Wong's War on a Reggae Club

Are the problems traffic and parking, or just the color of the customers?

Beecher says Jamaica Jamaica is one of the few black-owned businesses on Kirby and had no problems with its neighbors until Beecher went to renew the club's liquor license in 1994. To his surprise, the Upper Kirby District, an alliance of business owners in the area, had filed a protest against the renewal, raising the issues of traffic congestion, lack of parking and loud music. In an attempt to iron out any problems, club owners met with representatives of the TABC, Upper Kirby and the city. Club attorney DeFoyd says they worked out an agreement, and Jamaica Jamaica hired ten to 12 off-duty officers to patrol the lot and direct traffic during the club's heavy business nights. For four years, that seemed to satisfy everyone.

Then early last year, again without prior notice, Beecher says, Upper Kirby District officials protested the club's liquor license to the TABC. The same complaints about traffic and parking were aired. Beecher contacted Upper Kirby executive director Jamie Brewster and met with city representatives and police at a nearby community center in June. Beecher says discussions ended on an amicable note, with a promise of further meetings to talk about solutions.

"Then the next thing we had was zero tolerance," says Beecher. On Sunday and Tuesday nights, more than a dozen HPD squad cars focused on the one-block area around the club. Police stopped black motorists and ticketed them for minor infractions such as expired inspection stickers and broken license-plate lights, and made occasional arrests for outstanding warrants.

Wong, claiming she's just representing her constituents' interests, had gotten the police department to launch the no-holds-barred enforcement program against the club. The sudden clampdown surprised Beecher because he had had no previous problems with HPD, perhaps because of the large number of off-duty officers employed by the club. If zero tolerance was designed to run off his customers, Beecher says, it succeeded. He estimates his business dropped off by 50 percent.

For a business owner who considers himself as responsible as his neighbors, Beecher believes the repeated police blitzes are provoked by less-laudable motives than simply keeping the streets clear and quiet at two in the morning.

"I've spoken with the Upper Kirby director almost every week," chuckles Beecher in exasperation. "I call her, talk to her trying to figure out what can be done, and most of the time she says, 'Nothing, everything's fine, Paul.' And then comes a protest to the TABC or a letter from Martha Wong. I think it's definitely a matter of race here."

While Beecher sees the Upper Kirby organization as a prime instigator of his problems, group executive director Jamie Brewster sounds remarkably sympathetic to his plight.

"There's not a problem, really, inside the club," she says soothingly. "We don't think they are doing anything illegal. They are really trying to do all they can do." Like Beecher, she quickly points out the club's off-duty HPD security and its clean record.

The real problem, says Brewster, is the people the club draws into the upper Kirby area.

"A lot of them cruise around, and they don't ever intend to come in the club," she observes. "It's how do you deal with a huge number of people leaving the club, and how you deal with that from a traffic control standpoint. How do you deal with a problem when everybody's following the rules?"

Beecher sees a racial bias in complaints about the club and says police stops aim exclusively at black motorists, although Brewster believes that's just a result of who's out and about.

"The only people that are out on the street that time of night are his customers on Sunday and Tuesday night. They are going to be the blacks driving in the area, because they don't get revved up until 10:30 or 11.

"And when they are going slowly with their boom boxes and all of that, that's who is going to be stopped," she says. "You can come on any other night in upper Kirby, including Saturday, and you are not going to find that many people out after 11 at night. It's deadsville here."

More law enforcement is not the solution, says Brewster, because the zero-tolerance campaign against Jamaica Jamaica ties down police, who ticket hapless motorists or haul them off for minor warrants. Officers have to take prisoners downtown and are occupied the rest of the night. Besides, admits Brewster, "I'm not a big proponent of stopping people just because they have a minor thing wrong with their car. I personally don't think that's right."

Asked what Upper Kirby wants as a solution, Brewster seems reluctant to spell it out. "You don't want to run a business out when they are not breaking the law," allows the executive director. Yet that is exactly what Councilwoman Wong and Upper Kirby's TABC challenges aim to achieve.

Beecher says he went public with his situation because he has done everything he can to satisfy Wong and Upper Kirby, and concluded they won't stop till they run him out. He recalls what happened to another reggae club where he once worked, the Caribana in the Rice Village. When it began attracting large numbers of blacks to the Village, it too came under police and civic association pressure.

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