In the Doghouse

SB 384 Supporters Build Their Case on the Backs of the Dead

 BREAKING: SB 384 has cleared the Senate GO Committee. READ MORE about the Senate's decision to choose nightlife over all life. 

Senator Wiener and the Los Angeles Times use Ghost Ship tragedy to argue for bill, ignorant of California’s own artistic history

A memorial for the victims of the Oakland Ghost Ship fireThe Los Angeles Times sure knows how to make a point: on the backs of the dead. In its coverage of SB 384—the dangerous bill allowing bars to stay open until 4 a.m.—the paper claims the Ghost Ship fire could’ve been prevented had there been a 4 a.m. last call. The 2016 fire, named after the unlicensed living/performance space in which it broke out, killed 36 and was one of the single deadliest building fires in California history. The Times would have you believe it would never had happened if only the kids were drinking at 3 a.m. in some well-financed, well-inspected club. This assertion ignores economics, the cultural history of California, and the role underground venues play in the music scene. More importantly, it cynically exploits the deaths of 36 young Californians to argue for a giveaway to the entertainment lobby that could cost more lives still.

SB 384 is an on-the-face dangerous bill—it leads to longer public drinking times, more concentrated populations of intoxicated people, and more fatigued and intoxicated driving, along with more subtle vectors for harm—that supporters justify through the short-sighted idea that localities should set their own last-call times. They push past the likely increase in drunk driving, violence, and disruptions to residents with unproven claims of economic benefit (tax revenues would likely be offset if not negated by increased costs to civic services, and largely paid to the state, not the local jurisdiction) and a deeply troubling, disingenuous claim that it would improve public safety.

The Times’s argument hinges on the idea—ascribed to Scott Wiener, the senator that sponsored SB 384—that more nightclubs making more money would allow for more nightclubs total. If there were more nightclubs, Wiener suggests, then promoters would “avoid ad hoc venues like Ghost Ship.”

This claim doesn’t stand up to even the briefest scrutiny. The Ghost Ship fire was not a result of a late-night party. It happened at 11:20 p.m., when every other bar and club in the Bay Area was still open—meaning its attendees were drawn there not by its late hours but by something else. That “something else” comes from unlicensed venues’ ability to book performances that are inherently unprofitable. Even a basic familiarity with economic principles suggests that, unless Wiener and friends intend to flood California with so many new late-night venues that the market is saturated and rents plunge, so long as there are more “mainstream” acts to play large clubs, that’s who will be booked, and the people drawn to more esoteric performers will continue to be forced to seek them at the margins.

All-ages club 924 Gilman Street urges patrons to drink somewhere elseThat’s not a new dynamic caused by the rent crisis. The “fashion, music, art” that one DJ tells the Times will be fostered by late last call has always flourished in California. Think about the Beats in San Francisco in the ‘50s, or the Funk Art movement based around Davis and the North Bay in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Those artists changed the face of the culture without needing to tie anything to lucrative entertainment promotions. NPR notes that Los Angeles in the '60s had as strong an art scene as New York—the same New York whose 4 a.m. last call so-called leaders like Wiener argue makes it more appealing than California. Think about the LA sound of hip-hop in the ‘80s through mid ‘90s; spawned as it was through out-of-the-trunk albums sales, those artists thrived despite, not because, of support from mainstream clubs. The Bay Area rock scene in the ‘90s and ‘00s revolved around the explicitly dry, all-ages Gilman St. Project in Berkeley. To claim that California is culturally impoverished because of liquor laws requires either ignorance, amnesia, or an outright contempt for what California has created.

Or perhaps all three. Make no mistake, hucksters like Wiener and the Times aren’t citing precedents or deep familiarity with the Ghost Ship attendees. They are making up stories to justify handing the keys to public health over to massive nightlife operators and Big Alcohol. Judging by the soulless eagerness to build their case on the fresh wounds of real tragedy, they do so without compassion, perspective, veracity, or shame.

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