Palitz had been involved in this process at all, the NYPD reps said they “can’t say either way” if they have directly conferred with her on MARCH-related issues.

This is far from the first time these troubles have been raised. At the first NYC Artist Coalition meeting two years ago, one attendee compared MARCH to “thugs,” while at the first hearing for the bill that went on to successfully abolish the cabaret law, Nelson said MARCH leaves people “always in fear you can never be legal enough.” And at the Brooklyn stop of the Office of Nightlife listening tour, both Mora and Nola Rodney of The Hills in East Flatbush detailed the hardships MARCH has caused their businesses.

The hearing also illustrated a lack of data clarity. The NYPD clarified that while there were 57 “MARCH operations” last year—a lower number than prior years—each operation consists of 4-6 venue visits done on the same night, but sometimes just two. When asked how many individual establishments were subject to MARCH, Chernyavsky said 203 were on the list, but he “[couldn’t] tell you with accuracy” how many actually got raided.

Brian Abelson of the NYC Artist Coalition submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request in order to get a clearer picture of what goes on behind the scenes, and noted in written testimony that he sent his request to five agencies in June 2017, and after a series of rejections, got two documents from the NYPD in March 2018.

Abelson’s testimony describes one spreadsheet containing data from June 2012 to March 2017 concerning “a list of violations that resulted from inspections,” but only violations related to the DOB and Environmental Control Board. Based on this data and public data from the DOB, he concluded that out of approximately 1,700 inspections (some of which were proven to only be a phone call warning of a raid), 60 percent resulted in “no action,” 35 percent resulted in “some sort of violation,” and 5 percent resulted in a business vacating their space.

Of the violations, “over percent” resulted in a guilty verdict, with offenders being made to pay a median of $1,200 per violation in fines. 15 percent of these resulted in a default, which translates to 100 businesses over a five-year period being “forced into bankruptcy as a result of MARCH actions,” according to his analysis.

The most common violations resulting from MARCH were related to a space’s Certificate of Occupancy, Certificate of Operation, and work permits. Compliance of this sort is an issue that has affected many nightlife establishments, including Alan Cumming’s Club Cumming, which was barred from live performance for a period of time due to its liquor license type and building’s zoning status, something the owners did not initially realize.

Levin’s bill, which is supported in its current form by both the NYPD and nightlife representatives at the hearing, would require the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to provide quarterly reports on MARCH, including specific catalysts for raids, specific establishments affected, and whether or not a MARCH raid results in a venue closure. Council Member and Justice Committee Chair Rory Lancman tweeted that the bill would help “evaluate the efficacy of these raids” moving forward, so it’s always possible the task force may meet the same fate as the cabaret law.