Meanwhile, Back in Madison, WI: The Murder of R Place on Park
When I was young, and living in New Orleans with my family during what people might call my middle school years, our corner house and large backyard and garages on Peniston Street was right next door to Mister Joe’s bar on Magnolia Street. Mister Joe himself has long gone to the great barroom in the sky–or is probably back with us under another name and in another skin, and perhaps working towards that new boîte in the 21st century. But Mr. Joe’s did not disturb me or my mother, nor anyone else in the neighborhood–at least, not to my knowledge. It did not present live bands, but it had the most kick-ass jukebox imaginable, and that’s where I learned what was popular in soul music and in New Orleans at that time. The music and loud talk and laughter lulled me to sleep most nights, and I only woke up if something definitely sounded wrong in the bar.
There was no litter or beer bottles or evidence of human defecation in front of the bar either. The morning bartender usually came out and swept and tidied up the sidewalk, and made sure everything was in the garbage. And it was a small bar that was not part of a strip mall. I doubt whether 100 people could fill Mr. Joe’s.
What was even more important is that Mr. Joe’s was part of the neighborhood. A black working man or woman could go to Mr. Joe’s for a beer, to let off steam, or get filled in on the local gossip. Older, retired black men, like my grandfather when he was alive, had chairs outside at times to listen to the music or to play checkers outside, and talk over old times or silently watch or comment on passersby. Once in a while, they too would also go and get a beer. And if anyone got into a fight in the bar late at night, the cops were speedily called in. But those kinds of incidents did not happen all that much, and guns were definitely not used then as they are now. Such incidents were to be avoided, since New Orleans cops didn’t treat its drunk tank denizens very well either.
In other words, the cops came when summoned. They knew what their job was. They did not stigmatize the bar owners.
Tuesday night, I witnessed the murder of R Place on Park, and it was a sad and unsettling occasion. I do not know Rick or his wife Annie very intimately, nor his brother-in-law and his wife, who may have been partners in the venture. But it was apparent that all their efforts to keep the bar on the right side of the law had failed, and it showed on their faces. One could not ignore their pain and resignation as well as their outrage. Particularly, I can well imagine how much money they all expended on security equipment and for altering their property and other things according to what Madison authorities wanted. As small businesspeople, they were not made of money. And still, it wasn’t enough. It seemed as if the city fathers wanted a pound of flesh.
Rick was recalcitrant, said Police Chief Noble Wray (I’m going to start calling him Ignoble Wray), about suggestions that R Place become a private club, or closing early. Frankly, that wasn’t what R Place was created for. It would be a late night bar and entertainment center. Rick had the right to run his business the way that he wished. The problem was that a certain element, an element that Rick neither invited nor catered to, was setting up shop outside of the bar, in the parking lot and the surrounding area.Vodpod videos no longer available.
Ignoble Wray called this “the after-set.” And this element was making headlines for gunplay, drug sales, litter, and traffic in front of the property. None of that violence and disruption ever spilled into the bar and onto customers and patrons. Yet, Wray believed that the only solution to the problem of “the after-set” was to close the bar. Why? These idiots would only move on to other pastures. Moving along the problem still does not resolve it.
What I really wanted to say at the City Council meeting before I was interrupted, and thus lost my train of thought, was that instead of dictating to Rick as if he was the problem in this Southside area, that the police should have worked with him to keep this element away from the property and especially at closing time. This is not “babysitting,” as some authorities have called it. Neither is calling the cops or asking for their help acting as Rick Flowers’ security. A private security firm would not have the power to arrest and to detain.
In the old Fillmore District of San Francisco that I knew in the early Sixties (before Redevelopment), the cops were immediately called to quell any drunkenness, fights, or any other disturbances. Especially since whites of the time were beginning to come into the community to take in some shows or to enjoy some barbecue in the “bad” part of town; never mind that blacks could not yet integrate downtown San Francisco in broad daylight at that time, but the integration of Fillmore at night was a definite reality. Heaven forbid that there was any shootings or robberies. They did happen then, but most of the time, it was outside these now-long gone bars, and the police took care of that situation and worked with the black owners.
Why couldn’t the Madison cops merely provide that protection? Why is it that it was Rick’s fault if he could not handle this recurring problem? He couldn’t merely tell these characters not to come to R Place. It is almost as if crime is black people‘s problem, not just a problem that all Madisonians face. Crime doesn’t just happen in South Madison; it is not contained there. That the recent R Place’s shootings in which two people were wounded were termed identical and related to a shooting incident way out on Gammon Road on the West Side added insult to injury; there was no real connection and it was concocted, I feel, by those who wanted R Place to close. Saying that it was a calculated “assassination attempt” against one of Flowers’ employees makes the citizenry think that Flowers was some kind of godfather setting up drivebys. And thinking like this has got to stop:
However, the ALRC said the problems are connected to the bar, and it reached the conclusion the bar should lose its license.
“If a fight starts inside the premises, and then it moves to the parking lot, then you can make the association that it is related to the establishment, because it indeed started inside the premises,” said Dr. Pamela Bean, an ALRC member. “It was a disorderly house. So, very briefly, we have never seen something escalated to this level, that continued to happen from late 2009 to late 2010.”
If a fight begins at R Place, and the instigators are thrown out of the bar, it is not related to the establishment. If two people who are feuding happen to meet at the same place, it’s not the owner’s fault that he doesn’t always know that these people are feuding. Or that suddenly, these people don’t like the looks of each other as they come into the bar. An owner cannot be expected to be a mind reader. It is not Rick’s fault that these people summoned up some Dutch courage, and then began to have words and come to blows. There is only so much that Rick Flowers was responsible for. One thing for sure, he didn’t want people like this in his bar and on his property and bothering customers and even neighbors. And the disturbances escalated because these troublemakers saw that the cops weren’t really going to do anything about it. This is not the first time that the cops can be accused of such behavior.
And why can’t blacks open bars and create a clientele here in Madison? There is nothing wrong with this. It is almost as if blacks should not congregate in one area, a fear that even worried officials in the Thirteen Original Colonies, who passed laws against free and enslaved black men, especially those who frequented bars and taverns. Groups of disgruntled lower class black men at bars had a tendency to arouse the passions of equally disgruntled lower class white men towards dissatisfaction with the status quo and revolt, of which there were dozens before the Revolution. More to the point, that blacks would have a place to gather and to enjoy themselves probably rubs some authorities the wrong way. And music tends to democratize and lower barriers in a community far more; we saw this when jazz and blues and now hip-hop made inroads in American culture.
There are many blacks who have settled in Madison from Milwaukee and Chicago, and not all of them are gangbangers. They are seekers of a better, quieter life, even recalling a life before things went wrong in their old hometowns. But the thinking, I believe, among the city fathers, is that it is best to keep these people dispersed rather than allow them a place to coalesce and to feel welcome. It might even stave off for a few more years the inevitable, which is the democratization of Madison.
Today, it was reported that the Flowerses are selling R Place and the adjoining property of a house and a laundromat. Selling out was in the works several weeks ago, it was said, and was not in direct response to the closing of the bar. I think, though, that the handwriting was on the wall for them; R Place were caught between the crime and the cops and was done away with by both. However, the fight is going to be continued in the courts, as Rick Flowers believes that the City of Madison violated his civil rights. And I think that Rick has a case.
While I believe that the blame lies at the feet of the troublemakers who constantly make it difficult for others to have a good time, it’s amazing to me that every single nightspot that plays hip-hop — or, in this case, jazz and rhythm and blues as well — in Madison always meets the same end. It makes me stop and wonder what the disconnect is here in this city. Before moving to Madison, I lived in Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area. I have visited many places in this country and around the world, and I have never seen a city other than Madison that can’t seem to sustain nightspots that cater to different musical tastes.
There are those who feel that hip-hop music, and in particular the gangster rap genre, causes these problems. They say that venues that play this type of music often attract the wrong type of clientele. And any type of security measures an establishment puts in place is unable to prevent the type of incidents that have caused nightclubs like the Majestic, Club Seven, The Paramount, The Underground and now R Place to close down. While this has been true of Madison, there are many cities around the country that have multiple nightclubs that play dance and hip-hop music that don’t have these perennial problems.
And if and when issues arise, the club owners and police work together to deal with them. In Madison, the police department has consistently stated that nightclub owners like Rick Flowers resist police assistance while the owners of these establishments past and present have said that the opposite is true. Whatever the case, it’s clear that there is a problem in Madison that goes beyond thugs shooting at each other outside and around an establishment.
Indeed. And it is evident that it is not going to be resolved any time soon, thanks to Madison’s city fathers.