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Raving Mad

Local dance clubs and legit rave promoters are under suspicion. Is it deserved?

Were it not such a frightening indication of the depth of knowledge with which St. Louis police are cracking down on illegal raves in the area, the Wednesday, Jan. 3, incident at Lo would have been simply laughable: Eight uniformed officers, along with a liquor-control agent and the fire marshal, appeared at the Washington Avenue club after hearing rumors of an impending rave there.

Now, it was a Wednesday night, and Lo's capacity is 49 people. The club doesn't have a dance floor; most of the space is occupied by Asian-style floor booths, tables and the bar. When was the last time a rave was held on a Wednesday night, at a place without a dance floor, in a space that holds 49 people?

But, convinced by a voice-mail message on rave promoter Boogie Knights' information line that two of the outfit's DJs would be spinning house at Lo that night, the authorities decide that such an event constituted, in their words, a "rave party," and a small army arrived to shut it down. To anyone remotely familiar with a rave, what comes next isn't surprising: Lo wasn't sponsoring one. No glowsticks. No pacifiers. No excessive water consumption. None of the telltale "warning signs."

The incident was a minor one, a misunderstanding -- the police say they were just following through on a tip and doing their job -- but it suggests the authorities are grappling with confusion as they attempt to understand a culture that seems, to insiders, utterly alien to them.

"I understand that they have to do their jobs, but I think that they need to define what a rave is, and there's a difference between information and misinformation, and they were misinformed," says Lo's owner, Blake Brokaw. "I told them they were misinformed, and they still took it upon themselves to show up with eight cops and fire marshal and Liquor Control. It didn't make any sense. There were as many cops in there as I have customers in there on a Wednesday night. When I think of a rave, I think of 2,000 kids dancing and on drugs."

St. Louis authorities' tolerance of raves has ended, and, like virtually every other city in the country this year, they're bearing down hard on promoters. The police have been closely scrutinizing not only raves but dance clubs (which, in the eyes of the St. Louis police, rent their spaces to rave promoters, who then throw these "rave parties"; they seem unable to differentiate between "club nights" and raves); they've also increased their surveillance of rave-information lines, mailing lists and fliers and have begun referring to glowsticks, pacifiers and lollipops as "club-drug paraphernalia."

The police (including members of the vice squad), along with the Missouri Division of Liquor Control and St. Louis Excise Commissioner Robert Kraiberg, recently held a meeting with Washington Avenue club owners, designed, says 4th District commander Capt. Lawrence O'Toole, to discuss problems specific to the area and approaches to controlling those problems. "What the meeting was about was to say, 'Hey, I'm the new guy here,'" says O'Toole, who took over as captain of the district in April. "'If you need help, tell me what you need. I want to work with you. If you've got underage drinking, or if you've got drugs, the only way we're going to get rid of it is to work together.' Some of the meeting was to educate and to tell them that if you see certain signs, be it glowsticks, or lollipops, Vicks Vapo-Rub or excess water intake," he says, drugs may be present.

The officials indicated that they would be keeping an eye out in the clubs not just for the usual infraction -- underage drinking -- but, says one (and echoed by others) who attended the meeting, "anything that indicates or perpetuates ecstasy use or drug culture: "If we see glowsticks, Vicks, excessive water use -- if everyone in the club is drinking water, no alcohol, it's going to raise our eyebrows. If everyone's got glowsticks, it's going to raise our eyebrows.'

"They're very clear about what they're not saying, but they're also very clear about what we're supposed to understand from what they're not saying," the meeting attendee says. As a result, Velvet no longer sells glowsticks, and the club has been made unavailable to Boogie Knights and That Girl, promotion companies that in the past had frequently booked events there. Club management says police were requesting the names and addresses of these outside promoters.

O'Toole says that the department is simply dealing with the reality of the club culture. "It's a huge concern of mine," he says, "the drugs down here, and the underage people. And it should be." But, he continues, "the only thing the bars have to worry about down there is the same concerns bars have to worry about anywhere, and that's that they're abiding by the liquor laws: The people that drink have to be 21; [the clubs] have to close down at 3 a.m." He denies that the police are dictating who can or can't book events at the clubs; he simply wants to know when these events are scheduled so that the police can be properly prepared to deal with crowds.

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