Sunday, November 02, 2003

Leaving a legacy of good advice - THE RACINE JOURNAL TIMES

One year ago today, at least for a day, Racine hit bottom on the hip scale. It was on Nov. 2, 2002, that city police crashed a Halloween party at the Tradewinds Village banquet hall in Uptown, arrested four people for selling drugs and issued 442 citations to people attending the event.

The tickets, for occupying a disorderly house, came with a nearly $1,000 fine. Most of the people cited had not taken drugs and had done nothing more than attend a techno music concert.

News of the bust spread quickly, its significance radiating through the Internet around the world. The key issue: It was one of the first times authorities anywhere in the United States had targeted concert-goers, rather than promoters or organizers, in their attempts to shut down a show.

Erik Guenther, a local attorney who helped defend the people who received tickets, said the police, acting on misguided notions of techno music, violated the concert-goers' civil rights.

Local police called the Halloween party a "rave." In our present-day lexicon, raves have become synonymous with clandestine parties fueled by drugs and electronic music. But this definition, spread mainly by distorted media accounts of actual raves, clearly did not apply to Racine's Halloween party. The event was publicly advertised, held in the middle of a city and forbade the possession of drugs.

Still, drugs found their way into the party. Police documented pills spilled on the floor of the hall and what appeared to be a handful of inebriated people at the concert.

Two undercover officers, acting on a tip from U.S. Customs, also bought drugs from four concert-goers and reasoned that the party was putting people's lives in danger. To this day, Racine Police Chief David Spenner stands by the actions of his officers at the Halloween party.

In retrospect, it's clear that police made mistakes. Primarily, they simply should not have ticketed everyone at the concert. If officers were concerned about safety, they should have continued to monitor and patrol the event rather than shut down the party based on evidence collected from less than 1 percent of the participants.

These mistakes were borne out, and corrected, during the legal chaos that ensued following the incident. Defended by Guenther and the American Civil Liberties Union, party-goers demanded that the tickets be dropped and fought city attorneys through initial deals to reduce the fines.

Over strident objects by the Racine police, the party-goers won. All charges were dismissed and expunged from their records, meaning no trace of the incident would follow them through their lives.

The settlement also demanded that the city revise its "disorderly house" ordinance, an antiquated law officers used to cite the partygoers, and train police on the changes. The terms of the deal have been met, Guenther said last week.

But fallout remains from the incident, mainly in the form of a hit to Racine's image.

After the arrests, Guenther was interviewed by media around the around the world. Radio stations and newspapers called him from England, Ireland and Australia, all asking for an explanation of how people could get arrested for listening to music.

Racine's name was further skewered across the Internet - search for "Racine" and "rave" to see reports of the incident - as techno-music fans spread word of the incident. The collective response: How could a city be so, well, unhip?

There are reasons to support the police officers' actions last Nov. 2. The Halloween party was poorly organized and barely advertised locally. It was clearly an attempt to draw people from outside of the area without arousing much attention from the city.

Further, interviews with people at the concert revealed several people at the party were under 18 years old, including one at least one girl from the Madison area who was 15. Most people said they saw little security at the event; despite a pledge to search bags for drugs, concert-goers were able to walk in and out of the show without being stopped.

For these reasons, it's probably a good thing the organizers of last year's show have passed on reviving this. But the fundamental problems that led to last year's Halloween debacle remain. They include: 1. A lack of understanding and respect for such things as "raves" - and heavy-handed responses to this misunderstanding.

2. Young adults are underrepresented and ignored in local policy debates. While some city officials push for a movement toward "young professionals," local issues revolve around taxes and government spending. We get it, everyone wants more money. What else is there to talk about?

3. The lack of a viable concert venue in eastern Racine County. While local bars try to fill the void, there is simply no place in the Racine area to hold a decent-sized rock, hip hop or techno show.

All of this contributes to the Racine area's struggles to improve its image, attract talent and generally bring vitality to the area that too often is sucked away to other, larger cities. In order to reverse this trend, steps must be taken to foster events like a techno-Halloween party, while also providing a safe environment.

There are seeds of this type of cooperation. Groups such as they Young Professionals of Racine and young leaders are stepping into more prominent roles in the community, while local residents are looking at broader issues to benefit the area. The rebirth of Downtown, a growing arts community and efforts to fight coal plants in Oak Creek, oppose concealed carry handguns, at least in Racine, and to stand against the World Bank all seem to be examples of a wider collective view.

Together, young and old can transform Racine into a new, modern, even hip, community. Apart, one will simply devour the other to the detriment of both.