Music Venues, Shut Down Over COVID-19, Are Now Havens for Protesters

Washington, D.C.’s famed 9:30 Club was supposed to be celebrating its 40th anniversary this year — instead, it shut down in early March due to COVID-19 with no opening date in sight. Now, amid anti-police brutality protests in our nation’s capital and beyond, it’s become a haven for protesters looking for a break, a bathroom or some milk to dull the sting of pepper spray.

Last Saturday, the 9:30 Club opened its doors for five hours to protesters, offering them charging facilities, hand sanitizer, water, restrooms and basic first-aid. The venue limited the crowd — which topped at a couple of hundred — to 10 people at a time in its lobby due to social-distancing rules.

“We have always thought of the 9:30 Club as a safe space,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for the club alongside Lincoln Theatre, the Anthem and Merriweather Post Pavilion. “It’s a place where people could come in and leave their lives behind at the door, escape from reality and be side by side with friends and family and perfect strangers singing off-key to the same song.” So, when grassroots organization Safe Spaces for D.C. reached out and asked the club to open its lobby to protesters demonstrating in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Schaefer and her team replied: “Oh, my gosh, yes. Please. We would love to help.”

Since protests started spreading across in the country after Floyd’s death, more and more venues, theaters and clubs previously shuttered by COVID-19 have opened their doors to demonstrators, finding new purpose amid the pandemic. Instead of catering to music fans and patrons of the arts, they now offer aid to protesters as they call on the U.S. and state governments to overhaul police reform and put a stop to violence against black citizens.

In the weeks since the protests began, a group called Open Your Lobby formed to ask venues to provide a safe space for those in the streets — all locations and relevant stats complied on a Google map. “This initiative started because we were on the ground during the initial weekend of protests, and we saw people struggling to find refuge in a largely boarded up city,” a rep told Rolling Stone in a statement. “Theater spaces came to mind because they are centrally located with bathrooms and resources which haven’t been used for weeks.”

The 9:30 Club — for one — has been closed since March 11th, when Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19; the last show hosted there was the Dead Kennedys. Like many arms of the music industry, the club and the rest of the properties Schaefer works with found themselves without a source of income, scrambling to help keep employees by creating relief funds and a food pantry.

New York City venue Club Cumming found themselves in a similar situation. Owned by actor Alan Cumming, the venue previously hosted drag and cabaret shows until the city’s nightlife shut down in mid-March. According to general manager Samuel Benedict, the club was forced to let everyone go after the shutdown so that they could file for unemployment — unfortunately, though, many of the performers are freelancers and thus did not qualify. To remedy that situation, the club started a community chest to raise money for employees left with no source of income.

As protests continued to proliferate in New York last weekend, the venue shifted the focus of the community chest to raise funds for Black Lives Matter and relevant charities. “Alan reached out to a lot of his contacts from showbiz and they donated different items or experiences,” Benedict says. Users can bid on items like coffee with comedian Hannah Gadsby, cocktails with Monica Lewinsky and signed items from the likes of John Waters, with proceeds going to the community chest and BLM funds.

“We’ve always had signs that say ‘resist,’ so us opening up our lobby for protests made sense” – Club Cumming’s Samuel Benedict

As for opening the lobby in the midst of protests, Benedict says the venue has always been politically active. “We’ve always had signs that say ‘resist,’ so us opening up our lobby for protests made sense for a lot of the patrons that our establishment attracts,” he says. As such, they made sure they had water, PPE, snacks and other resources on hand for protesters. A dozen people are able to enter at a time (due to COVID-19) and volunteers also bring water and other resources to people on the streets. “The plan is to go as long as we’re needed,” Benedict says. “We’re a bit off the beaten half in terms of where all of the demonstrations are happening. So basically we’re [also] like runners; we’re a bit of a headquarters where we can store supplies for protesters.”

Oakland, California, theater the Flight Deck is located in the heart of where protests are happening, so it was a natural decision to open its doors for protesters. Like nearly all venues in the area, the theater has been closed since March, but when booking manager Carolina Morones and marketing manager Sango Tajima heard that Bay area venues were opening to protesters, they immediately made sure the Flight Deck was ready for demonstrators. “Our location is kind of unique because we’re located right next to Oscar Grant Plaza, which is kind of a huge gathering place for a lot of protests and for a lot of actions,” Tajima says. “So I’m just kind of keeping track of what is happening in that area and whether we should stay open or not.”

“I’ll add that the Black Lives Matter movement is so, so important to the Oakland community in particular because we have historically been a black and brown community,” Morones says. “And we have a mayor [Libby Schaaf] who is continuing to funnel funds into the Oakland police department. So the conversation around defunding and abolishing police is very, very important.”

So far, progress has been slow but steady when it comes to overhauling the U.S. police force; Floyd’s home city of Minneapolis, for one, pledged to dismantle the police in the wake of his death. Still, the persistence of demonstrations around the country speaks to the fact that more work is to be done. And — since concerts and the like will likely not resume until 2021 — venues will likely continue to offer respite to protesters in need.

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