As the frenzy continues over the recent string of downtown shootings, Portland's top hip-hop club, the Vue, is upsetting African-Americans with its plan to remake itself into a newer, whiter venue.
Club manager Rami Makboul outlined the thinking in an email he wrote last week on behalf of his brother Ramez, who owns the club, and sent to Mayor Tom Potter and Police Chief Derrick Foxworth.
"One time an OLCC inspector told me in private that blacks belonged to Northeast Portland, not downtown. I was furious with his statement and I thought he was racist. After seeing the violence of last Sunday night I owe an apology to that inspector," says the Aug. 10 email, obtained by WW through a public-records request. "They do belong to Northeast Portland and they need not to be encouraged in any way to come to Downtown."
The Makbouls' statement echoes what many hip-hop club owners have long claimed, over the Oregon Liquor Control Commission's denials: that the agency targets black clubs. But it also places the Makbouls, who are of Palestinian descent, in the hot seat formerly occupied by the OLCC.
"That is a racist statement," says Rev. Roy Tate of the Christ Memorial Church of God in North Portland, who says African-Americans are blamed whenever there is violence. "Every time we make progress, especially in this city, it sets us back."
Tate says the shootings are "getting blown out of proportion,'' and he has a point. In the first six months of 2005, there were 832 reports citywide of shots fired, down from 986 in the same period last year, according to police spokesman Brian Schmautz.
Schmautz also says Foxworth, who is African-American, "doesn't agree with the statement attributed to the unidentified OLCC inspector regarding blacks belonging in Northeast Portland and not downtown. He says he talked personally with Mr. Makboul and doesn't think he feels that way, either."
"Gangs cross all color lines and have even spread to the suburbs," added Schmautz. "Rather than focusing on comments about who belongs where, we should focus on what can be done to stem violence of all kinds, regardless of where it occurs and who is involved."
So if shootings are down, why has the downtown gunfire gotten so much attention? The logical conclusion: These shootings happened outside Northeast Portland, where gang violence has in the past been centered.
A hip-hop performer and promoter who goes by the same Starchile notes that the downtown clubs that play hip-hop, including the Red Sea and the City, have been there for a decade without the sort of shootings downtown has seen recently.
"Anybody that knows anything about what's going on knows it has nothing to do with hip-hop," Starchile says.
As for the Makbouls' email, cops are skeptical. They say it simply reflects an attempt to avoid a crackdown by the OLCC on the Vue, which one cop described as "fighting" for its life.
Indeed, OLCC spokesman Ken Palke says the Vue does face his agency's scrutiny-but for reasons of overserving and fights, not racism. "We have to be fair," Palke says. "We don't want to be heavyhanded on the one hand, but we want to make sure the problems go away."
Commenting on the alleged OLCC inspector statement, which Rami Makboul says was made in 1997, Palke says the agency has different inspectors now. "If an inspector said something like that today, they would be placing their job in jeopardy."
Says Makboul, "I really do believe the OLCC will try to pin this [violence] on us," he says. For the past year, he says, "they have been looking for something."
Last year, the OLCC asked the Vue to institute a dress code and stop serving shots and Long Island Iced Teas-all of which Makboul at the time complained was an effort to discourage his black clientele.
Now, clearly, he is on board with the program, and says he plans to play rock and "Top 40," with far less hip-hop. The problem, he says, is that the hip-hop shows attract gang members, which is why they won't have those concerts again.
"The violence of the last three weeks has opened my eyes," he told WW on Monday. "We have to do our part to make sure this problem does not last."