I had a visceral response to news that City Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill that would impose new rules for a “special assembly occupancy” license. Among other things, applications for an SAO license must be approved by the Philadelphia Police Department. Promoters and venue operators would be required to provide the police department with the “full name, address and phone number of all performance acts scheduled to perform during the promoted event or special event.”
There is concern the bill is racially motivated, i.e., it’s targeting venues that promote hip-hop artists. Capt. Francis Healy, the PPD’s legal adviser, told the Philadelphia Inquirer Squilla’s bill has “nothing to do with race,” adding:
I could see where it could be [interpreted as such].
The police department has a sordid history with black musicians. During Philly’s jazz heyday, clubs were under police surveillance. Jazz venues would be raided because black and white patrons were fraternizing. In a piece for Hidden City Philadelphia, Jack McCarthy shared a news report from 1949:
A preholiday raid by… detectives… once again smacks of racial prejudice on part of the law enforcers… [The] Downbeat is the favorite hangout for the be-bop fans and is the only downtown spot which never has discriminated against Negro patronage. In fact, crowds here have been interracial in character, attracting everybody from the intelligentsia to the rabid be-bop fan.
Nat Segall, former owner of the Downbeat who originally established the room, gave it up a year ago rather than give in to certain political powers who urged he adopt a segregation policy for the room. When he refused to give in, Segall, a former musician now in the booking business, was pestered by police raids and finally sold out.
Charges of underage drinkers at the Downbeat, basis for the raid, is a weak one when you see the patronage of purity-white places… you’ll find teenagers any night of the week in practically every night club in town.
Police harassment put the legendary club out of business. Philadelphia police and federal narcotics agents hounded Billie Holiday. Indeed, Lady Day was the first casualty of the War on Drugs.
On Nov. 17, 1955, Ray Charles and his entire band were arrested on drug charges. Although the charges were later dropped, Brother Ray vowed to never again perform in Philadelphia.
Sixty years later, there are echoes of Ray Charles’s concern about the climate for musicians. As currently written, the police department would maintain a registry of performers. Musicians are posting on social media that if Squilla’s bill passes, they will skip Philly.
Heard enough? Then take note and join the protest against Bill No. 160016 at City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 9 a.m. For more information, visit March for Musicians Against Bill #160016 on Facebook.
Don’t let Squilla stop the music.
UPDATE: Councilman Mark Squilla’s bill struck a discordant note. At a hastily-arranged meeting with music industry leaders, Squilla said:
There’s a distrust between some performers and the government, a feeling of “big brother watching you.” That was not my intent.
In the wake of the social media backlash, Squilla will “withdraw the bill and start over from scratch.” Strike up the band and let the music play.