Metro Weekly

Nellie’s is pledging to “do better” after protests. Community organizers aren’t convinced.

Collective Action for Safe Spaces and Harriet's Wildest Dreams accuse bar of seeking to evade accountability and protect its bottom line.

Protesters outside of Nellie’s on June 18th call for a boycott – Photo by John Riley

Nellie’s Sports Bar is being criticized by community organizers after issuing a statement responding to ongoing protests calling for a shutdown of the LGBTQ bar, which were sparked after a viral video showing security dragging a female patron down the stairs last month.

On Friday, Nellie’s announced that it had named Ruby Corado, the founder of the LGBTQ community center Casa Ruby, as the bar’s new manager and Director of Community Engagement. Corado will be in charge of providing ongoing diversity, sensitivity, and inclusion training, which specific focus on LGBTQ people of color. The bar also said it has required staff to complete professional conflict de-escalation training, and has created a customer feedback page on its website, with a promise to act on concerns within 72 hours.

The statement also included an apology to Keisha Young, the 22-year-old patron who was dragged down the bar’s main staircase by a security guard on the morning of June 13, 2021 after staffers began trying to escort various patrons out of the establishment. 

In the weeks following the incident, various community groups and hundreds of protesters have held weekly demonstrations on Friday evenings calling for a boycott of the bar and decrying what critics call an ongoing pattern of racist behavior against Black patrons. 

Nellie’s attempted to reopen to the public on Tuesday, July 13, but the effort was blocked by protestors, who formed a human chain, blocking the entrance.

Prior to the release of the statement by Nellie’s, the Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a Black trans, queer, and nonbinary-led organization that uses public education, cultural organizing, coalition-building to create safe and welcoming spaces, issued its own letter responding to a request from Nellie’s to hold a workshop on safe bar training. CASS announced it was refusing to provide such training.

CASS explained its reticence to work with Nellie’s in a Twitter thread. “We do not believe that this training is being requested in good faith,” the organization tweeted, “but instead for damage control & to continue making money under the guise of wanting to be better and seem more inclusive. This is not accountability. This is not aligned with our mission, vision and values.”

CASS criticized the bar for failing to meet its demands for accountability issued by protest organizers, including — at the time — apologizing publicly to Young, agreeing to attend a public community listening session, releasing the video footage of the full interaction between Young and security, and giving reparations to D.C.’s Black queer and trans community.

Unfortunately, Nellie’s has refused to even engage in a discussion regarding these demands which underscores to us that the bar/restaurant training is not being requested in good faith but instead for damage control and to continue making money under the guise of wanting to be better and seem more inclusive. This directly contravenes CASS’ mission, vision, and values and will not contribute to the safety of staff or patrons.

“Furthermore,” CASS wrote in its response, “your request only noted that the training is being asked for ‘in response to an incident [on June 13, 2021],’ as though Nellie’s has not been called out/in for anti-Black racism numerous times, including for disparate treatment of responses to Black patrons, increase in particular drinks stereotyped as ordinarily purchased by Black patrons, intentional change in music on days predominated by Black patrons, and the hanging of the #BlueLivesMatter flag in 2018….

“As Nellie’s very well knows, CASS’ Board members and previous Executive Director interfaced back in 2017 after attempting to hold Nellie’s accountable for not being equipped to handle conflict in its establishment; and though we have moved on from some of that, it is clear to us that not much in the establishment has changed. That is a choice. It is futile, and quite frankly impossible, to provide training to a bar that refuses to be accountable to the community it serves. Nellie’s must accept the reality that many Black queer patrons have attempted to speak about for years and met with much resistance: many of us do not feel safe in your establishment.”

CASS also accused the bar of trying to evade accountability by failing to engage in private or public conversations with protest organizers, saying “we are not confident it cares about its patrons’ safety but about its bottom line.”

We acknowledge Nellie’s voluntarily closing from June 14, 2021 to July 11, 2021 and recognize that if it cannot even meet specific demands (including a simple apology for dragging a patron down the stairs), then what, if anything, has it learned in the past four weeks?” the statement reads. “We are also forced to question what Nellie’s believes this particular bar training will do. At CASS, we have long understood and continue to recognize that trainings alone cannot suffice to shift the culture of any bar or restaurant. There must be ongoing renewals and recertifications; a core demonstrable belief by Nellie’s leadership (owner and managers) to establish culture, value, and behavior expectations of employees and contractors; and a specific commitment by all staff in safety for all, especially DC’s most marginalized communities (e.g. Black people, poor people, trans and non-binary people, sex workers).

This is especially true as gentrification has intensified racial dynamics, increased anti-Black racism, and contributed to the pushout of Black residents away from spaces that were traditionally meant for them. Despite Nellie’s not causing that problem, it must acknowledge how much it benefits from it,” the statement continues.

“At CASS, we have made a deliberate choice to no longer offer safe bar trainings at the scale we once used to. This is because we know the culture of the bar and restaurant industry in a gentrifying DC cannot be remedied by a two and a half hour training — this is an evasion of real accountability. This is made abundantly clearer to us by the motives of your request to us.”

Preston Mitchum, a community organizer and activist who serves as co-chair of the board of directors of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, tweeted his skepticism about the statement issued by Nellie’s.

The statement isn’t doing anything,” Mitchum tweeted. “1. The issue has been with BLACK people. A Black person should engage community. 2. This statement came out after @SafeSpacesDC released our statement. 3. We haven’t been asked about a listening session OR where to donate to Black orgs.”

Mitchum later issued another tweet, stating, “I’m honestly disappointed @CasaRubyDC didn’t contact any of the organizers (all of whom are Black) about next steps of accountability. And Nellie’s turned off the comments in the post. This is all bad… and unsurprising. It’s just how many Black DC residents are treated.”

Casa Ruby responded to Mitchum’s tweet, noting there is “No need to be disappointed Mr. Preston, as a Black & Brown Trans Led Organization, We have a long history in the community, this process begins today and everyone who wants to participate will be included!”

Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, one of the organizations behind the weekly protests of Nellie’s, tweeted out its own statement in response to Nellie’s latest actions.

“It is heartbreaking that Black native Washingtonians, women and GNC people have spent weeks on the ground to get one public apology for such as gruesome assault. It’s even more infuriating to have our calls for Black LGBTQ-led accountability, reparations, and transformation to be ignored and scapegoated by a non-Black leader in the queer community,” the statement reads.

“Hiring one person who has yet to be in conversation with any organizers and survivors is not transformation. Doug Schantz’s actions are clear that he cares more about his bottom line than [the] Black LGBTQ community. Do not be fooled. The boycott continues until all demands are met.”

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