Disturbed by a rash of racial incidents at Boston night clubs, City Councilors Ayanna Pressley and Tito Jackson are holding a public hearing next month to increase awareness of the state Public Accommodations Law.
While the law prohibits making any distinction, discrimination, or restriction in admission to or treatment in a place of public accommodation, this year has seen a significant number of claims alleging that bars, nightclubs and restaurants in the city of Boston have been violating it.
Councilor Pressley said that the hearing will allow representatives from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the City of Boston Consumer Affairs and Licensing department and other interested parties to testify on matters related to the law.
The hearing follows a series of actions taken by Pressley and other elected officials to ensure that the law is being upheld and to also rid the public conscience of what many have come to see as a false sense of post-racial euphoria in Boston.
“This is something that I have been planning to do for a while,” said Pressley. “On the heels of The Cure Lounge proceedings and the recent allegations against other venues, it just seems timely to do it.”
Some of the issues that will be addressed at the hearing include the ways that discrimination is being reportedly played out in Boston.
Certain patrons complain that venues have a dress code that excludes baggy jeans, sneakers, hooded sweatshirts and baseball caps. And certain promoters allege that some venues have increased the cover charges and fees on services aimed at black and Latino consumers.
“All of these things are eroding the social fabric of the city, and sending a message that this is an unwelcoming and uninviting place if you are black and or Latino, and I know better than that,” Pressley explained.
Last November, Pressley sent a letter to Patricia Malone, director of the Mayor’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Licensing, informing her about an incident that had occurred at The Cure Lounge just a few days earlier.
On that night, attendees to a Harvard-Yale alumni party at The Cure Lounge were asked to leave the venue.
D. Omavi Harshaw, a graduate student at Harvard who was at The Cure Lounge that night published an article on TheRoot.com, an online source of African American news and commentary that lamented his frustration about what happened that night.
Wrote Harshaw, “We were kicked out because apparently the promoters did not tell the owner that the Harvard and Yale graduates and alumni in attendance that night would be black.”
He also stated that the patrons were initially told that the party was being shut down because of “technical difficulties,” but he later discovered that prior to the event, the owners had sent an e-mail to promoters and those who were invited, warning them that the black women who were in line outside of The Cure Lounge might attract “local gangbangers.”
Pressley said that she had heard about the incident via the Internet. “People were tweeting about it, and commenting on it in their Facebook posts, and it was disturbing to me,” she recalls.
“At the time,” she said, “I chaired the Committee on Arts, Film, Humanities and Tourism, and I knew that that would be the platform whereby I could pursue this because any venue operating with a license in the city of Boston can not participate in any type of discrimination. It’s bad values and also bad business.”
In her letter, Pressley requesting an investigation into the matter.
“When this was happening, I said that an investigation is not an accusation,” Pressley explained. “If you have done nothing wrong then you will be exonerated, and if you have then you will be fined.”
The Mayor’s Office responded immediately and soon found that there were more than 100 complaints regarding The Cure Lounge incident, and passed the case on to Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office.
The Attorney General led an investigation and concluded on Feb. 25, 2011, that Paige Hospitality Inc, the owners of The Cure Lounge, had violated the State Accommodations Law when it shut down the Harvard-Yale Alumni party on the basis of race, color and sex.
The judgment ended lawsuits made by the organizers of the Harvard-Yale Alumni party, and three other Harvard graduate students — all claiming that Paige Hospitality Inc. had discriminated against them. The settlement ordered Paige Hospitality Inc to issue a public apology, adopt an anti-discrimination training program for its staff, and pay a fine of $30,000 to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The fine was then dispersed in the form of four grants to support African American students. Bottom Line, Inc. in Boston and Worcester received $8,000 of it, Cambridge College in Cambridge received $7,500, Freedom House in Dorchester received $5,000 and the United Negro College Fund in Boston received $8,000.
NAACP President Michael Curry is now involved in a campaign to raise awareness around the Public Accommodations Law and highlight the ways in which it is being violated in Boston.
“The Boston NAACP has consistently received complaints from patrons and promoters about the color line drawn in Boston’s social scene and nightlife,” said Curry. “We have made racial discrimination, in all forms, a primary focus of the branch. We are working closely with the MCAD, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division and the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston to track incidents, report trends and demand compliance.”
In an e-mail sent to members of the local branch of the NAACP, Curry directed supporters to a recent WBUR story that aired on Aug. 23, 2011. The story reported on alleged violations of the Public Accommodations statue in genral and specifically Coakley’s lawsuit alleging that the Dorchester establishment Peggy O’Neil’s Bar and Grille had excluded Latino and Cape Verdean customers inviolation of state law. Representatives from O’Neil’s have denied any wrongdoing.
Curry, who has first hand experience as a former cultural event promoter said, “Cloaked in this effort to keep violence out of their establishment is a racist view that all of us could be violent, and therefore the ends justify the means. That’s unacceptable!”
The Peggy O’Neil incident occurred in December 2010, when two men, one black and the other Cape Verdean, were told that it was too late to enter the bar, even though white patrons were allowed inside. Later on that evening, a second group of men, one Cape Verdean, another black, and the third Latino, were allegedly told that they did not “look like the type of people” the owner would know and were denied entrance into the bar as well.
Since filing the lawsuit against Peggy O’Neil’s, Coakley’s office has received seven more complaints against the establishment.