A go-go version of the movie “Footloose” is playing out in Prince George’s County.
A $10 million class action filed in federal court on May 15 accuses the county’s political leadership and law enforcement community of denying citizens of their freedom to dance—among other things.
At issue is a 2011 emergency bill that targeted the county’s dance halls and music venues. It instituted requirements for businesses that allow dancing to seek a permit to do so, and it gave county law enforcement more authority to shut down businesses they consider threats to public safety. It also prohibited people with criminal records from obtaining dance permits.
The measure quickly triggered protests from venue owners and music promoters, as well as a petition from fans who felt go-go bands were being unfairly blamed for homicides. It also came at a particularly sensitive time for the go-go scene: Fans had long complained that aggressive policing and gentrification had pushed go-go from the District into the suburbs.
Now promoters and business owners in Prince George’s are claiming in a suit they filed on their own that they have suffered irreparable financial harm.
One of the petitioners to the lawsuit, Dan Richardson, was the owner of the Plaza 23 Event Center in Temple Hills, where a man was killed in 2011 after a concert by the go-go band TCB.
Richardson claims he moved quickly to obtain one of the dance-hall licenses required by emergency law, but that he lost so much businesses during the application process that it was impossible for him to recover. Plaza 23 Event Center, which also was among a group of county clubs indicted in a sweeping tax crackdown in 2012, is now closed.
“If you look at how [the emergency law] was enforced, it was like it targeted small black businesses that can’t afford to fight back,” Richardson says in a phone call.
Karen Toles, the Prince George’s County Council member who wrote the emergency bill, has already filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. She claims it wasn’t properly served.
Meanwhile, in his re-election campaign, County Executive Rushern Baker is touting recent drops in violent crime. A spokesman in the county executive’s office wouldn’t comment on the emergency bill because of the pending litigation. Baker’s campaign website lists crime reduction as his top achievement thus far—and cites a 14 percent drop in homicides in 2013.
Baker is running unopposed in this month’s Democratic primary, and he has made economic development one of the planks of his re-election platform. He often cites the potential of the county’s underdeveloped Metro stations in his pitches for the FBI to relocate to Prince George’s.
An activist from the District who doubles as a go-go promoter, Ron Moten says he suspects politicians are eager to move out businesses that feature go-go music to make those areas near Metro stops more attractive to developers. But neither of the current or former businesses associated with the suit are located within a mile of a Metro station.
Moten, who has helped organize a campaign against the emergency bill, worries about the fraught relationship between go-go and local law enforcement. The tension boiled over in the District about a decade ago, when violent incidents forced the closure of Club U, a nightclub inside the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Building that hosted go-go concerts. Several years later, Washington City Paper reported that the Metropolitan Police Department kept a running internal report on which bands were playing at D.C. venues so it could deploy officers more effectively.
“Everybody loves change,” Moten says. “They just want to be included in that change. Why can’t we learn from the mistakes we made in D.C.?”
Moten is known for recruiting local musicians for “diss tracks” that target politicians with whom he disagrees. He says he’s in the process of making a song directed at the emergency bill and its author, Prince George’s County Council Member Toles.
Martin Austermuhle contributed to this report.
Photo of Be’la Dona by Flickr user DrivingtheNortheast used under a Creative Commons license.