A group of activists are fighting for your right to party—a right that you might not have realized was under attack. More specifically, they're fighting for your right to dance with three or more people, something that is currently illegal in the vast majority of NYC bars and restaurants, thanks to a Prohibition-era law that requires venues to have a cabaret license for dancing.
On Thursday night, hundreds of would-be dancers packed into Bushwick DIY venue Market Hotel to raise awareness about the ongoing effort to repeal the archaic law. Organized by the Dance Liberation Network, which has also circulated a petition denouncing the law, the event featured artists, business owners, and city council members, who took turns discussing the various ways in which they say the law hurts New Yorkers. Among them: its negative impact on businesses, its role in pushing the nightlife scene toward more dangerous underground spaces, and its racist legacy and disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities.
— NYC Artist Coalition (@nycartc) March 31, 2017
"We're at a point now where we have to step in as a city and figure out how we can repeal the law, because these businesses are just trying to let New Yorkers have a good time after work," said Council Member Rafael Espinal, who last year introduced a request to draft a bill that would remove the law from the books. "The request was stalled for almost a year," he told Gothamist, "but last night's event helped me restart a conversation with the bill drafters."
According to small business owners, the cabaret license required under the current law is "virtually unobtainable," and held by only 127 of the city's more than 25,000 food and beverage establishments. Yet unlike some of our city's other obsolete laws—the ban on hosting puppet shows in windows, for instance—this one plays a huge role in the lives of many New Yorkers.
"It is actively yet very arbitrarily enforced," said John Barclay, the owner of Bossa Nova Civic Club and an organizer with the Dance Liberation Network. "They can use the law as a failsafe to shut down any establishment they take issue with. The issue could be that the bar is a loud nuisance, suspected in other criminal activity, or a gay or ethnic bar in a conservative neighborhood. It could be that the officer on duty simply does not like how the clientele looks."
Neither the State Liquor Authority nor the NYPD responded to requests for comment, though a rep for the SLA told the Brooklyn Paper earlier this week that "it is a violation we see quite frequently."
Andrew Muchmore, owner of Muchmore's in Williamsburg, said that he received a citation in 2013 after cops saw people dancing to live music in his bar. "It was a rock show, people were swaying a little bit, but who knows what the line is between swaying and dancing," Muchmore said. He's since filed a federal lawsuit against the city—currently pending—which alleges that there is a racially charged element to the law's enforcement.
"Even if the current intent isn't racist, it still has a racially disparate effect," Muchmore added. "If you're trying to open a hip hop club you're going to have a lot harder time getting a cabaret license than if you're trying to open a rock club."
This discriminatory nature of the law dates is deeply rooted. Originally passed in 1926, the law was intended to address "concerns that speakeasy culture had increased the likelihood of interracial sexual relations within the unregulated and uninhibited spaces of Harlem nightlife," according to historian Michael A. Lerner, author of Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. The original legislation also banned specific instruments in unlicensed venues; string instruments and pianos were just fine, but wind, brass, and percussion instruments—the staples of jazz music—were restricted.
The controversial law has faced sporadic resistance throughout its 92 year existence, particularly in recent decades. In 2000, after Giuliani cracked down on nightclubs as part of his "quality of life" campaign, protesters took to Manhattan Park for the "Million Mambo March" to demonstrate against the Cabaret Law. Three years later, under a new mayor, the New York Times noted that Bloomberg's support for ending the "dance police" signaled that the "age-old battle between the New York of nightclubbing revelers and the New York of sleep-deprived neighbors [had] entered a new phase." Yet despite the public and political opposition, the law remained on the books.
One reason, according to Councilmember Espinal, is its use by the police to selectively target businesses that, for one reason or another, the city would like to see shut down. "The reality is that the city uses the cabaret law as an enforcement tool," said Espinal. "They're able to go after bad actors and bad businesses."
In Espinal's Brooklyn district, which includes much of Bushwick, those "bad actors" are often DIY venues, which may or may not be following the city's other, more reasonable laws. Market Hotel presents a useful example: the show space once operated illegally, then was shuttered for six years while volunteers brought it up to code, only to be targeted by the NYPD in what owner Todd P called a "gotcha raid." That dynamic—between beloved community spaces looking to follow the rules, and an outdated rule that is selectively enforced—could present an interesting challenge to the historically sticky cabaret law, especially in light of recent events.
"We believe that because of the city's current sociopolitical climate and the tragedy that occurred in Oakland, New Yorkers have been forced to examine this issue," Barclay said. "There is also more interest regarding dance culture in NYC right now than there has been in at least 15 years. We plan to mobilize these communities and we will not be letting up until this thing is finally repealed."