Artists, nightlife advocates and business owners gathered at City Hall on Monday to support the passing of a bill that would shine a spotlight on New York City’s M.A.R.C.H. task force.
A mysterious vestige from former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s “quality of life” policing initiatives, M.A.R.C.H (Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots) has been accused of conducting surprise SWAT-like raids of nightlife and cultural venues during peak hours in response to a varied and sometimes opaque list of grievances that range from 311 noise complaints to violations of city codes. Proponents of the bill (referred to as Intro. #1156) argue that the M.A.R.C.H. raids result in lost revenues, spooked patrons, strangling fines from multiple agencies and, in some cases, closure of beloved venues, such as DIY music space Palisades and former iterations of Silent Barn and Market Hotel.
“On October 20, our venue was M.A.R.C.H.’ed,” said Marva Babel-Tucker, owner the Crown Heights bar and lounge Ode to Babel, at Monday’s hearing. Babel-Tucker said that “50 officers in full riot gear” raided the 750-square-foot space as patrons danced on a Friday evening. “We were a spectacle.”
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Introduced by City Council members Stephen Levin and Rafael Espinal, the proposed legislation would require the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to report on M.A.R.C.H. operations, which have long drawn criticism from music, art and nightlife communities for a lack of transparency and oversight.
M.A.R.C.H., led by the New York Police Department, functions as an amalgam of agencies, including the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA), the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).
Established by Giuliani during his crackdown on nightlife in the 1990s, M.A.R.C.H. originally enforced New York City’s Cabaret Law, a contentious 1926 measure that prohibited dancing in spaces that did not own a cabaret license. In 2017, legislation overturned the law, following a concentrated effort on the behalf of artists, business owners and groups like the NYC Artist Coalition, Dance Liberation Network and Legalize Dance NYC.
In its place, advocates pushed for the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife, with the goal of fostering dialogue between the city and nightlife institutions and easing anxiety created by M.A.R.C.H. Even still, the raids continued, with 57 operations (consisting of two to six institutions making up a single operation) occurring last year.
“Since the Council repealed the discriminatory Cabaret Laws and established the Office of Nightlife in 2017 to more effectively and fairly regulate these businesses, M.A.R.C.H. raids deserve more scrutiny,” said Rory Lancman, a Council member and chair of the Justice Committee, in his opening statement at Monday’s hearing.
Lancman also noted that data indicates the raids disproportionately affect minority communities and that from 2012 to 2017, 48 percent of raids resulted in no charge from any of the involved agencies, calling into question the efficacy of the unit.
“We know very little about how M.A.R.C.H. operates, how decisions are made and how closures happen,” said Council member Levin. “This system is in desperate need of reform.”
NYPD Assistant Commissioner Robert Messner outlined procedures put in place by the M.A.R.C.H. task force to vet venues to determine if they are candidates for a M.A.R.C.H. operation, which rely primarily on 311 and 911 complaints, in addition to quality of life violations. Messner added that an establishment is only included on the list after extensive attempts to mediate these reported problems have failed.
“It has been our experience that most patrons shrug off the operation while a few ask questions of the city officials involved. All then return to enjoying their night out,” Messner said.
Witnesses challenged Messner’s statements.
“The city’s representation is really a fairy tale of what happens,” said Rachel Nelson, who owns Secret Project Robot, a non-profit artist-run art space, gallery and bar in Bushwick. “They come in in SWAT gear. They chase away your customers, whether by actual chasing them out or by the fact that they are there in SWAT gear. They basically intimidate you, and the goal, I believe, is to intimidate you out of business.”
Throughout the hearing, witnesses suggested that the unit be abolished altogether, with Council member Levin echoing the sentiment: “I’m still very skeptical that there’s a need for this type of enforcement, particularly when there’s no instance of violence taking place”
“Protecting the power of music from commodification and exploitation means securing the ability for strong local communities to form from the ground up and creating resources for long-standing NYC artists,” said Liz Pelly, a music writer who has covered M.A.R.C.H. for The Baffler, at the hearing. “Here, on the ground in New York, that starts with protecting the independent cultural spaces and local businesses. Instead, the M.A.R.C.H. program has historically treated artists like criminals instead of encouraging safety.”
If passed, the proposed bill will require the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to provide quarterly reports on M.A.R.C.H. and to post the information on the city’s open data portal — a move toward transparency that would allow the City Council to evaluate the efficacy of the unit going forward. Messner, the NYPD representative at the hearing, expressed the department’s support of the bill.
“Intro. 1156 is the result of our advocacy,” said Olympia Kazi of the NYC Artist Coalition. “We hope that this bill is a first step and that if these raids are proven as problematic and arbitrary as reports from our members have indicated, that the City of New York will put an end to them once and for all.”