By Angela Woodall
When it comes to cracking down on nuisance night clubs, police and city of Oakland pretty much run the show. That's what led Geoffrey Pete, proprietor of Geoffrey's Inner Circle, to stand on the steps of City Hall in March surrounded by other black business owners and advocates to announce he was filing complaints against the city and police because of what he called a systematic attempt to drive black-owned businesses out of downtown.
"We don't have an advocate," Pete said.
But that may be changing, at least if he and others are successful in their drive to create an entertainment commission modeled on San Francisco's. But it's too early to say just what role a commission would have. And the city has no concrete plans for creating one.
The city created a "one-stop" bureaucratic hub in April that is supposed to cut down on the infamous hurdles (especially for entertainment venues) to doing business in Oakland. An entertainment commission, in contrast, would add predictability to the process and a cushion between venue owners and law enforcement, which doesn't necessarily have the same goals when it comes to night life as operators or even the city.
It might take a few years, said Steve Snider, co-founder of Oakland Venue Management, who is also behind the effort. "But it is essential that Oakland goes in that direction."
The event that led to Pete's complaints against the city happened in December, when the Downtown Merchants Parking Association informed him that he was no longer welcome to use the garage across the street from the club on 14th and Franklin. The police told the association that there was a shooting in the garage on a night Pete had rented the facility, which Pete said he was unaware of.
"Parking is everything," he added. Without it, he decided to close Geoffrey's Inner Circle, making it the sixth downtown club to fold in just a few years. They all were popular, all catered to an African-American clientele and all had trouble outside the club, usually after closing.
City of Oakland officials and police say that they have no such intention of running out African-American venues. What it comes down to, police said, is a cash-strapped city reluctant to authorize club patrols and crowd control at events that suck up overtime and divert units away from other parts of the city. Some nights, they are cracking down on sideshows in one part of town, while corralling crowds amid violence in another.
When the posh downtown @17th club closed last year after a spate of violent episodes, Lt. Paul Berlin said that from a police perspective he had no problem with any club opening up in Oakland. "However, we have to do it right, and have everything in place; the right amount of security, the right signage, the right people monitoring the customers and making sure we don't have loitering," he said.
That is why the department asked Pete to consider dropping his First Saturday happenings, which attracted a younger crowd and sometimes trouble, such as the melee that broke out in front of the club in early January.
The department decides how many officers — usually working an overtime shift — are needed to keep problems at a minimum. But the promoter or venue owner has to pay for it. So they told Pete in March that he would have to pay $7,600 for 18 officers and three sergeants at a birthday party he wanted to host at Sweet's Ballroom on Broadway. There was some back and forth about the expensive request and ultimately Oakland police canceled the event. That was the last straw for Pete.
"They take an all or none posture. It's beyond unfair."
He said black-owned clubs are singled out as problematic because the city wants African-American entertainment out of downtown, especially if hip-hop has anything to do with it. As proof, he cited — among other things — the fact that the Fox Theatre and Yoshi's are getting substantial city dollars.
Oakland officials changed the rules that prohibit nightclubs from being placed near schools and churches so that the Fox (the Oakland School for the Arts is part of the same building) and numerous other venues could open in the Uptown entertainment district.
The message taken was that the bridge-and-tunnel crowd is valued more in Oakland than black people who stood by Oakland.
An entertainment commission is unlikely to solve the gap that exists between the police, city officials and the venue operators like Pete. But it would be a step forward. As the head of San Francisco's entertainment commission Bob Davis put it, the goal is to have a vibrant and safe night life. To do that, he said, everyone has to "be on the same page."
Cecily Burt contributed to this story. Reach Angela Woodall at 510-208-6413 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.