Who Is Leading Raids on NYC Nightclubs?
A 2019 law requires surprise inspections to be documented, but these most recent raids won't be.
1:17 PM EDT on June 9, 2023
On the evening of Saturday, April 29, H0l0, a Ridgewood electronic music venue, was raided by members of the NYPD, the State Liquor Authority, and the Department of Buildings. Since-deleted statements posted to the Instagram account of Hot Honey Sundays, the event taking place at H0l0 that night, said that NYPD officers "entered the venue and shut down the club without warning," and "acted in an intimidating and unfair manner." "It was clear that it was not a legitimate inspection of the building, but rather a witch hunt, where the police seemed to be looking for something to justify their presence," the event organizers wrote.
Representatives for H0l0 declined to comment for this story, but Paul Vogeler, a bartender at a bar in Williamsburg, which he requested remain unnamed, said his workplace was also raided by the NYPD and the SLA that weekend. "They came in at the busiest time," he told Hell Gate in an Instagram message. "They came behind the bar without asking. They were generally not so polite." Bushwick club SILO also told Resident Advisor they were subject to a surprise inspection a little more than a week later, and cited for attendees having alcohol outside the premises, unreasonable noise, and for having the wrong font on their signs indicating the risks of drinking while pregnant and that alcohol would not be served to minors.
News of the raids has circulated within the nightlife community, causing some to wonder if the City is now ramping up the NYPD-led Multi Agency Response to Community Hotspots, or MARCH, operations that have devastated venues in the past—a decision that is seemingly contrary to Mayor Eric Adams's nightlife-friendly posturing.
Brooklyn nightlife venue owner John Barclay was not raided that weekend, but has been raided in the past; he told Hell Gate in an email that he had heard about that weekend's actions. "It sounds like [the] MARCH task force," Barclay told Hell Gate—a characterization that the State Liquor Authority initially confirmed when Hell Gate inquired about the raids, writing that the agency did in fact participate in "MARCH operations" at locations "identified by the NYPD."
But the Adams administration is disputing that characterization. When we reached out with questions about the recent raids, a representative from the Mayor's Office told Hell Gate there haven't been any MARCH inspections since September 2022.
The multiagency, NYPD-led MARCH raids on nightlife venues, which many trace back to the Giuliani era, have typically involved officers and agents suddenly entering a bar during business hours, frightening patrons and costing bars much of their business, in addition to any fines that may be issued. Barclay described them to Hell Gate as "a cross between a hyper-agressive inspection and a narco-terrorism raid." In the past, some venues have closed after being raided. A 2019 report by the nonprofit The Black Institute found that between 2012 and 2017, nine out of 10 MARCH raids occurred in NYC neighborhoods where 30 percent or more of the residents were people of color. As the report authors noted, "the overwhelming majority [of raids] yielded no substantial infractions but did result in a major disruption for the businesses and their patrons," and that the inspections were instead used by the NYPD to "intimidate, criminalize and fine" the establishment "in order to have the business close down."
In 2019, responding to pressure from the NYC Artists Coalition, the City Council passed the "Talks Not Raids" bill, which required the Office of Nightlife to issue semiannual reports on MARCH raids, as well as requiring the NYPD to "[provide] establishment owners with a notice about conduct or complaints that could lead to a multi-agency response to community hotspots operation."
According to the Office of Nightlife, the COVID-19 pandemic largely paused MARCH inspections, and MARCH operations resumed in September of 2021. From the time the raids restarted through the end of 2022, the Office of Nightlife reports that there have been a total of 31 MARCH raids; in the last half of 2022, there were only two, both of which occurred in the Bronx. In contrast, there were 23 raids alone in the first three months of 2020, before the pandemic, and before the provisions of the Talks Not Raids legislation took effect in April 2020.
Owners of nightlife venues like Barclay, who owns Paragon in addition to the Bossa Nova Civic Club, told Hell Gate that the critical attention on MARCH raids in 2019 seemed to have led to a relaxing of enforcement. "There was a big City Hall uproar against this, led by the NYC Artist Coalition a few years ago," Barclay said. "I think the takeaway was the city was going to attempt a more reasonable approach, and for a while that seemed to be true," Barclay said. A source familiar with the City’s enforcement approach agreed that MARCH raids "never helped to improve conditions, but were simply based on punishment," and noted that the City is working to employ alternative enforcement solutions. "Collectively, there has been a very strong momentum towards the complete dissolvement of MARCH operations," they said.
So are MARCH raids now being accelerated, under our "nightlife" mayor, or are the recent inspections those "alternative solutions"? It's hard to get any answers at the moment, as officials can't seem to agree on how to characterize the recent enforcement actions.
In their statement, an SLA spokesperson wrote, "At the request of the NYPD, SLA investigators participated in MARCH operations over the weekend performing inspections at those locations identified by the NYPD."
But the Adams administration told Hell Gate that the spring inspection of H0l0 wasn't a MARCH operation. When we reached out to the Mayor's Office, a spokesperson confirmed that on April 29, the NYPD was "deployed to assist SLA" at H0l0, but disputed the SLA's characterization of the action as a MARCH raid. They wrote, "This was not a MARCH operation, and anyone saying it was is circulating inaccurate information—only causing confusion and leaving members of the nightlife community feeling unsettled." In a separate phone conversation, the City Hall spokesperson noted that the raid on H0l0 "was led by SLA," and noted that it was "based on 311 noise complaints, after hour activity, and some outside venue activity that is not SLA permitted." They continued, "This was not a raid, this was community complaints. SLA went in and they were assisted by some NYPD officers and members of the Department of Buildings." Noting that "SLA did hit a few locations," the spokesperson stressed that "the only place NYPD officers inspected over the weekend was H0l0."
When we reached out again to the SLA, informing the agency that the Mayor's Office was not characterizing these operations as MARCH raids, the spokesperson revised their statement to remove mention of the MARCH taskforce, but continued to assert that the SLA's participation was "at the request of the NYPD." (Neither the DOB nor the NYPD responded to requests for comment.)
Why would it be important to the City that these inspections not be officially termed MARCH raids? Crucially, the distinction would allow the City to bypass the requirement that the NYPD provide written notice to nightlife establishments before a raid.
Aaron Pierce, an attorney who represents clients in the hospitality industry, told Hell Gate that the SLA may inspect venues at their discretion, and that the Talks Not Raids law as written leaves these sorts of loopholes open.
"It's clear that what happened is someone called in a multi-agency raid and then someone else said, 'Wait, wait, don't say that!'" Pierce said of the H0l0 inspection.
The source familiar with the City's enforcement approach was less sure.
"Is it possible in the effort to minimize MARCH operations and maybe not meet the criteria, that they were scaled down? That's speculative," they said. However, they admitted that the distinction between a MARCH raid and a smaller operation "is a blurred line."
With no MARCH raids having been officially conducted since September 2022, the recent inspections on H0l0 and other venues would not be included in the public disclosures mandated by Talks Not Raids.
While City officials and SLA representatives did not agree whether the raids were MARCH operations, or who requested them, firsthand accounts by employees make them sound similar to MARCH raids, and members of the nightlife community say it doesn't make much of a difference.
Vogeler said that his bar in Williamsburg was targeted by both the SLA and the NYPD. "We ended up getting a violation for having candles on the bar," he told Hell Gate. "We were forced to turn the lights up and music off, and the whole place emptied out." He added, "It killed our business and a lot of us were trying to make enough for rent. We probably all made about 25 percent of what we normally make on a Friday night."
H0l0 has not held a publicly announced event since the April raid, though it's not clear if they were even cited for any wrongdoing. In a statement to Hell Gate, the SLA said they were "reviewing reports from the detail," and would move forward with charges if there was enough evidence to do so.
To nightclub owner Barclay, the recent actions—whether or not they're officially called MARCH raids—highlight why these types of enforcement actions need to end. "Several government agencies teamed up and aggressively raided nightlife establishments during business hours in the precise way they've been doing so forever," he said. "It's detrimental to our city's culture and economy, and it's incredibly embarrassing that this is still happening."
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