A hip hop concert in Tacoma was canceled March 14 after police raised concerns about gang activity. Organizers say neither they nor their artists are gang members, but were profiled because of their race and involvement in hip hop culture.
Tacoma's Pantages Theater, located on the edge of the city's most African American neighborhood, has a strong record of diversity – in its board and its activities.
"We are very committed to the African American community as our core community," said David Fischer, the theater's executive director. The theater's performers and events have included: T.S. Monk; slam poet Saul Williams; the Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars; and Brian Copeland's play "Not a Genuine Black Man, Fischer said.
"And that's just this season."
The theater pulled out of their agreement to rent the venue to Rottweiler Records after Tacoma police asked them to cancel the show, and the security firm they had hired also backed out. At a meeting to discuss police concerns, attended by the theater's board and community members, Fischer said high-level police officers offered "evidence" of gang involvement by the local rap artists.
Police displayed photographs from some of Rottweiler's local artists' My Space web pages. The photographs -- of rappers with guns and women – were, "disturbing – and not just to me, but to everyone in that room except the promoter," he said. Other photos showed rappers making hand signs. At the meeting police said they couldn't provide more details because they were in the midst of an investigation.
"We are not in a position to manage gang activity," Fischer said. "So when both our experts, the Tacoma police department and an independent security firm, told us 'We're not comfortable going on, you should cancel,' we were not in a position to veto that advice."
Tracy Miller, who with her husband Kyle Nephew owns Rottweiler records, was producing the show. She said police wrongly characterized her business and her clients as gang affiliates. The hand signs are part of hip hop culture, and simply indicated where the artists were from -- the state of Washington, the Eastside of Tacoma and so on. Miller said the only problem she was aware of was that one of her local artists had gone missing. That rapper had been removed from the lineup. But, she said, none of the scheduled local artists are gang members.
"If one of our artists has a past, then we aren't going to condemn them," she said. "How are people to get better if you keep doing that? I shouldn't be profiled because I try to better someone else's life. You watch them putting that fear into people and you think why?"
To headline the show, Miller had booked E40, a popular rapper from the San Francisco Bay area.
Mark Fulghum, a public information officer with Tacoma Police Department, said the department had no problem with E40, who has performed in Tacoma before, but red flags were raised about local performers.
"When our folks started looking into their Web sites, they were filled with gang information, gang references and gang activities," Fulghum said. "And a couple of the local (groups)… were known to our officers as having gang affiliations."
And the hand signals?
"Our guys, when they looked at them they recognized them as gang signs – linked to gangs, " Fulghum said. Fulghum said the city takes a hard stand against gang activities.
These concerns prompted the department to raise the number of police officers necessary to provide security at the event.
"Based on what we knew, we felt we needed a bigger presence," Fulghum said. Police also recommended that the Pantages Theater cancel the event.
Miller said the last-minute cancellation left her dumbfounded.
"We're ready to step on stage," said Tracy Miller. "They want to hand me my money and they want me to go away."
Rottweiler Records handles about a dozen artists, most of them African American rap artists. Three of the performers were releasing CDs and Miller hoped to attract new fans.
"We're all from Tacoma, so we wanted our first big show to be here," she said. "Their venue is beautiful. My artists were so excited to perform there."
Instead, after a walk-through with a police officer to finalize security plans, Miller said her plan started falling apart. First, she said, police told Pantages' staff – the theater is city-owned — that more security measures were needed: a medical team, a fence, and in addition to the 20-strong safety crew hired by Pantages, an additional five or six off-duty police officers. Later, that figure was raised to 19 off-duty police officers, she said.
"You want to abide by what authorities want you to do because you're already heavily invested, and I was pretty much invested," Miller said.
The cost of renting the venue and the safety team alone jumped from about $5,000 to about $10,000, she said. That money was returned when the theater canceled but the couple's investment also included booking E40, hiring the medical crew, a promotional deal with a local radio station, and about four months of work to bring the concert together. Promotional tickets had been given away and others sold. The cancellation has left the couple and their three children saddled with credit card debt," Miller said.
"I'm just pretty much financially s****** at the moment because we put everything we owned into that show."