The new War on Fun

Party people, watch out: undercover cop Larry Bertrand has declared war on San Francisco nightlife

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Guardian illustration of Larry Bertrand by Joel Kimmel

news@sfbg.com

For several years, the Guardian has been running regular stories chronicling what we've dubbed the Death of Fun, a trend of official crackdowns and shakedowns on people who throw parties and festivals in San Francisco. In the last year, that trend has started to morph into an often brutal War on Fun, with a growing list of atrocities and casualties associated with this overzealous new approach to killing the city's entertainment industry.

Why this is happening is baffling to those most affected: nightclub owners and workers, party promoters, DJs and VJs, fundraising activists, and people just out to have a good time without being harassed by a cop. But in recent months, we've learned much more about what's happening and who the main perpetrators are.

Two undercover enforcers have been at the center of just about every recent case of nightclubs or private parties being raided without warrants and aggressively shut down, their patrons roughed up (see "Fun under siege," 4/21/09) and their money, booze, and equipment punitively seized "as evidence" (see "Police seize DJs laptops," 11/24/09) even though few of these raids result in charges being filed in court.

Officer Larry Bertrand of the San Francisco Police Department's Southern Station and Michelle Ott, an agent with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, are plainclothes partners who spend their weekends undercover, crashing parties, harassing disfavored nightclubs, brutalizing party-goers, and trying to send the unmistakable message that they're in charge of San Francisco nightlife. Neither responded to our interview requests.

Isolated incidents of intolerant cops and NIMBY citizens who repeatedly complain about certain clubs or festivals has been a problem for years (see "Death of fun," 5/24/06 and "Death of fun, the sequel," 4/24/07). Top city officials have opted to cancel events such as Halloween in the Castro District rather than try to manage them better, and the nightlife community has tried to organize in defense of its interests (see "Fighting for the right to party," 7/1/08) with mixed results.

But the personal War of Fun by Bertrand and Ott seems to have galvanized and united the nightlife and festival community like never before, leading to the creation of a new California Music and Culture Association and prompting threats of a federal lawsuit alleging the ABC-SFPD collaboration is a racketeering scheme designed to harass, disrupt, and extort people engaged in otherwise lawful activity.

The myriad horror stories associated with Bertrand and Ott have also finally begun to draw attention from the Mayor's Office, which has quietly pushed the SFPD to rein in Bertrand and change its policies on raiding parties and seizing property. State Sen. Mark Leno also has gotten involved, brokering a March 12 meeting between club owners and Steve Hardy, director of ABC (which, in addition to cracking down on nightclubs — see "Busting bars," 6/23/09 — has recently announced a campaign against fruit-infused liquor).

"They were going to see how they could unwind this a bit," Leno told us, adding that he was "infuriated" by stories of abusive treatment of the public. "The fear that it spreads through the community is unacceptable."

The question now is what Hardy, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and Police Chief George Gascón — who has ordered some crackdowns and wants greater authority to discipline problem officers — is going to do about it.

 

CHAOS AT A STUDENT PARTY

It was after midnight on Jan. 31 when Krystal Peak, a journalist with San Francisco State University's Golden Gate Xpress, received a call from her managing editor. There was a commotion and a swarm of police cars outside a student party at Seventh and Minna streets near her home, and she was asked to investigate.

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