Last Saturday night, March 31, Martin Garza stood outside Mardi Gras, his all-ages club on SE 146th, directing DJs inside, greeting kids as they poured out of their parents' cars, and fielding cell phone calls in both Spanish and English. Once the doors opened and security guards patted everyone down, teens—some accompanied by their parents, cousins, or younger siblings—paid $10 to get into the warehouse space. They then chose between three dancefloors, featuring hiphop, salsa and cumbia, and Mexican "cowboy" music.
Garza, wearing a jacket with the logo of a football team he coaches, says he and his wife are offering kids a safe, fun place to hang out on the weekend. "We have lots of parents who drop off their kids and leave," he says, plus plenty of families that come dance together.
The Portland Police Bureau, however, have a different perspective: They say the club is well known in the precinct for being a congregating spot for people with gang affiliations, and there's a tendency for trouble to spill out into the surrounding neighborhoods. This past winter, there was a stabbing inside the club on a night when Garza had leased the space to a promoter; that incident has prompted additional police scrutiny.
Indeed, according to police records, the cops have been by the club—or within a block of it—71 times in the last 6 months, either in response to calls or to check on the place themselves. Many of those police visits were late on Friday and Saturday nights, in regards to fights or loud disturbances. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) has also stopped by to check on the place, following neighbors' complaints that the club—which doesn't have a liquor license—was serving alcohol. The OLCC did not return a call from the Mercury by press time.
"All bars are going to have problems and fights," says crime analyst Officer Devonna Dick. "But the number of priority calls to this location is significant, and consistent with a problem location."
The club has also been discussed three times at the mayor's Gang Violence Task Force since February.
"It's like a magnet," East Precinct Acting Lieutenant Tim Sessions says of the venue. "But the owner's attitude has been that the problems are not his, and he has not been willing to work with us on solutions."
In February, the cops cited Garza and several of his staffers for "frequenting a place where controlled substances are being consumed," a charge often used to cite club owners for failing to crack down on drug use.
"When I entered the building I immediately could smell an overwhelming smell of marijuana," wrote Officer Chris Gjovik, in his February 24 citation report. "The smell was so strong that it could not have been caused by just one or two marijuana cigarettes but by many more." The report continues—Gjovik counted 30 to 40 people in a thick cloud of marijuana smoke in a performer's room in the back of the club, at an event that had advertised 20 hiphop artists.
Gjovik and his partner, Officer Lacey Sparling, say the atmosphere in the club that night was tense. "If we hadn't been there, there would definitely have been an incident," Sparling tells the Mercury. (The citations were later dismissed—Garza was given the wrong court date, by mistake.)
Garza, however, says the cops blew the marijuana incident out of proportion: "I leased it [to outside promoters] for that event. There was one guy on his own smoking marijuana, and security were like, 'What the hell are you doing?!' and threw him out," he explains. "There was a little stench, I was pissed off it was there, but the rest were cigarettes." He keeps a copy of the citation dismissal report in his van.
The incident over the marijuana—plus the increase in police patrols near the venue—suggests to Garza that the police have it out for him, and are stereotyping his young, Latino clientele. "The police have always hated us, they've come in and harassed the shit out of me," says Garza. "They say they want to shut me down. They say there are gang problems, but I say am I dumb enough to let that shit happen? We don't let in idiots who are trying to prove something." His security guards refuse admittance to anyone wearing gang attire, and anyone who gets in a fight is kicked out for two weeks for a first offense, and for life after a second scuffle.
Moreover, Garza points out, most of the club's attendees are regulars, who know and obey the rules. The stabbing, he says, was an anomaly—someone snuck in. "I think [the police are] still stuck on that," Garza says. (However, the cops insist that Garza's rules for the club are, in practice, too lax.)
Garza counters that his club's reputation with the cops isn't deserved. He keeps the doors closed and limits the number of speakers inside, to avoid noise complaints. He and his staffers pick up litter in the neighborhood. And in the off hours, Garza leases the space out for other events, or lets community groups hold meetings and classes—even practices for the Miss Latina Pageant—in the huge space. Combined, the activities make Mardi Gras a cross between a Latino community center and an all-ages club—a place that's good for the community, Garza argues.
"Overall, the place is safe. If I quit, where are the kids going to go? I'm not going to let the officers think they can come in and do what they want to us," he says.
Teri Poppino, the city's East Portland Crime Prevention Coordinator, is hoping that Garza and the police find a way to work together. "For livability problems like this to be resolved, people need to be willing to be good neighbors," Poppino says. "There needs to be mutuality, and in this case, I don't think that's happened yet."