Warfare on Washington
The latest in a long line of 100 percent certified bummers to hit the Houston music scene has, in some ways, topped them all. At least when Cactus and the Gallant Knight closed, no teenage kids got Tasered.
For all three readers of this column who don't know what I'm talking about, last Friday a routine noise complaint at the Two Gallants show at Walter's on Washington escalated into a frightening fracas. At least three people were Tasered, and at least three others (including Two Gallants drummer Tyson Vogel) were arrested.
As always in these types of situations, there are multiple stories here. Here's the official party line from H.P.D.: In a report in the Houston Chronicle, police spokesman Sgt. Nate McDuell said that officer G.M. Rodriguez "approached management about the noise complaint, filed by a neighbor, and the volume was turned down -- but that as the officer was leaving, the volume went back up." At that point, Rodriguez took the stage himself and confronted Two Gallants singer Adam Stephens, who used what the police term "a sexual obscenity" and refused to comply. At that point, the police say, Rodriguez forced Stephens to the ground and attempted to arrest him. A melee broke out -- Vogel came to Stephens's aid, and several of the clubgoers and members of the other bands on the bill swarmed the stage. Rodriguez says that he thought someone was trying to steal his sidearm. The officer called for back-up and pulled out his Taser, and set it for "dry stuns," which are used for "close quarters combat." Three people were then Tasered, including a 14-year-old boy (who ended up in convulsions and foaming at the mouth), his father and a University of Houston student. A 90-year-old bass belonging to opening band Langhorne Slim was snapped in half when a clubber was thrown against it by Rodriguez.
McDuell sees nothing wrong with this scenario. "An officer gets attacked by dozens of people in a club who have been drinking," McDuell said. "If anything, the officer was abused." (Yeah, tell that to the 14-year-old frothing at the mouth in convulsions.)
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Not surprisingly, those in the club tell a different story. First, there is some doubt as to whether or not Rodriguez approached management. Walter's owner Pam Robinson -- who wasn't there when the fiasco occurred, but arrived shortly thereafter -- denies vehemently that he did so, at least not in any meaningful way. "I've talked to all my employees about this, and they said this is what happened. My sister Dee was working the door and he [Rodriguez] walked up. She asked him if she could help him. He said 'Yeah, turn this shit off,' and just kept walking up to the stage. Dee told [Walter's sound man] Perry, and he had already turned the PA off by the time he got to the stage."
According to most witnesses, Rodriguez's manner was ber-aggressive, even before his confrontation with Stephens began. Two Gallants fan Ingrid Norbergs said that that there was something weirdly combative about the way Rodriguez was shining his flashlight in Stephens's face and following him around on the stage. (Stephens had his back to the audience at first and was taken by surprise when Rodriguez took the stage.) As for the verbal confrontation that led to Stephens's take-down, some said that Stephens merely asked the officer why he was on stage, while others have said that Stephens told the officer to "fuck off" and to "suck my dick and get off the stage."
Stephens denied saying that. "I might have asked him what the fuck he was doing on the stage, but I never said the other stuff." Susan Betterman, another clubber that night, says that she couldn't hear what was said, but that Stephens's manner seemed more surprised and confused than confrontational. Norbergs believes that harsh words were exchanged. "Things were pretty animated," she says. "I don't doubt that he might have said something inappropriate," but she hastens to add that she didn't hear exactly what was said either. And keep in mind, Stephens had no idea why Rodriguez was on the stage, or even if he was a real cop for that matter. (Stephens's band is from San Francisco, and he has no reason to know what a real HPD cop wears. For all he knew, Rodriguez could have been a security guard or some deranged freak practicing for Halloween.)
And then all hell broke loose. I'll spare you the details -- after all, thanks to the Internet, camera phones and MySpace and YouTube, you can see for yourself (http://blog.myspace.com/dsharber). Who looks like the aggressor in that footage -- the cop or the clubbers? Is there more evidence to support the belief that this cop was charging around Walter's like a bull in a china shop, or that he was desperately fighting off a horde of deranged Satanic rock and rollers who wanted to fricassee his spleen?
In the aftermath, Stephens eluded arrest -- he says he ran from the club, fearing for his life, for blocks into the Houston night. Friends later told him the HPD helicopter was training its spotlight on Washington Avenue, looking for him, but he was rescued by local fans and taken to a nearby hotel, where Robinson had gotten him a room. Vogel was not so lucky. He spent the night in jail with some members of the other bands and crews. He was told at the scene that he was arrested "for what his buddy did," and even now he's not sure what he was charged with. He thinks it might be misdemeanor obstruction of justice, but he said someone at the jail told him he was in for "nothing."
Now, Stephens may or may not have told Rodriguez to blow him, or he may or may not have told him to get off the stage. That's not the point here. (I interviewed Stephens a couple of years ago and talked to him after that show, and words like "suck my dick" most decidedly don't sound like his style. "Get the fuck off the stage" maybe, but "Blow me," no.) The point is that Officer Rodriguez's actions transformed a fairly routine small-club hassle into a situation where several people could have gotten killed. It takes some real Keystone Kop-style mishandling to turn a frickin' noise complaint into a small riot, but that's just what he did. What's more, this was not a Pimpadelic show or some Juggalo event. This was Two Gallants, a favorite of vegan liberal arts majors and other such nonconfrontational types. Sure, they are an intense band (hardly the "laid-back country rock" described by the Chronicle), but this cop was not in a den of crunked-up and methed-out vipers or Bandidos crazed on Dickel and Seconal.
I once knew a pretty unstable guy who flunked the psychological exam for the Border Patrol, and the question that got him was a scenario very much like this. He described the test as a Choose Your Own Adventure-type thing, where each of your answers built on the last one. When he took the exam, an innocent encounter with a suspected illegal alien resulted in his wasting an entire village, or something like that, all because he didn't do the prudent thing and step back from a developing confrontation.
The incident at Walter's was a very similar scenario. Put yourself in Rodriguez's shoes. You are called to answer a noise complaint at a nightclub full of young, drunken patrons. They don't regard you as their friend, and the feeling might be mutual. It's noisy, obviously, or you wouldn't be there -- so it's hard for you to make yourself understood. At any rate, your mission is to get the band to turn the music down. What do you do? Storm the stage and start kicking ass, or go through more diplomatic channels?
Instead of breezing past the door person and sound man and bum-rushing the stage, Rodriguez could have stopped and explained the situation. I've seen cops on noise complaints actually apologizing for having to come out and ruin your party. They put you on their side. After all, they have a law to uphold and streets to protect. They're just doing their job. They like to rock too. Cops like that make you want to buy them a drink, but you know they wouldn't accept it because they are on duty.
Had Rodriguez done something like that, once the Walter's staff cut the PA, the manager of the club could have gotten on stage and said, "Okay, people, we've had a noise complaint. We're gonna be turning the PA down. Please don't holler while you're out in the parking lot. Enjoy the rest of the show!"
"If we had gotten word, we would have stopped," Stephens says. "We're not just gonna keep playing just to break the law." Arnold echoed his words. "He never gave us the chance to take control of the situation," she says. "The police officer seems to have gone out of his way to accelerate the situation," says Betterman. "Especially for a noise complaint, I've never seen anything like that."
No instruments would have gotten broken. Nobody would have gone to jail. No kids would have gotten Tasered. No bad headlines would have gone out over the wires about redneck cops in Houston running amok. Houston's -- and the whole state of Texas's -- already shaky reputation as a tour spot wouldn't have taken another hit. Ozomatli and Tom Waits have both had run-ins with Austin police and/or denizens in the last ten years. Waits has vowed never to come back to Texas, and the Decemberists have already issued a statement saying they will not come back to Houston until people here take action about this fiasco.
As usual, Pam Robinson should have the final word: "My quote on the whole deal is this," she says. "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction."
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