Last hope for last call 

Do "bad apples' or race motivate bar-closing clamor?

In politics, as in many things, timing can be everything. Consider last week's hotly waged debate over a City Council proposal to roll back bar closing hours.

During an hours-long public hearing at City Hall Nov. 20, one nightclub owner after another stood up to urge the city not to punish an entire industry for the problems brought on by, to use the most popular euphemism, "a few bad apples."

Then, only hours later, as if by secret decree, the rottenest of those bad apples -- the Buckhead nightclub Chaos -- was shut down by Atlanta police, who announced that the notorious hip-hop club had bounced the check it used to renew its liquor license this year.

Coincidence, you say? Or perhaps the result of a behind-the-scenes effort to placate angry Buckhead residents by getting rid of a nightclub that many have cited as the area's biggest troublemaker?

Probably neither, says Derrick Boazman, the council's most vocal opponent to the earlier closing times. It's Boazman's guess that city officials had previously overlooked the club's violation -- either because of inattentiveness or, he wonders, someone was temporarily successful at keeping the mistake undiscovered.

"How is it that they avoided being shut down before?" Boazman asks.

To some, such indignation might seem to represent a 180-degree turn-about from three years ago, when the council last considered earlier bar closing times. Then, the issue resulted in a discordant council meltdown as several black politicos, led by chief inflamer Bill Campbell, accused their white counterparts of -- surprise! -- racism.

The charge initially seemed an odd one to many white onlookers. After all, could closing bars down an hour or two earlier possibly be construed as having a disproportionate impact on the black community?

No, but coming right on the heels of the 2000 Super Bowl weekend murders involving Ravens star Ray Lewis and his posse, the call for shorter bar hours struck many as a misplaced, knee-jerk reaction aimed at making African-Americans feel unwelcome in the Buckhead Village.

Similarly, complaints about the cruising of Peachtree Street on weekend nights can be interpreted as white fright when most cruisers are black and most of the neighbors doing the complaining are white.

Boazman says the debate went quickly downhill after Buckhead Coalition president Sam Massell -- a longtime advocate of cracking down on the Village bar scene -- sent Campbell a letter asking, "What will it take to convince you to take back your city from the hoodlums?"

"That set the tone. 'Hoodlums' is just a code word for African-Americans," asserts Boazman, who also says that proponents for rolling back the last call were overly aggressive, threatening political retribution against council members.

"The messenger killed the message," he says.

This time around, however, the debate over closing times has managed to sidestep the issue of race -- at least overtly. As with most citywide issues in Atlanta, however, it's always lurking in the background. How could it not be when all of the nine Buckhead Village murder victims since 2000 -- and their accused attackers -- have been black? Or when several of the murders, including the most recent pair, took place just outside a hip-hop club and/or involved that club's customers?

Which brings us back to the "few bad apples" theme, which is only one of the arguments that bar owners are using to try keep in place the 4 a.m. closing time.

Michael Krohngold, whose 9-year-old Tongue & Groove is one of the Village's most visible success stories, says the problem isn't black club-goers in general, but a certain criminal element that happens to be black.

"There's a few bad apples masquerading as hip-hoppers when, in fact, they're gangsters," he says. Certain clubs, he says without naming names, ask for trouble by making a point to cater to that criminal element.

Tongue & Groove is one of the few Buckhead clubs that's smoothly integrated, with a sizable African-American and Latino clientele, including one of Krohngold's favorite customers, record producer Dallas Austin.

The club also received attention this past weekend from city fire marshals, who reportedly distributed dozens of citations for overcrowding and other minor violations throughout the Buckhead Village.

Krohngold is one of the founders of the Atlanta Licensed Beverage Council, a brand-new industry group that has offered to enact a self-tax to help cover the cost of a "late-night security task force" and to hire desperately needed police officers.

It's possible they may have a surprise ally in Police Chief Richard Pennington, who defied some council members' expectations by telling them that cutting off drinks at 2 a.m. and closing bars by 3 a.m. might help a little -- but wouldn't matter as much as hiring more cops, so the APD isn't forced to pull officers out of other zones to patrol Buckhead, as it's had to do since June.

Outside the meeting, Pennington was even more candid: "I don't care one way or another [about bar closing times]. I just want the resources."

Krohngold is hoping that the bar community's efforts at supporting the police will pay off Dec. 4, when the proposal is scheduled to end up before the full council. For now, a little less Chaos doesn't hurt his cause.

scott.henry@creativeloafing.com

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