Revenge of the Comfort Zone

When the Comfort Zone was raided last year, most people familiar with the infamous afterhours club reacted with a collective “we’re just surprised it didn’t happen earlier.” Well, despite all the hoopla, and despite subsequent raids and continued visits from various authorities, the club remains open, and recently they announced that they were going to be suing the city for harassment to the tune of $11 million.

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To many it might seem that the odds of success for this lawsuit are low, but they might actually have some legal ground to stand on.

At the time of the raid, police officials were eager to give melodramatic statements to the press about the evils of the long running all-day dance party.

Detective Sergeant Ed Roseto described some scene out of an addicts’ fantasy, a “flea market” of drugs readily available at tables.

While no one will deny that there are definitely people doing drugs at the Zone, the same could be said for the majority of bars in the city. As to the shocking image of a “flea market” of drugs even at the Zone people are more discrete than that, and any dealer displaying their wares in the way police have described would normally be quickly kicked out by security. That does sound a bit like libel now, doesn’t it?

Furthermore, while police were forced to admit that they couldn’t shut down the club (seeing as it wasn’t actually doing anything illegal), they were also telling the press that they were planning on working with the fire department and licensing commission to find some other angle to close it down.

Should the police be really be openly admitting that they’re actively looking for a loophole to shut down an otherwise legal business?

After the original raid, authorities were practically boasting about the huge amount of resources involved in Operation White Rabbit. They had almost as many officers as there were patrons, and there was much noise made about the involvement of units dedicated to gangs, organised crime and guns.

However, despite all the allegations, the arrests made were relatively minor – no guns were found, and no links to organised crime came out of it. Even the drug busts looked much more impressive at first.

For example, one of the “dealers” they arrested turned out to be a hedge fund manager blowing off steam. He’d been out celebrating St Patrick’s day and ended up at the Comfort Zone. While there, an undercover police officer approached him for drugs. He tracked some down for her, and refused to accept money for them (we assume he was hoping to impress her with his generosity), but that was enough for the authorities to charge him with trafficking.

Kind of makes you wonder how significant the other “dealers” they arrested were, and if many of the charges actually stuck.

The Comfort Zone is a sketchy club that doesn’t open until dawn, and obviously attracts a lot of people on drugs. Given. But that’s no excuse to treat every single patron of the club as a suspect. 150 people were handcuffed and told to lie on the floor (have you seen the floor of the Comfort Zone?! Ew!) for many hours as they searched each person. If you did that at a fancy place on Queen West you’d also find enough people with bags of powder in their pockets, but that crowd would sue for harassment.

Well, whether we like it or not, the Zone also has the right to operate without this kind of threat.

According to all eyewitness reports, there was significant property damage during the raid, and there were several people injured by both the plastic handcuffs and general rough handling on the part of the authorities. At the end of the day, what did it accomplish? This place has managed to last quite a long time without any shootings, or any major violence for that matter. You can’t say the same about the Guvernment or Film Lounge, can you? Both those clubs have had their share of overdoses associated with them as well, so why did the Comfort Zone get all the heat?

Some of us will be watching this lawsuit very closely, as it will set an important precedent for Toronto.

Unfortunately for the nightlife industry, it’s currently popular for local politicians to go to war with the club scene. Adam Vaughan has been very public about his efforts to curb the growth of clubland and was quite active in trying to prevent Circa from opening, despite the unofficial policy the city once had of encouraging nightclubs in the Entertainment District. Of course that was before the condo boom, and Vaughan obviously isn’t interested in reminding voters that the clubs were there first, or that they play an essential role in our large tourist industry. Pride and Caribana would not be the massive money makers they are without the nightlife infrastructure they depend on.

Giorgio Mammoliti has also been quite noisy about the bars in his district, and has been quite public in his boasting about harassing these businesses (mainly Caribbean) until they shut down. In his own colourful words:

“I’ve shut down several places the same way. I think, yeah, if you embarrass people enough to the point where they’re recognizing the difficulty that they’re causing a community, they will either shut down themselves or their insurance company or landlord will shut them down for us. And this is the best way to do it.””

The term “booze can” (in Toronto slang, this means clubs and parties that illegally serve booze after 2 am) to describe bars that haven’t been charged with anything like that seems dangerously close to libel. Sorry Giorgio – serving booze at 1 am is actually completely legal and normal.

Good luck Comfort Zone. I might not particularly want to go there on a Sunday morning, but it’s better that it exists than the alternative. It’s extremely unlikely that the inevitable illegal alternative that would succeed the closing of the Zone could continue their remarkably long record of peaceful gun-free partying. Which reminds me, given the ongoing problem of gun violence in the city, shouldn’t that be the priority?

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