I'm neither surprised by nor entirely unsympathetic toward Rick Flowers' lawsuit against the city of Madison's treatment of his bar, R Place on Park. The suit, filed this week in U.S. District Court, alleged official misconduct on the part of the city in its dealings with the establishment. Police Chief Noble Wray, Capt. Joe Balles, city clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl and a number of others are specifically named in the suit.
Trouble has been brewing for some time now, and Flowers has not been quiet about his belief that R Place has been unfairly singled out and treated more severely than other taverns with similar or worse problems. And he's right to be mad.
Plenty of people, Flowers included, have been using a comparison between how the city has dealt with violence at R Place to how they've dealt with it at Wiggie's a bar owned by Dane County Supervisor Dave Wiganowsky. It's an interesting contrast, to be sure (I will, however, be looking at other bars with higher instances of violence in the coming weeks to see how their treatment by police stacks up).
Wiganowsky had been planning to appeal implementation of the plan, but apparently struck some sort of deal with the City Attorney (that I haven't been able to find details about) before it came to that. Flowers wasn't happy with the plan originally proposed for his bar, either, as it would have required that he hire two private security guards to watch the place four nights of the week. R Place has a capacity of 47, and doesn't charge $10 for drinks, so Flowers argues that the cost of the two guards would place an undue financial burden on him.
The Alcohol License Review Committee ultimately agreed to change the plan to require one guard from 10 p.m. to close, with another supplementing from 1 a.m. to close. Which doesn't exactly represent that much in savings, I don't think.
Why all the concern and plan-making and threats of lost liquor licenses, then?
There have been a few instances of violence at R Place over the past year or so, mostly in the back parking lot:
- Early Oct. 16, a Madison woman, 25, was stabbed in the wrist outside the bar after a dispute with another woman inside.
- Early Oct. 17 two men fired gunshots outside the bar after one of them was hit in the back of the head with a glass or bottle. A 30-year-old man was arrested Thursday.
There was also an incident involving claims of shots fired and the discovery of shell casings in that parking lot last year, though no one was hurt.
Meanwhile, Wiggie's has hosted more than its fair share of outbursts:
- On July 5, an armed customer put a bartender in a headlock and robbed the bar.
- At 12:30 a.m. Oct. 23, a fight in the parking lot led to hospital treatment for two women, one with a knife wound on her shoulder and another with unspecified injuries.
- Just before 2 a.m. on Nov. 6 someone fired multiple shots outside the bar, scattering a crowd. No injuries or arrests were reported.
- Shortly before 2 a.m. on Nov. 7, an employee told police that a man showed a handgun inside the bar, and another customer said he pulled a knife during a dispute. Police arrested a 49-year-old man in a parked car in the lot and confiscated a knife, marijuana and cocaine. No gun was found.
R Place was initially denied a liquor license when Flowers first went to open it in 2003. He sued the city for discrimination ("His suit referenced a statement made by former Alcohol License Review Committee chair Tim Bruer supporting a license moratorium in the "fragile" neighborhoods south of Wingra Creek"), but the suit was dropped in 2006 when the city finally decided to award the license. The club finally opened in 2008.
Just two years later and Madison police / the ALRC have already tried for a liquor license revocation agreeing to the security plan was Flowers' only way to stay in business, even though he'd already been using "walk-through and handheld metal detectors, off-duty police, two-way radio communication and a surveillance system to discourage patrons from bringing weapons in," and no violations of the license had actually taken place.
Compare that with Wiggie's, which has been open and racking up violent incidents for several years more, and only just came in for an imposed security plan.
Is it because of racial bias (R Place is located in a somewhat more African American neighborhood, has a lot of African American patrons, and Flowers himself is African American)? Is it because Wiggie's is owned by a prominent conservative politician? Dumb luck?
I can't pretend to know the innermost thoughts and feelings of the police and ALRC members responsible for the implementation and enforcement of liquor laws in this city. I won't outright accuse anyone here of racism without far better evidence to support it. But I will say that something doesn't smell quite right.
Why has there been such a disparity in the treatment of R Place (and indeed most of the venues that have cropped up in Madison that catered/cater to a predominantly minority crowd)?
I strongly suspect that negative stereotypes about certain income classes, neighborhoods, and types of music are playing a part in all of this. It's no secret that Madison has serious issues with hip hop and the clubs that play it, to the point that many (less tactful) owners seeking new liquor licenses will explicitly tell the ALRC that it won't be played at their businesses coded language for "no hip hop fans at our club (because they're violent)!" Which, let's be honest with ourselves here, too often really means "no black people," despite the fact that not all hip hop fans are black, not all black people are violent, and hip hop itself does not incite violence. This should not have to be spelled out for anyone, though.
I don't know if that same warped logic has lead to the seemingly disparate treatment received by R Place (interesting, too, that the complaint against them was initiated by police captain Balles acting under the classification of "adult resident"). What I do know is that it looks very much like Flowers has been getting the short end of the stick. I for one would like to know if that's true, and then, why.
Once-and-potential-future-Mayor Paul Soglin has posted his official candidacy announcement on his blog, Waxing America. He makes a fairly strong case for his running, and I am more than curious to see how this all plays out.
Plans are already well in motion to protest the inauguration of Scott Walker to the governorship on January 3. Check the Facebook event page for info, but the gist is that those Wisconsinites less-than enamored of the incoming guv will be gathering at the capitol that day around 10 a.m. to show their non-support (I will be covering the festivities). Grab the free Scott Walker "High Speed FAIL" bumper sticker currently on offer from the WisDems, too, to get yourself pumped for four years of being disappointed in almost everything Walker does.