The Home of the Rave
On a cold Saturday night in February, Santa Fe Drive is swarming with teenage life. The Aztlan Theatre is hosting an event put on by Roofless Productions, a local promoter that specializes in electronic music and tends to draw young crowds. By 11 p.m., kids are convening from all directions, coming in colorful droves -- holding hands, laughing, skipping along in pastel baby Ts, sporting Manic Panic dye jobs.
Just inside the Aztlan's door, a young woman -- maybe fifteen, sixteen years old -- in glittery eye shadow and platform boots shouts to a friend above the lobby's rambunctious din. She's excited that four DJs are scheduled to spin -- even more than at the last party she attended -- and seems almost oblivious to the fact that her hands are raised high in the air as she's frisked from head to toe by a female security guard. But in the girl's bag, the guard finds something that could be a problem. There are a lot of rules she's supposed to follow, and she's not sure how this particular object fits into them.
"Hey, what do we do about birth control pills?" the guard asks her partner, who's conducting his own search of a young male at the front of the line. Eventually, they decide that because the package appears to be authentic -- it's sealed and has the girl's name on it -- she'll be allowed to bring it inside. Her candy necklace is a problem, however. It will have to go into The Box, which already holds an assortment of confiscated sundries: about a dozen Blow Pops, tubes of Chap Stick, candy rings, Tootsie Rolls, cough drops, a Swiss Army knife, some baby pacifiers and a couple of surgical-style dust masks.
On their own, the objects inside The Box seem pretty innocuous. But because tonight's event is a "rave," they're all viewed as potential carriers of illegal drugs, trip toys, high-sustainers. Contraband. And these days, smart promoters -- such as Roofless owner Ryan Rushing, a DJ who's been staging Colorado events since 1995 -- know better than to let anything slide through. Tonight's rave falls one day after high school student Brittney Chambers slipped into a coma after taking Ecstasy at a party for her sixteenth birthday; talk of the dangers of "club drugs" is all over the TV and newspapers. Although Brittney's party took place at home, not at a club, invariably the news reports allude to the very type of event Rushing is hosting, which only intensifies the challenges he faces. From a business standpoint, he has to throw a good party, entertain his audience, pay his staff and his performers -- DJs John Debo from Boston, Hardware from Florida, Thomas Michael from Los Angeles and G-Spot from Honolulu -- and, with any luck, walk off with a few dollars of his own. But he also has to prove something to the city of Denver: that he can throw a rave party where hundreds of kids show up, dance and stay up late -- without causing trouble.
"There is so much work that goes into removing the stigma that's attached to the word 'rave,'" Rushing says. "There are so many people opposed to raves in this city; it's a very fragile situation for a promoter. You can't afford to make too many mistakes."
Over 800 teenagers now fill the Aztlan. Most dance and socialize on the main floor; others chill out in the balcony, where they talk or just listen to the compulsive electronic music coming from the stage. Although raves are often characterized by their very late hours, tonight's event, like all of the parties booked at the Aztlan these days, will end at 2 a.m. After that, the more dance-happy members of the crowd will make their way to the Root in Boulder, one of the area's last legal bastions of after-hours dancing.
The shortened hours are among the changes that rave promoters understand to be the future of the industry, along with tightened security, restrictions on the age of party patrons, and the confiscation of candy contraband at the door. It's the price of legitimacy in volatile times, when law enforcement and municipal officials seem to view all raves, legal or not, as very real threats to their communities. And that's a perception many promoters aren't willing to fight.
"When you're trying to demonstrate that you have done everything in your power to minimize the presence of drugs, you really don't need some sheriff to see a grown man running around sucking on a pacifier," says Cris Campbell, a Denver attorney who's currently helping a loose coalition of about a dozen rave promoters, including Rushing, fight for the right to let kids party -- and for the promoter to make a living in the process. "You take their dust masks, their pacifiers. Anything that might be interpreted as paraphernalia.
"I prefer to take the focus away from the actual rave thing," he adds. "It needs to take a step forward. Police, city officials are afraid of the idea of the all-night party, and I'm really not equipped to fight them on that. The late-night thing kind of gives these events their uniqueness. But if people truly do come for the music and not for drugs, it won't matter if it closes at two or at five. The kids have to realize that things change.
"And sometimes, you have to change along with the system."
Ten years ago, impromptu promoters weren't above smashing locks and windows in order to gain access to vacant buildings in lower downtown and the desolate Platte Valley. Back then the events weren't raves, but parties -- a local offshoot of the underground, electronic dance music scene that had started in the British subculture and in the late '80s moved into abandoned warehouses across America. By the early '90s, Denver had caught the buzz. Hundreds of scenesters were connected or committed enough to find the local parties; in most cases, their locations were announced the day of the event, sometimes mere hours before they were to set to start.
Like the punk rockers who'd been holding their own warehouse events in Denver since the mid-'80s, early rave promoters enjoyed a thrilling, if precarious, existence. For many, the goal was to throw a party without raising the awareness, or the ire, of Denver cops -- and they sometimes succeeded. In impressive feats of subversion, they'd stage events at which hundreds of people danced to loud music beneath pulsing colored lights -- and no one outside even realized that a party was under way. But other events were not as successful, and eventually the Denver Police Department added the pesky parties to its list of downtown irritants. A few promoters managed to develop law-enforcement relationships that allowed them to continue to operate; sometimes they even hired off-duty cops to work security. But for many others, the cat-and-mouse game of eluding the police was part of the party mystique. It added to the sense that you were part of something decidedly outside the norm -- a tribe of club kids who shared an appreciation for beats and for beating the system.
In rave circles, the early '90s are now considered the "good old days" -- the days before cops, weary of simply stumbling upon events in progress, started figuring out how to stop them in advance by accessing the various Web sites and information hotlines that are the primary means of communication between planners and partygoers. They were the days before "rave" became synonymous with "drugs" in the mainstream media consciousness, before everyone from 60 Minutes to Time magazine to Beverly Hills 90210 (in one episode, an unsuspecting Brandon Walsh is dosed with a fictitious drug with properties similar to those of Ecstasy) attempted to understand and explain this strange new phenomenon that was taking hold in American communities and keeping its children up all night.
Today, of course, electronic music is neither underground nor anti-establishment -- a fact evidenced both by its presence in Gap commercials and by its SoundScan figures. In 1999, techno savant Moby went platinum with his release Play, while artists such as BT and Paul Oakenfold began selling out traditional concert venues. The genre's popularity among the high school set has nearly equaled, if not surpassed, that of hip-hop and rock and roll; its fashions -- the baggy, zippery pants, the cutesy, emblem-emblazoned T-shirts -- are available everywhere, from the Wal-Mart rack to the Calvin Klein circuit.
"Right now this music is 100 percent mainstream," says Rushing. "It's not like this top-secret world that only a few people here and there know about. That's how it used to be. And most of the rave promoters are still motivated by a love of the music. That's what separates us from your average concert promoter who's going to bring in any act of any kind as long as he thinks he can make a profit. But everyone knows there is money to be made in this if you know what you're doing. And, right now, you have got to know what you are doing."
"All of a sudden, things just kind of blew up. It got a little bit ridiculous," says Chris La Soya, a longtime raver who was involved with a couple of local production companies before he launched Pure Form Atmospheres in January 2000. "In the beginning, it was 300 people who were there because they loved the music. But then the music got so huge. It's big-league. You could hide 300 people. You cannot hide 5,000. It's like you wouldn't even think of trying to hold a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in the middle of nowhere and hope that no one would notice. It wouldn't be smart. It wouldn't be safe. But that's what started happening with some of these promoters."
Clothing-store owner Thomas Heath operates a production company called Out of Our Heads with partner Chris Irvin. Like Rushing, Heath has watched Denver's scene give birth to one raver generation after another, with the numbers getting bigger each time. "Madonna is nominated for a Grammy right now with an electronic album that's not unlike the music that you would hear at one of my events," Heath says. "This music has already persevered for more than twenty years. It's pretty obvious to everyone that it's not going away."
The music may not be going away, but raves could be headed in that direction. The death of Brittney Chambers and the even more recent hospitalization of a Highlands Ranch teenager who became critically ill after attending a rave in Boulder have intensified the state's efforts to stop the use and spread of Ecstasy, a task that seems to start with putting an end to raves.
"What happened with Brittney Chambers is a fine example of the fact that we have got to expand our efforts to get ahold of the Ecstasy phenomenon," says Dennis Follett, a public-information officer with the Denver field office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, one of 22 regional offices nationwide. "We know that the drug is spreading from these club and rave circles into a more recreational drug, but the fact remains that these events, to our experience, provide an environment for a high level of drug activity," Follett says. "And we simply cannot allow that to continue."
Drugs aren't the only reason law-enforcement officials don't like raves. The parties tax resources. They're weird and unwieldy. They pop up without notice and attract unsavory elements. And this past year, a handful of poorly planned but well-publicized events didn't do anything to improve the image of raves. Last March, Liquid Soul Productions -- then affiliated with coloradorave.com, a Web site that's a main source of local event information -- threw a rave in the gymnasium of Colorado Springs's Rampart High School and sullied not only the space, but also that city's feelings toward rave promoters; a month later, a farmland rave in Elbert County drained the sheriff's overtime budget when unprepared deputies were suddenly required to direct traffic and help addled teens; and in July, a teenage mother from Wyoming disappeared after attending a rave in Vail.
But the biggest blow to raves came this past August, when local, national and international law-enforcement officials and representatives of narcotics agencies, including two agents from the DEA's Denver field office, converged on Washington, D.C., for the DEA's National Ecstasy & Club Drugs Conference. Speaker after speaker - among them Richard Fiano, DEA chief of operations, and then-drug czar General Barry McCaffrey -- described a startling increase in the nationwide consumption of MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, which is now on the DEA's list of dangerous drugs alongside such standbys as heroin and cocaine. According to Fiano, Ecstasy use was up 56 percent among twelfth-graders; in 1999, 1.5 million people between the ages of 18 and 25 had tried the drug.
"The DEA has really isolated Ecstasy as public enemy number one," says Campbell. "Still, all of the evidence suggests that Ecstasy deaths are really uncommon. Fewer than meth, cocaine -- even alcohol. There's this Ecstasy hysteria building up, and so much of it is focused on raves. It's disproportionate to what's actually happening. Every single kid in high school knows what Ecstasy is, and not that many of them have anything to do with raves."
But at the DEA conference, Ecstasy's use was inextricably linked to raves. "All-night dance parties" -- the mass media's preferred description of raves -- have become the primary outlet for widespread distribution and consumption of the drug, agency officials said. In an instructional video, the DEA did its best to simulate a rave environment: Lights flashed in time with an amphetamine-fueled beat while a stern voice described the dangers of MDMA and its chemical kin. "Taking club drugs," the narrator cautioned, was "dancing with darkness."
By the end of the conference, the DEA had made its position very clear: A unified attack on Ecstasy use in the U.S. was not only necessary, it was to be considered among the country's highest priorities. Nationwide, the connection between raves and drugs had already prompted some legislation; as early as 1997, cities such as Gainesville and Orlando in Florida, Riverside, California, and Charlotte, North Carolina, had begun drafting anti-rave laws aimed at stopping all-night parties and the drug activity that accompanied them. The Denver DEA office had initiated its own rave awareness campaign a year before the conference; according to Tom Ward, assistant special agent in charge, by the middle of 1999 his office had come to regard raves as the primary source of personal Ecstasy use and had helped to alert other state agencies to the dangers.
"Because of their role in the distribution and use of certain drugs," Ward says, "local law enforcement is very interested in monitoring raves. In the Denver metro area -- I'm talking about the six surrounding counties -- there is a high police presence, and they are watching out for these types of events, in part because of our ongoing efforts to educate them on the growing issue of club drugs."
Not surprisingly, around this same time, it got pretty hard to throw a good party in metro Denver.
"It is nearly impossible to hold an event in the city these days," says Rushing, "The process of finding an unlicensed venue and bringing it up to code is exhaustive. After you figured out zoning, licensing, permits, police, fire department, building inspections, insurance, it would take a year to turn a warehouse into a place where you could hold a party. Unless you own your own club, your only option right now is to rent different venues and shut down at 2 a.m."
"Denver simply does not want them to happen," says Heath. "Raves have gotten such a bad name that even if you are a professional company putting on professional events, they look for any little loophole to shut you down or prevent you from even planning an event."
Last July, Heath and Irvin were forced to cancel Summer of Love, scheduled for the Mishawaka Amphitheater, after Larimer County Sheriff James Alderden petitioned a judge to issue a temporary restraining order preventing the event. In court, the sheriff voiced concerns about traffic and rampant drug use; he also suggested, erroneously, that the party had been sold over capacity. But Irvin was not permitted to respond to this or any other assertion; the judge didn't let him speak. Had he been able to address the hearing, Heath would have pointed out that by leasing a licensed concert venue, obtaining insurance and hiring a security force and paramedics to work the event, Out of Our Heads had met, and actually surpassed, all of the requirements that Larimer County imposes on concerts and special events.
"I found out later that there had been a rave in Fort Collins the week before where some kid overdosed," Heath says. "The promoters were idiots who had no idea what they were doing. When the county found out about our event, they didn't realize that we were not the same company, that we were professionals. It sort of felt like they were on a mission, a manhunt. They found out about the event through the Web and sent deputies to our map point in Boulder to find out about the location."
Summer of Love was canceled at 11 a.m., about nine hours before ticket-holders were expected to start trickling in. After an ill-conceived effort to relocate the event (to an empty field that was located on the Pawnee National Grasslands, as Heath learned from the rangers who showed up to ticket him), Heath and Irvin were forced to admit defeat. They refunded all ticket sales and ate the money they'd spent on talent; whether or not a DJ actually plays a set, he must still be paid for one, put up for the night and flown home. In this case, four DJs, including Linus out of England, had to be accommodated.
"I still have not recovered from the financial blow of that," Heath says. "It bankrupted me. I refuse to believe how much money that cost me. But I think it proved something about us. If we were a fly-by-night company, if we weren't dedicated to what we were doing, we would have been out of here after that. I think the biggest test of whether a promoter is legit is if they can take a hit and come back."
Heath himself is taking a break until promoters and law-enforcement officials can reach some common understanding. But his bust also served as a wake-up call for other area promoters, who envision the same nightmare scenario for one of their events. Electronic artists now command fees that rival those of popular rock artists; since most raves feature three or four DJs, the talent budget alone is daunting. It's not unusual for events that once cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 to now reach the $150,000 range, Rushing says. That's a lot of money to gamble on an event that skirts the boundaries of legality and could be shut down at a moment's notice.
Recognizing these new realities, some promoters have realized that the only way to sustain themselves and the scene is to follow the music's evolution and move wholly aboveground, joining other promotion companies already there. Companies like Denver's Together Productions, which began as Come Together in 1993 and has since grown into the state's biggest production company. And although they sometimes suffer the criticism of scenesters and other promoters who feel they've become too corporate and turned into traditional concert promoters, owners Brad Roulier and Jason Bills have done more to smooth relationships with city officials than any other rave promoters in the state.
In 1999 the pair signed a contract with the Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Department that allowed them to rent City Auditorium -- a fully licensed, city-owned historic concert venue -- for three bona fide rave events that year and five the following year. In 2000, they began working with the City of Denver to place events in the Denver Coliseum and the National Western Stock Show Complex. For Together Productions, the notion that self-preservation is analogous to a sellout simply demonstrates ravers' romantic -- and false -- sense of their place in the world.
"The facade of this being some sort of movement that can't be treated like a business is totally over," says Bills. "We still do things to kind of maintain the mystique. We usually won't print the location of the event on our fliers. But the city and the police department are well aware far in advance of what's going on. All they have to do is look at our contract with the City Auditorium, and they'll know what we have planned for the next twelve months."
According to Bills and Roulier, renting licensed, fully operational buildings is not only easier -- there's no need to worry about renting fifty portable toilets, say, or a myriad of other things that open-air or non-traditional venues require -- but it also sends a clear message.
"We could throw a party in an airplane hangar in the middle of nowhere if we wanted to," says Roulier, "but what's the point? I would rather put my energy into planning the best parties that I possibly can instead of standing in front of a city council or a committee trying to prove what a legitimate businessman I am. I could make some money, the kids might think I'm cool, but unless I jumped through all of the hoops to make it legal, I would have completely damaged my reputation with whatever legal entities were affected by the event."
"Our goal is to always be welcomed back to the place where we held our last event," says Bills. "And I don't know why, for various reasons, there are a lot of promoters out there who could care less about that. And they screw it up for everyone. Because of them, our events are put under a microscope. So we've had to blatantly say that we have nothing to hide. We want the police to come in and help us make it safe. We want them to arrest people for drugs. And part of that was moving into traditional concert venues where we don't have to worry about getting busted."
Still, even with a legitimate city contract in place, Together Productions has had problems. Last October, after learning that the Colorado Springs Police Department had voiced concerns to City Auditorium managers over their willingness to rent the space for raves, Bills and Roulier set up a meeting with the department. At the meeting, Metro Vice Narcotics Commander Robert Ownbery, Deputy Chief Luis Velez and other officers reiterated many now-familiar complaints. Their department had seen the worst of the Rampart High School debacle in March and was now wary of inviting a repeat episode.
"I would say that event single-handedly did more to damage the rave scene than any other event in Colorado," says Bills. "We are still apologizing for that one -- even though we had absolutely no involvement with it and totally agreed with everyone who was shocked by it."
Eventually, Bills and Roulier invited the officers to attend their next event -- a November 18 rave that went off without significant incident. Soon after, Together Productions signed a contract with City Auditorium for 2001.
"I do recall being somewhat surprised that these promoters actually called us and initiated a dialogue," says Deputy Chief Velez. "I have always thought that if people meet face-to-face, they can find some common ground. And I would say that did occur between our department and their company. The officers who attended their event reported that it was well-run, professional, that there were no problems that exceeded that of any other concert that comes to the Auditorium."
Chris La Soya thinks Together Productions has forged a path that other promoters would be wise to follow. "Together really pioneered a lot of the responsible rave promotion in the area," he says. "They were working so hard to build their name and show that not all promoters are trying to pull something off or hide something. They showed us that a good promoter is an adult who places safety on the same level as the music and throwing a good party."
"A year and a half ago, there were a lot of things that I was willing to take my chances on," says Ha Hau, a Denver college student whose Triad Productions has found a niche with local Asian teens. "If I didn't have a venue, I was pretty sure I could find a way to get one. I wasn't totally interested in dealing with the police. I was pretty confident I could pull it off, no matter what. But now I have to make decisions based not only on business and what I have to do just to break even, but on how I can address the pressure that's on the scene. Because of the weight of the image that we carry, it's almost impossible to change."
Gradually, more and more promoters are doing something that once would have seemed antithetical to the rave culture's nonconformist origins: They're getting organized. They've hired attorneys, incorporated their companies and filed the appropriate papers with the secretary of state. But even as they act more like businessmen, they've found that Colorado often doesn't want their business.
As the promoter behind A&E Productions, André Galaviz has been putting on Denver shows since the early '90s. And like Heath, he's recently taken a break from an atmosphere that's growing increasingly hostile. Over the past year, Galaviz says, he's made repeated attempts to meet with Denver police chief Gerry Whitman, only to be told by an aide that the chief is not interested in discussing raves -- period. Last June, Galaviz sent a letter to Mayor Wellington Webb, in which he outlined the dearth of business licenses available to promoters like himself. No one from the mayor's office responded.
"If you call any city agency, whether it's Excise and Licenses or zoning or the police -- if you say anything that sort of signals that 'rave' alarm bell, you are immediately cut off," Galaviz says. "You'll get into describing the kind of event you want to hold. They'll say, 'Is this one of these rave things?' Click."
According to Helen Gonzales, director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, the city is not in the business of shutting down or excluding legal businesses -- even raves. In considering license applications, her office does not consider the nature of an applicant's event so much as whether all requirements have been met. For entertainment-type endeavors, these usually include public hearings where members of the community are invited to voice their views. "We're bound by what the ordinances tell us," she explains. "The fact of the matter is that it is not currently possible to have an event that goes past 2 a.m. unless you have a permanent license. Maybe when the promoters call us up and they describe their event and someone tells them it's not possible, it's not because it's a rave. It's because the ordinances currently don't provide for what they're asking.
"To tell you the truth, I'm not even real sure what raves are," Gonzales adds. "Someone explained one to me, and it made sense, and it all sounded pretty harmless. I certainly won't accept a blanket statement that all raves are bad, though it does appear that some -- some -- of the promoters are not as on the up and up as they should be."
In his letter to Webb, Galaviz had complained that Chief Whitman routinely prohibits off-duty officers from working rave-type events that run past 2 a.m. By denying promoters access to police, he said, Whitman was actually undermining legitimate promoters' attempts to reduce drug activity at their events. But according to Lieutenant Tony Lopez, commander of the DPD's vice and narcotics bureau's street-enforcement section, the department is simply unwilling to provide off-duty personnel for events that, characteristically, are rife with illegal activity. "The chief recognizes that the majority of these events pose a potential threat to his officers, and he has every right to place limits on his officers offering their services to them," Lopez says. "We will respond when called to one of these raves. We will make arrests, and we will uphold the safety of the community as best we can. There's just no reason why we need to be sending Denver police officers to work as part of a staff for a clandestine event."
Lopez's office deals with about one illegal rave every month, most them held in warehouses or easily rented spaces such as churches and public halls. He's open to the concept that some promoters are attempting to host concert-type events that fall within the boundaries of the law. He just hasn't seen any, he says.
"I applaud the promoters who provide an environment where kids can express themselves," Lopez adds. "I'm very glad to hear that there are responsible events going on at places like the Aztlan. But at every experience I have had with raves, there hasn't been one instance where we weren't able to make multiple arrests. In most cases, we were limited only by our manpower."
Some weary promoters are now looking outside Denver for venues: to open spaces, barns, vacant buildings in rural counties that can be leased from entrepreneurial landowners. The cost of moving into the no-man's-land of such unincorporated areas can be formidable, since a promoter becomes responsible for providing all of the facilities that are part of the package in licensed venues. And small, unexpected charges -- like the neighbor who might not call in a noise complaint if he's paid $500 -- pop up everywhere. Still, promoters often find it a price worth paying, since unincorporated areas have fewer permit and licensing requirements than cities and towns, and they're more likely to tolerate all-night events. Besides, unexpected sites are part of a rave's allure: Promoters who move around tend to find favor with crowds bored of set environments such as the Root and the Aztlan.
"People get tired of the same old places," Hau says. "You always have a back-up venue. But you're always looking for a better one."
Last July, Triad landed Caffeine, a mega-DJ tour sponsored by the record label and clothing company of the same name. Hau's original venue -- the Youth Outreach Center in Colorado Springs -- fell through three weeks prior to the party's date, but he had another venue in mind, some land he planned to rent from an associate in Pueblo County. It was a huge show, with a lot of money at stake. Realizing the need to insure his investment, Hau was the first promoter to hire Cris Campbell, an aggressive attorney who attended raves, enjoyed the subculture, knew promoters and understood the legal challenges they faced. Campbell made sure Hau was operating within the state statutes and county ordinances applicable at the site. He assembled a file that documented Hau's lease, insurance permits and approval by the fire marshal, and also addressed sanitation, waste and emergency issues.
On the night of the event, Campbell put his girlfriend, his dog and his grill in his truck and headed down to Hau's rave -- ready to greet the Pueblo County sheriff and a marshal who showed up at 8:30 p.m.
"It was clear that they were there to shut us down," Campbell remembers. "I invited them to look through the binder where I had everything laid out to show the event's organization. You could just see them searching, trying to find something. There was something vague in the language of one of the statutes about disorderly assembly, and the trooper pulled that out. So I did what I always do: I threatened to sue. I told the marshal that if he planned to shut the event down under the pretext of it being a disorderly assembly, I would pull five witnesses who would swear otherwise. I told him that I would sue the state and the trooper individually."
The event was allowed to proceed as planned. The sheriff seemed impressed when Triad's security booted a raver who'd been caught selling the veterinary sedative ketamine inside, Campbell remembers.
After Caffeine, Campbell started spending a lot more time in the company of ravers. Over the past eight months, he's represented almost a dozen promoters, helping them find venues that are friendly and avoid those that are not; if asked, he attends events as a preemptive strike against shutdowns. When Roofless Productions' Sun rave at the Aurora Airpark attracted more than 5,000 partygoers last August, Campbell was at the ready, binder in hand. He also accompanied Together to its October meeting with the Colorado Springs Police Department.
In December, Campbell appeared in Denver District Court on behalf of new clients, Heavenly Daze promoter Juan Fernandez and Aztlan Theatre owner Tim Correa. The Department of Excise and Licenses was threatening to shut down an event Fernandez was throwing at the theater that same night; Campbell requested that the court issue a temporary restraining order against the city. But although the Aztlan's amusement-facilities license allows for "the performance of music, dance ...and similar live and recorded entertainment," the judge ruled that Fernandez's event was a concert and thus not covered by the license. When Campbell's motion was denied, the attorney responded to the ruling with such robust disbelief that the judge nearly found him in contempt of court.
Most of the time, Campbell's legal dealings are less explosive. He's working to build a relationship between rave promoters and law enforcement, to put a legitimate face on a group that's been anonymous for too long, a group that he believes has the U.S. Constitution on its side. For Campbell, the current Ecstasy crisis has escalated to the point where legitimate promoters -- the only kind he represents, he says -- are being denied their right to equal protection under the law.
"A lot of people think that what's at issue here is the First Amendment, the right to assemble, which to an extent it is," says Campbell. "But the government has the right to place restrictions on any kind of assembly. It's not a free-for-all. The real concern here is that because the word 'rave' is such a hot button right now, the rave promoter is treated differently than any other promoter, simply because of the connotations of the word."
He's particularly concerned about new municipal measures designed to curtail rave activity. In August 1999, the Northglenn City Council passed the "Non-Alcoholic Dance Club Ordinance," an emergency response to late-night activity at an all-ages dance club. The measure, similar to blatantly anti-rave laws in other states, set a static requirement on the number of security personnel -- two per every hundred patrons. A year later, Thornton passed its own ordinance after residents voiced complaints about "rave parties" at Roller Express, a roller rink leased by numerous promoters as a standby venue. This time, however, the hours of operation were extended until 1 a.m. on weekend nights.
While Denver does not have a similar law on its books, promoters say the city has enforced licensing-requirement technicalities much more stringently in the past year. "There is so much misinformation and negativism toward these events," Campbell says, "that even those who comply with the law are being subjected to intense scrutiny for no reason."
Of course, there are those who argue that they're right to be suspicious of raves. Reputable promoters such as Together are the exception, not the rule, they say, and if promoters are held to a stricter standard because of possible safety risks, so be it.
"I put a question mark behind statements that these kind of rave promoters are conducting legitimate business. I'm sure there are good promoters out there. But most of them, if they're legit, they wouldn't hide anything," says Captain Phil Spence of the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office. "They wouldn't do like they were in Elbert County. When the authorities weren't notified until after the event had started, it impacted law enforcement there. They had to scramble to address all of the related safety issues, like traffic. There was trash and debris left afterward. It upset the neighbors, people who have to call at midnight because there are suddenly 3,000 people next to their horses. That conduct, to me, is not a sign of legitimate business."
Although Spence acknowledges that Campbell, in particular, has been cooperative and professional in his dealings with Arapahoe County, he says he's not comfortable with the idea of promoters shielding themselves behind a fast-talking lawyer. "If we were to have a rodeo out here, we might be talking to an attorney, but we would also be talking to the promoter, face-to-face," Spence points out. "If they are so professional, if they have done everything that are supposed to, then why are they hiding?"
Spence's county played reluctant host to three raves over the past year. The biggest, Rushing's Sun event, resulted in only 29 arrests out of more than 5,000 partygoers -- a ratio comparable to that of traditional concerts -- and was described in the media as going "smoothly" despite its size. Spence, however, recalls it differently.
"At all of the rave parties we have experienced, drugs have been rampant, and that Aurora Airpark one was no different," he says. "We had deputies in the parking lot, thirty-year-old guys who didn't really fit in, who were approached and asked if they wanted to buy some drugs. When you have this kind of activity going on so blatantly, it doesn't do a lot of for the idea that these are safe events."
Spence speculates that the number of arrests would have increased dramatically had deputies gone inside the venue rather than remained on the perimeter and had he had a bigger staff. "Drug arrests are paper-intensive, and we just didn't have the manpower to deal with it all," he says. "And not knowing what kind of a situation we would have faced inside, we stayed out. But I had calls the next day from families who said they were driving down 1-70 that night, and the smell of marijuana was coming through the vents. The next day, there were kids laying all over, and I think some of them wouldn't have woken up if our deputies hadn't woken them."
To some extent, Rushing agrees with the captain's assessment. "There's a lot of talk in the scene about how it's all about music," he says. "It's the idea of PLUR -- Peace, Love, Unity and Respect -- and for a lot of people, that really doesn't involve drugs. But when you can't get cops to come inside and help you, there's really no motivation for people to try to conceal their drug use. Our security guards can only do so much. We can kick them out, but we can't arrest them. I welcomed those sheriffs to come inside, but they wouldn't."
Despite the modern raver's tendency to downplay the role of drugs in rave culture, Campbell recognizes that drugs are an inevitable part of the parties. "I would say about 75 percent of the kids who show up are on something," he says. "But it's getting to the point where it's not too cool to be fucked up all the time. You don't want somebody laying around in a spot on the floor that could be used for dancing. From the promoter's point of view, though, you cannot do anything about some kids getting fucked up at home or in their car before they come in. You do everything you can to prevent anything from getting inside."
That may not be enough, responds the DEA. "At all of the raves that our office has gathered intelligence information on -- every single one of them -- there has been a very high level of drug activity inside the premises," Dennis Follett says. "From what I've seen, the searches at the door are not very thorough at all. Any person with an ounce of intelligence could smuggle something in. So even if a promoter himself isn't selling or providing anything, if he turns a blind eye to the use of drugs within his rave, he could be held accountable for facilitating drug activity." Follett's office is currently researching how the federal "crackhouse" law -- which makes it a crime to provide a facility for the use of drugs and in January was invoked against rave promoters for the first time, in New Orleans -- might be used to stop illegal raves in this four-state region.
"The crackhouse law really opened a window for us," Follett says. "In law enforcement, there's a learning process that goes on, especially when you're dealing with a relatively new threat like Ecstasy. You see what other states have done. The law sort of outlined the ways in which various factors -- like, does a promoter supply glo sticks and pacifiers and bottled water at a high price? -- fit into a greater argument that he has a fundamental awareness of drugs at an event he's putting on. If our investigations reveal this kind of thing and we can get a district attorney to prosecute, there's a very real possibility that some of these people will face very serious criminal charges."
Campbell is optimistic that none of his promoters will experience this fate. "From what I understand of the crackhouse law, you would have to prove that a promoter was organizing and hosting an event for the purpose of the use of drugs," he says. "When you have DJs flying in from all over the world, when there's dancing and socializing and tickets sold, it would, in my opinion, be difficult to argue that the sole purpose was drugs."
In September, Campbell invited his rave-promoter clients to a meeting in his office. He proposed forming an association that, through benefit shows and membership dues, would build a financial war chest to challenge the legality of the sorts of ordinances Northglenn and Thornton had passed.
Campbell's idea met with mixed reactions. Some clients, such as Out of Our Heads, welcomed the opportunity to show the state a unified front, while others, including Together, were unwilling to attach their companies' names to less professional promoters. Still others simply lacked the money to get involved. Although the association idea is currently on hold, Campbell seems anxious to find a promoter with the reason, and the resources, to proceed with some form of litigation.
He might have both in Bills and Roulier, who say they'd be willing to consider a lawsuit if Colorado Springs were to approve a similar ordinance, as that city's police department has suggested. "If we are suddenly told that we are not legitimate because what we do involves a person spinning records instead of a four-piece band, then we will become extremely aggressive," Roulier says. "We will sue you."
"We absolutely do not want to go down that road," adds Bills. "We are willing to bend. We'll break. We have already compromised so much. But in the end, the fact is, I have a family. We all do. This is my career, my livelihood.
"I envision myself doing this for a long, long time. And I will absolutely do whatever's necessary to protect that possibility."
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