BACKGROUND: From 1985 to 2002, the City of Seattle had on the books a law called the 'Teen Dance Ordinance' (TDO). The TDO had multiple provisions that made hosting and promoting all ages music events realistically next to impossible. Why was that important to people over the age of 21? Afterall, wouldnt we just go to bar shows and forget about the entire thing? We could have, but there are some of us who believed that music and art is for people of all ages and that alcohol sales are not more important than artistic expression. As a result we fought for the overturn of a law that we didn't believe in. And we won, through very unconventional means, replacing that law with one we written by yours truly, Greg Bennick, along with my dear friend Dave Whitson.
In thinking as a keynote speaker about this issue, and in thinking about how as a speaker I cover ideas about unanticipated chance and change into my keynote presentations, the humorous aspects of the behind the scenes of how the new law came to be are relevant and entertaining. Its a story I don't often get to tell when I do keynote presentations, but its a good one nonetheless.
You can read this on the Dancing on Your Politics site amidst all the other news and ideas and updates here:
Thoughts on the Ten Year Anniversary of the Defeat of Seattle's 'Teen Dance Ordinance'
by Greg Bennick
Ten years ago this month, a group of determined Seattle residents who felt that music should be for people of ALL ages succeeded in overturning the city's oppressive "Teen Dance Ordinance". The law had made it extremely difficult for all ages music to exist in Seattle. In honor of the anniversary there is a new website at http://www.dancingonyourpolitics.com/ that covers various aspects of the fight from the people who fought it.
Far more voices than just Greg Bennick as a speaker, or Kate Becker as an activist, or David Meinert as an advocate, or Lori LeFavor as a promoter, or David Whitson as a show goer...the ones with whom I happened worked most closely...made the struggle a victory. There were hundreds of people concerned and involved, and it took far more than one show-goer, one promoter, one speaker, one musician, one activist to make the win a reality.
From the start, fighting the Teen Dance Ordinance (TDO) was like trying to punch someone in the dark. You never could quite see where your adversary was, whether they were in front of you, to the side, or preparing a counterstrike from behind where they would be most unexpected and devastating. We had to invent strategies and reinvent tactics along the way.
When we started with the TDO, few people if any had really read it word for word. The city certainly wasn't willing to give it up, and I remember my friend Laura and I had to go down to the Seattle Public Library to research, find, and print out a copy. We felt like we had found a secret treasure. And one with mysteries that we didn't yet understand. It was kind of like the ark in the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark: the TDO was similar in that it had been long lost, rumored to possess immense power, and holding the potential to destroy us all as we gathered in defiance of it. Thankfully life isn't the movies and we ignored Indiana Jones' advice to Marion to not look at the ark. We stared the TDO in the face and beat it. And the city has never been the same since, feeling lighter than ever as all ages music is embraced and supported.
But the journey from TDO mystery to the All Ages Dance Ordinance (AADO) passing, was not without constant struggle, and an ongoing sense of surprise and shock and from time to time even defeat. We arranged meetings in the mid-1990's amidst the all ages punk community. We spread the word about the TDO. We let people know what it demanded, why those demands were wrong, and what could be done to fight it. Our tactics and methods and plans were sometimes misguided (we focused for too long on the constitutionality of the TDO, when ultimately it was an alternative to it - simply a better law - that was what was needed). We formed coalitions which worked, some which didn't, and through it all we learned about the strength of a collective voice and the power inherent in that voice to bring about change, even as votes were cast against us, as opinions we had counted on changed, and as unexpected roadblocks suddenly appeared in our way.
The details of the history of the struggle, from the formation of the All Ages Music Coalition (AAMO) to the initial failed talks with the Mayor Rice municipal government, to the work to organize support under a new mayor amongst the city council for the Music and Youth Task Force (MYTF), to the meetings themselves, and the votes that came from it, and the rise of The Vera Project...are all elements of history that the greater story of the TDO struggle story will encapsulate. I hope we can all come together to fill in the details of that history somewhere and sometime soon. But what I will touch on here is the part that I contributed most to, which was the drafting of the All Ages Dance Ordinance. People like the brilliant Kate Becker played a critical role in meeting with the city council from the beginning to the end of the process, successfully lobbying their votes and persuading them with her incredible sincerity of the awesomeness (yes that is a word) of all ages music. And while I was there for some of those meetings, if these words serve to fill in a gap in the TDO/AADO story overall, the story if the drafting of the AADO is where my contribution to this anniversary can be most helpful.
During the MYTF meetings, there was progress only in fleeting moments. Select representatives of the city, show goers from all sorts of genres, the music business community, all sat across from one another like old friends and distant enemies. We spent many weeks trying to come to terms with one another about what we were even talking about: definitions and terms and interpretations and opinions colliding. It was enough to make even the most experienced and stawart fan of municipal legal drudgery want to throw themselves off the roof of city hall. But it was the best we had come to over a decade or so of struggling and we didn't want to give up and quit and have to then start again from scratch, an idea that was inconcievable because we knew how far we had come.
On the MYTF team was a guy named Dave Whitson. Dave and I had been involved together with politics for quite some time. We had been supporting the Western Shoshone Nation in a land right struggle in Nevada and had spent many hours together on the road and in person taking part in supportive actions and discussing tactics. We sat together at the MYTF often bored out of our minds and decided to speak further about it in a space where we clear our brains of municipal manipulations. Dave worked at the UW Bothell campus at the time and had access 24/7 to the computer lab there. So that is where we decided to meet, often from 10PM when the library closed, until 3 or 4AM. And it was because of high speed internet and the ability to play backgammon on yahoo.com that the AADO draft came to be.
At the time of this work, the internet was still a place where the basics we now know and love were exciting and new. And where high speed internet was rare, especially at home. The UW had high speed internet and one of those new internet things made possible by that high speed was Yahoo's 'games' page, where you could sign in and play games of all kinds online. Dave and I met at the UW, where the internet was blazingly fast, and quickly found that our discussions about the TDO there weren't yielding anything new. We were frustrated at the process and thought that perhaps the MYTF would go on forever with people arguing the finer definitions of words like "music" and "concert" and "dance". It all made us want to scream. And so, in the midst of our late night talks, we would take breaks from conversation in order to play backgammon online. The speed made it possible to actually chat online - what a concept - and we found it hysterically funny to sit next to one another at adjacent computers and have one of us start a game with someone somewhere in the world, and then have the other of us jump in from their computer to "observe" the game online and then interject while observing that game, starting fights with the person playing, or just being incredibly weird much to their confusion, without the other person knowing that Dave and I were sitting side by side conspiring all the while to make the weirdness even weirder. It was during hours of laughing about this and using yahoo.com in ways other than for what it was intended that we suddenly realized that we had been approaching the TDO fight and specifically the MYTF work with the wrong perspective as well. We had all been trying, seemingly, to come to terms with one another, which was exactly what was "supposed" to have happened. Dave and I, inspired by being idiots on backgammon, decided to pull an end run around the entire MYTF process. I can't remember which of us said it to the other, but one of us suddenly said "Hey, lets write a whole new law." And that's when things started to roll.
We had no idea what we were doing, so we compiled TDO's from around the country, and struck the parts we didnt like and reworked the parts we did like. When there were things we didn't understand in lines and clauses in other TDO's, we would reword them in ways that sounded official and then put them into our version, laughing all the while at how much we had just saved on getting actual law degrees.
If there must be laws, lets fashion them as we want...in the image of the world we dream of...and that's exactly what we did as we fashioned the AADO. We made it up as we went along, writing and revising to create the draft of a law that we could bring to the next MYTF and propose that we all discuss it, rather than continue the endless talks about the definitions of words and terms. And when we made this suggestion and presented the new law, we expected to be laughed at. Instead, it shifted the course of the conversation. Low an behold, in time, and with votes for and against along the way, the law was passed. Score one for acting like idiots in the middle of the night. It can evidently lead to great things.
My memories of the TDO / AADO struggle and victory are sweet indeed. So many people did so much over the years, many of them lost now to history, but their voices all contributed valuably to the process. And that said, specifically immense praise is due certain key players along the way. For example, to Sheila Capestany who served as liaison between the city and our team. She was sympathetic and supportive of our cause all the while, and the boost offered by her support kept us going during times when we would have otherwise begun calling for all city officials to be thrown to the lions in the middle of a mosh pit the size of Key Arena. Lets also not forget the contributions of Lori LeFavor, rightly seen as an expert in all-ages business issues by the City and feared for her intensity and knowledge of that which they were trying and failing to understand and regulate. Immense kudos too needs to go to David Meinert, who has a brain gifted with twice the number of neurons of any average human. His ability to synthesize ideas and generally be the perfect argumentative ninja at any given moment was one of the most valuable resources we had. I am so glad I was on his side of this struggle. There were many times during MYTF meetings that I had to stifle laughter as the faces of David's adversaries during argumentative moments reflected a growing desire to resign their positions and move out of state just to escape his words and well-aimed jabs.
Most people attending all-ages music events today in Seattle have no idea what the struggle against the TDO was like, what it meant, how long it took, how frustrating it was, or how deeply satisfying it was to see it all come together with a victory over a law that had stifled creativity for people of all ages in this city for well over a decade. There are times now when I am attending a show at the Vera Project, or any one of a number of local venues, when I look at everyone having fun, and I think to myself of the years it took to let that happen without disruption.
Being at a show these days is an deeply satisfying experience. Hearing music and seeing creativity develop and expand as it is supposed to, and seeing people having fun without unncessary restrictions by the city makes me know without a doubt that all those years fighting in the dark in order to finally join my friends at music events in Seattle in the light were entirely worth it.