Photographs by Todd Franson
"Power to the People Who Party!" was the battle cry on Saturday at Upper Senate Park as approximately 2,000 people gathered and grooved in resistance to the U.S. government's clampdown on electronica music and its club scene, under the guise of the War on Drugs Organized by ROAR!, the National Dance & Music Rights Alliance, with the support of the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, and the D.C. Nightlife Coalition, the musical protest featured illustrious DJs such as Junior Vasquez, Jesse Saunders, Polywog, and D:Fuse, spinning, from noon to midnight, in name of "Freedom of Expression." Young, stylish people of varying sexual orientations, ethnicities, and music affiliations danced to the surging rhythms of electronica. Despite the near perfect weather, crystal ball hovering above the stage, and faint sentiments of PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect), the party was nonetheless restrained, echoing the gravity of the federal government's recent assaults on youth culture.
Last year, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) introduced a controversial bill called The Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act of 2002, better known as the RAVE Act, which makes its easier for the federal government to prosecute business owners for the drug offenses of their patrons. Biden argued that most raves are havens for illicit drugs, and that the use of ecstasy was claiming the lives of thousands of American youths. Club owners and promoters could be penalized up to $25,000 or twice the gross proceeds of the rave, if convicted. Loaded with so much egregious language such as the labeling of bottled water and glow sticks as drug paraphernalia and a discriminatory use of the word, "rave," the bill took 10 months to pass with two orginal sponsors -- Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) retracting their support.
Although, the RAVE Act is considerably watered-down compared to its original draft, two new threatening bills have been introduced. The CLEAN-UP Act (Clean, Learn, Educate, Abolish, Neutralize and Undermine Production of Methamphetamines Act) and the Ecstasy Awareness Act make the club owners, event promoters and sponsors even more liable for the illegal drug use of their patrons. The CLEAN-UP Act would hold concert promoters in violation if they know or "reasonably ought to know" that someone will use illegal drugs at their events, while the Ecstasy Awareness Act would make it a federal crime, punishable up to 20 years in prison or up to $2,000,000 in fines, to profit "monetarily" from a rave or similar event, knowing or "reasonably ought to know" that illegal drug use and trafficking are taking place at the event.
"These laws are so broad and so vague that they can apply to almost anybody within the club scene," said Bill McColl, the Drug Policy Alliance's director of national affairs. "That's a real danger for circuit parties, GLBT clubs, and any other minority community that a prosecutor decides for whatever reason they are against." McColl points out, however, that the rally concert is not advocating for the legalization of drugs; it's more about civil liberties. "The idea is to protect the art. We're concerned about making sure that this music is out there, stays available and that people have safe places to go."
"I want people to walk away from this rally with a sense of empowerment," said Legba Carrefour, co-director and press liaison of ROAR!. "We want to stop the entire movement of an obviously racist, homophobic and anti-youth culture government that is trying to pushed these laws and use drugs as the smoke screen for it."
The chilling effect not only touches club owners and event promoters; if pushed to their most obnoxious extremes, businesses such as Kinko's could be held liable for printing flyers, while organizations such as the Whitman-Walker Clinic could face charges for co-sponsoring AIDS benefit concert events.
"These laws could put my ass in jail," said legendary DJ Junior Vasquez. "That's why I'm here, because I don't think we should be held responsible for other people's actions."
"Our music doesn't have videos played on MTV and we're not widely played on the radio. The only outlet we do have is the clubs," noted DJ D:Fuse. "If people can't go out to the clubs, you pretty much end the whole movement. I don't think that you can overstate the fact enough that it is going to literally kill our scene if it's imposed."
Given its acronym, many music lovers tend to think that the RAVE Act only applies to the rave scene or electronica music, making it a bit harder to mobilize an all-inclusive musical coalition.
"Many musicians don't have a clue," said Vasquez. "They just go by the name, 'RAVE,' and that's why few of my so-called associates aren't here today. They didn't show up because they think it doesn't really affect them."
Said promoter Mark Lee, "We've already seen the effects of the RAVE Act." Lee runs ATLAS Events, which produces the popular Sunday night party Lizard Lounge. Lee referenced an incident in a Billings, Mont., Eagle Lodge, where a group of college students tried to organize a benefit regarding Marijuana Policy Reform.
"The DEA went to the owners of the Eagle Lodge and said that if you hosted the event and if anyone is caught smoking marijuana or doing any drugs, you would be subjected to the provisions of the RAVE Act," said Lee. The Eagle Lodge cancelled the event.
Closer to home was last year's shutdown of Buzz, the popular Friday night party, held at Nations. Buzz had been under heavy scrutiny since 1999, when the local Channel 5 FOX News did an infamous undercover expose on ecstasy use at the event. Following that was an increased crackdown on Buzz by a collaborative effort of the DC police and federal government.
But just as it's easy for some prosecutors to use the "War on Drugs" as a smoke screen to eliminate certain scenes, it's also easy for some RAVE Act protestors to use the music to distract from the issue of illegal drug use at many of these events. During a round of rousing speeches from Carrefour, McColl, Harry Williams from the ACLU, and others, legendary house DJ, Sam Burns focused on the responsibility and accountability of the patrons.
"I'm not going to live in a world of denial," Burn said during his speech. "We have to be responsible, because the government wouldn't come down on us if there wasn't something bad going on. That's the bottom line. You can't come to the club, smoking weed in the middle of floor, doing drugs, falling all over the place; people are not going to take you seriously. You have to take care of yourself and think how important is the scene to you."