The Right to Rave

Techno music lovers are fighting back against law enforcement policies that threaten to destroy Dallas' rave scene

Sean Anderson wanted to throw an intense, all-night rave featuring the pulsating electronic dance rhythms of techno music--plus his favorite DJs and friends. So last March, the 21-year-old promoter and turntable jockey rented the Forest, an old movie theater near Fair Park that regularly holds concerts ranging from rap to jazz. With laconic flair, he dubbed his event "Truth 2.01," sequel to a successful party held a year earlier.

Everything seemed ready for a celebration of hundreds, if not a thousand or more. Anderson put together colorful fliers announcing the party, and word went out through the subterranean word-of-mouth and e-mail network that amazingly connects thousands of techno music enthusiasts. He checked with the theater to make sure its permits were in order. He organized his vinyl collection for his own set of "progressive house," featuring works by John Digweed, Julias Papp, Peace Division and other personal favorites.

But Anderson's party was nearly ruined when the venue owner pulled out at the last minute. While details are fuzzy, the cancellation came after a visit by 10 to 12 Dallas police vice officers concerned about possible drug use. "The situation wasn't nice; they came in force," recalls Forest manager Oscar Warren, who nevertheless emphasizes his support of police. They warned Warren that permits weren't enough. Citing inadequate security, Warren canceled the event with only a day's notice.

DJ Sean Anderson kicks it with friend Dave Brown (to his right) at the Home Bar. Few larger venues allow techno in Dallas.
DJ Sean Anderson kicks it with friend Dave Brown (to his right) at the Home Bar. Few larger venues allow techno in Dallas.
DJ Sean Anderson kicks it with friend Dave Brown (to his right) at the Home Bar. Few larger venues allow techno in Dallas.
DJ Sean Anderson kicks it with friend Dave Brown (to his right) at the Home Bar. Few larger venues allow techno in Dallas.

Anderson was furious. He hurriedly rescheduled the party at an Arlington venue. Turnout was down because of confusion over the last-minute change. And in the end, Anderson found himself $3,000 in the hole.

For electronic music lovers in Dallas and all over the country, Anderson's bad experience represents more than a botched show. A rash of similar incidents, say techno artists and civil libertarians, reflects a nationwide trend that jeopardizes the First Amendment rights of techno fans. Law authorities' paranoia about the drugs often associated with raves has ripped into techno culture, the musical genre itself and the musicians who practice it. "Our culture is under attack," says Sean Jenkins, a volunteer with a Houston rave safety group.

To hear techno fans tell it, the police and media have declared war on a form of cultural expression simply because some of its enthusiasts use drugs. Anti-rave hysteria, they say, has led to questionable strategies by law enforcement and prosecutors, who in seeking to curb supposedly drug-infested raves have dusted off an old law intended to shutter crack cocaine dens. "They're going after people who provide music rather than people who provide drugs," says Graham Boyd, an American Civil Liberties Union drug policy expert. "The goal," he charges, "is to eliminate raves. To me, that's like trying to eliminate jazz or reggae."

Health officials warn that as raves grow more popular, emergency-room visits and deaths linked to so-called "club drugs" MDMA (ecstasy), Rohypnol, GHB and Ketamine, while still comparatively small in number, have increased. But some defenders think techno's sheer unfamiliarity compared to, say, rock or reggae music, more established genres for which concerts often feature open drug use, is what really draws heat from today's baby-boomer authority figures. "Any other deal, they don't have to be drug-free," says DJ Merritt, who hosts EdgeClub 102, a Saturday-night electronic music show on 102.1 KDGE-FM. (Unlike small amounts of marijuana, however, possession of most "club drugs" is a felony crime.)

Anderson admits some rave attendees take drugs. But focusing on them, he says, misses a larger point: A wave of sensational anti-rave news coverage--think undercover TV newsmagazine reports on raves--combined with increasing police scrutiny, is squelching a new music form that seeks mainstream legitimacy. "We're not drug dealers," he fumes. "You don't have to be on drugs to enjoy these parties."

What's more, Anderson argues that stepped-up police and media scrutiny disregards reform efforts within the rave scene. The term "rave" once denoted blowout parties held illegally in warehouses lacking fire and safety standards. But a new breed of techno promoters is strictly business. They lease licensed clubs, hire security to keep drugs out and work with authorities. "We're willing to do whatever it takes," Anderson says.

Despite those efforts, techno is on the defensive and may have to retreat underground. Recent law enforcement actions nationwide show that raves are still seen as a social menace. To the horror of First Amendment advocates, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is experimenting with a 1986 statute designed to eliminate crack houses--this time, to shut down techno venues. After a six-month struggle in New Orleans, three theater managers recently pleaded guilty to violating the crack-house law, which forbids making a building available for drug use and trafficking. A similar case targets popular Club La Vela of Panama City Beach, Florida, which for several years hosted MTV Spring Break.

Similarly, Anderson and others sense a growing anti-rave environment in Dallas. Promoters want to organize large gatherings, lure national and international artists and possibly earn a living through such events. But they feel stymied since many large venues, such as the Smirnoff Music Centre, won't accept them because of concerns about late-night noise and techno's poor image, while other venues have been shut down.

Civil libertarians have taken notice. Techno artists have formed a national legal defense fund, while the ACLU is helping club owners fight the DEA's crack-house law strategy. They argue that drugs should be fought independently of raves; targeting them chills freedom of association and artistic expression. "We're basically punishing people because the community doesn't like them," says Will Harrell, director of the ACLU's Texas branch. "There's no proof that drug use [at raves] is higher in excess of any other party or bar."

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