Metro Weekly

Protesters demonstrate outside Nellie’s Sports Bar, urging long-term boycott

Organizers want to see the LGBTQ sports bar turned into a safe space for Black queer and trans individuals.

Protesters at 9th and U Streets call for a boycott of Nellie’s Sports Bar – Photo by John Riley

More than 100 people rallied outside Nellie’s Sports Bar to call for a complete boycott of the establishment on Friday evening, June 18, following an incident last week where a young Black woman, Keisha Young, was dragged down the stairs by security. 

Holding signs with verbiage such as “Boycott Nellie’s,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Defend Black Women,” protesters converged at the intersection of 9th and U Streets NW, with several dozen more lining up along the front wall of Nellie’s and along the sidewalk. In between speeches by organizers, protesters engaged call-and-response chants: “When Black women are under attack, what do we do? Show up! Fight back!” and “Protect Black women! Respect Black women!”

Protesters also called for accountability on the part of the bar’s ownership and management for what they claim is a history of both direct actions and microaggressions demonstrating anti-Black or racist sentiments or attitudes, including a lack of care for Black staffers, performers, or DJs, refusing to play hip-hop music, allegedly raising the prices of liquors that are stereotypically seen as popular among the Black community, and Nellie’s decision to fly a “Blue Lives Matter” flag in 2018.

During the protest, organizers made it clear that they have certain demands that Nellie’s must meet. First, they want Nellie’s management and Schantz to issue a public apology to Young and her family. They also want Nellie’s to release the full security footage of the incident leading up to Young being dragged down the stairs by her arms and hair.

Nellie’s management must also attend a public community meeting at a safe space for the Black community, and listen to the grievances, frustrations, and stories of racist or prejudicial behavior to which former patrons of Nellie’s say they have been subjected. Lastly, organizers want to see Nellie’s shut down and replaced by a Black-owned, Black-led business that focuses on Black and brown queer individuals in the building the bar currently occupies.

Nellie’s closed for a week following protests last Sunday in response to a video showing security guards pulling Young down the stairs by her arm and hair. Young told the media that she had been mistaken for another woman who had brought an open container of alcohol into the bar.

Multiple videos released by onlookers on social media have shown Young’s cousin grappling with what looks to be bar staff and security, and in a subsequent video, Young is shown hitting some of the men in an effort to defend her cousin. She’s then pulled down the stairs by one of the men, falling to the ground in the middle of the staircase, before getting back up to hit the security guard. Later, the security guard drags Young down the stairs.

Young’s lawyer, Brandon Burrell, has repeatedly said Young was within her rights, as the law allows a person defend not only oneself, but “others that are in imminent danger of bodily harm.”

“Multiple security guards and other staff of Nellie’s Sports Bar were pummeling Keisha Young’s cousin, Dayon Kidd, at the top of the staircase,” Burrell said in a statement. “This physical altercation was initiated by Nellie’s staff when they mistook Ms. Young for another Black woman that allegedly brought a bottle into the establishment.”

Burrell also said that the staff’s reaction to Kidd and Young was not justified, and added that any ambiguity can be cleared up by having Nellie’s release all security camera videos showing the full incident.

Doug Schantz, the owner of Nellie’s, was not immediately available to comment on the allegations against his bar.

Makia Green, a co-conductor with Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, an abolitionist defense hub in D.C. that helped organize the demonstration, noted this is not the first time that customers have objected to the treatment of Black people at Nellie’s. In fact, they say that advocates, including Collective Action for Safe Spaces, held trainings with Nellie’s staff in an effort to address past racial insensitivity following similar boycotts three years ago. But Green says Nellie’s staff were resistant to changes.

Green said that protesters and advocates are determined to see Nellie’s shuttered, and that people should expect additional demonstrations or direct actions aimed at closing the bar and pressuring it to meet the demands of the community.

“Frederick Douglass said ‘Power concedes nothing without demands,'” Green told Metro Weekly. “So if you want change, you’re going to have to demand it. It’s going to look aggressive. It’s going to look bold. It’s going to be clear. It’s going to be joyous…. I think that Nellie’s can expect people raising their voices of asking to shut down for the rest of the summer. So they should meet our demands.”

Green also noted that much of the success of any boycott will rely on people holding their friends and neighbors accountable by asking them not to frequent Nellie’s.

“I just say, ‘Queers don’t let queers go to Nellie’s,'” they said. “You can have a conversation with [your friends] about what it means to be in solidarity and how at the end of the day, if one of us isn’t free, none of us are all free. And it’s really important to be in solidarity with Black women and the movement for Black lives. If we don’t show them that this is not okay, they’ll continue to do it.”

Demonstrators protesting at Nellie’s Sports Bar – Photo by John Riley.

Protest organizers provided food to demonstrators and opened up a space in the middle of U Street where people could dance to music. Many attendees spoke about the protest as creating a space for joy — a space that was welcoming for Black and brown queer people — even while treating the calls for a boycott seriously.

Natacia Knapper, 37, a community organizer with Ward 1 Mutual Aid, which helped organize the protest, was encouraged by the turnout at the demonstration.

“Seeing the pushback from the community has been amazing,” she said. “Seeing this crowd proves that everybody is on the same page that the reign of Nellie’s has got to end. And the fact that there’s still like a space for joy in like this community, despite all of this violence and trauma we’ve experienced.”

Knapper, who lives only four blocks from Nellie’s, says spreading awareness about what she calls the bar’s problematic history is essential to having conversations about the need for creating safe spaces for the Black and BIPOC community.

“When we had our previous action here at Nellie’s and we were walking through the restaurant [last week], I had so many conversations with people who had no idea about the problematic history and chose to leave immediately, and some folks joined in the protest after hearing about it,” she said, noting that many Black queer people have frequented Nellie’s because there are few other spaces that genuinely create a welcoming atmosphere for them and they may feel they have no other options.

Protesters dance during an hours-long protest aimed at Nellie’s Sports Bar – Photo by John Riley

Knapper has had many conversations with people in the neighborhood about the importance of divesting from Nellie’s. The key will be to keep the energy up to ensure that people don’t resume patronizing the bar after the memory of what happened to Young begins to fade.

“I think what happens a lot of times is there’ll be a really harmful, awful thing that happens,” she said. “There’ll be like a statement — I’m not even going to say an apology because that’s not what they released. But Nellie’s releases a statement and then there is the hope that if they’re quiet and not saying anything, like for a week or so, people will forget.

“We’re still in a pandemic. There’s a lot of things that we’re dealing with under capitalism and white supremacy. And our attention will divert to other things. So it’s easy to take the pressure off. But what we need to do is continue this conversation and make sure that [Schantz] doesn’t get to feel safe and think, ‘OK, I can just be quiet for a few days and then come back and it’ll be business as usual.'”

Dame Sadie, a 38-year-old D.C. native who grew up two blocks from Nellie’s and attended the demonstration on Friday, recounted a negative experience at the sports bar.

“In one particular incident I was basically assaulted by a white dude in there,” Sadie said. “I went to get security, and they said, ‘Can you prove it?’ Like what the fuck is that? He was nudging me and bumping me. I didn’t get any support and I ended up leaving. It didn’t feel like a space where I felt safe.”

Sadie is excited to see people paying attention, because she sees Nellie’s as unwilling to change actions that are viewed by some as trying to push away Black customers.

“I don’t think there’s anything we can do to stop people from going back,” she said. “But at least if they do go back, they know that they’re crossing a line. You can’t say you don’t know anymore. At this point, it’s been all over the national news, so if they’re going to go in there, that’s on them. But the people I know that love me, won’t be stepping foot back in that bar in a while.”

Protesters gather on June 18, 2021 to protest the treatment of a young Black woman dragged down stairs by security at Nellie’s Sports Bar – Photo by John Riley

Sadie also noted that the rapid gentrification of D.C., and especially the U Street corridor and the Navy Yard neighborhood, has eliminated some of the spaces where Black and brown people had adopted as their own and felt safe. As a result, there’s a need for Black-owned and Black-led businesses, but creating those spaces often requires money, from both private philanthropy and from the D.C. government.

“I feel like if they can give the police….however many millions of dollars they gave them this year, they can find a couple of hundred thousand to create a safe space every now and then,” she said of the D.C. Council and mayor’s office.

She also stressed that it’s important for establishments to hire Black people and Black queer people, listen to their concerns, and put them in management or positions of power where they can make decisions about how to create welcoming environments and safe spaces for Black and Black queer customers.

Several protest attendees stressed the importance of holding the security vendor that Nellie’s hired for Pride weekend accountable for its actions, while also continuing to hold Nellie’s accountable for fostering an environment where the type of violence carried out against Young is permissible.

Speaking prior to Friday’s demonstration, David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, rejected arguments made by some on social media that tried to defend Nellie’s by casting Young in an unfavorable light.

“For anyone who is interested in having a conversation about what the young lady might have done to invite the trauma that was inflicted upon her, I would say that your attention is focused in the wrong place,” he told Metro Weekly. “What I believe to be true is that that wouldn’t have happened to a white woman. A white woman would not have been dragged by her hair down the stairs at Nellie’s. Period.

“Too often it is the case that people want to engage in conversations about what happened to invite the kinds of trauma and terror that no one should be experiencing in public or private when it is involving Black people, Black women, Black queer, trans and nonbinary folk. And that is beyond problematic.”

Johns called on LGBTQ establishments to contract with trainers or consultants skilled at creating inclusive spaces that are safe for Black and brown people.

“There are a group of businesses that mean good and do good, that not only have symbols to signal solidarity in their establishment, but demonstrate it through their partnerships, through their investments, through the training that they provide and the way in which people feel welcome in their spaces,” he said. “And so, I just want to be clear that it is not the case that folks can or should rest and be lazy or be hypocritical.

“At this moment, if you’re going to be an establishment that has a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign on your door, if people are being treated in ways that that call into question whether or not you acknowledge or value their humanity, then there’s an opportunity to do more. And if you can say that you don’t want to do more, then remove the sign, and just be clear about the space in which you’re holding. But it is disingenuous at a minimum, and it’s confounding to the space I’m occupying now, to dance to the middle where you say this is what you purport to care about but then say that you can’t do the work, when that’s a lie.”

Signs used during the protest against Nellie’s Sports Bar on June 18, 2021 – Photo by John Riley.

Johns also stressed the importance of white people showing up for Black people and holding Nellie’s or any other space that is not completely welcoming to all members of the community accountable for their actions. He pointed to the recent decision by Stonewall Kickball to remove Nellie’s as a sponsor as an example of how that allyship can be carried out in practice.

“The one thing I think needs to be stressed is the opportunity and responsibility of privileged, white, non-Black, queer, trans and nonbinary folks to do more to demonstrate increased competence and compassion,” he said. “I can’t underscore that enough.”

See also: 100+ LGBTQ organizations condemn racism, racial violence, and police brutality

Several advocates have noted that part of the conversation around Nellie’s that often gets overlooked is the fact that the bar was built in a historically black neighborhood that has been gentrified over the past decade, resulting in the pushing out of older residents and creating friction between new residents and D.C. natives. For example, the building that Nellie’s currently occupies was once Addison Scurlock’s photography studio, a prominent Black businessman and photographer at the turn of the 20th century.

As for what comes next for Nellie’s, Johns said that there “should be a commitment to ongoing conversations — arbitration would be a legal term — focused on reparations to community leaders and activists and folks that have been aggrieved or otherwise harmed at that establishment.

“Options under the banner of reparations include — and should be considered at this point at a minimum — providing professional development such that staff, contract and otherwise, is competent about the harms that Black trans queer and nonbinary folks face in particular with regard to access and public accommodations.”

Green, of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, called for the creation of more bars and other safe spaces led by Black trans and Black queer people, saying that the safety of Black people, especially Black women and Black queer people, is not negotiable.

“If people are looking for trainings, they can go to Collective Action for Safe Spaces,” they said. “They can bring on a Black, trans, and queer board to make decisions on how to actually create the culture in the space. They can go through an entire process to answer questions like, ‘Do your staff look at Black [people] and Black and brown trans and queer people as threats? Is there a discrepancy in the way that you treat each other? Are you charging more for the Black liquor? Are you not playing hip-hop because you think that it makes people prone to violence?’ I think that people need to investigate that themselves. If you’re in a bar and you see something going on, you need to speak up, and you need to tell the rest of your friends not to go there.”

Regarding possible reparations, Green noted that they can take various forms.

“Many of the ways that we’ve experienced reparations so far is that you need to actually apologize for what’s done, you need to apologize to the people who have been harmed, you need to repair,” they said. “That means you need to not just support people to get them out of the spaces where they are now, but we need to be in a place where we were when the harm happened. Keisha has been incredibly traumatized, Black people who have been harmed here have been incredibly traumatized. We need cash reparations as well as memorialization. We need a memorial to what happened here and we need to actually educate people so they don’t forget what happened. The U.N. has about five aspects when it comes to reparations with apology, repair, memoir and giving in to education…. So reparations would be the shutdown of Nellie’s and the redistributing of that money into a center and a place of joy.”

Knapper stressed that divestment from Nellie’s is crucial to carrying out justice for Young and for the larger Black and Black queer communities.

“I cannot as an individual just say what Doug [Schantz] owes this entire community. But at bare minimum, there needs to be a complete divestment from this business,” she said. “What I mean by divestment [is] a commitment from Doug to relinquish this space and invest in a Black trans, queer ownership of this space. That requires him to do more than say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to shut Nellie’s down.’ It’s him investing his actual money — the money that he has made off of this community, made off of Black and brown queer people in this community, off of Black women — and reinvest that into supporting a Black, trans queer femme owner or manager to take over the running of Nellie’s and to shape it into something else for this community that’s already experienced so much trauma.

“I fully believe that this is like the beginning of the end for Nellie’s,” Knapper said. “It’s unfortunate that Keisha had to go through this level of trauma in order for us to come together and really push back and commit to shutting them down. But we are here now. Their reign is over. And I’m looking forward to whatever Black queer space replaces it.”


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