G20, Headlines, Human Rights, LGBTQ, North America

RIGHTS-US: Gay Bar Raids Draw Community Outrage

Matthew Cardinale

ATLANTA, Georgia, Oct 30 2009 (IPS) - Two recent police raids of gay bars in Atlanta, Georgia and Fort Worth, Texas have sparked mass protests in the two cities and led activists to question whether equality for persons of all sexual orientations in the U.S. has come as far as some would like to believe.

At around 11: 30 pm on Sep. 10, more than two dozen Atlanta Police officers – some in uniform and some undercover in plain clothes – raided the Atlanta Eagle, a gay leather bar.

The police contingent included several officers from the 'Red Dog', an aggressive unit which typically deals with drug crimes.

All 62 patrons were told to get on the ground. At least one patron, who is deaf and did not understand what was happening, was physically pushed on the ground. Some were handcuffed. When some patrons asked if they could move because there was broken glass on the ground, they say they were told to "shut the f*ck up".

"I'm absolutely appalled, disgusted," Eagle co-owner Robby Kelley told IPS. "To have not only all the employees arrested and taken to jail for 19 hours without bail being set, to have 62 people laid face down into spilled drinks and broken glass, searched… their drivers licenses [checked], kicked, stepped on, cussed at, called fag, things in that area, it's something that should have never happened."

No drugs were found in the establishment after all 62 patrons were searched by police, and the raid seems to stem from a tip to the mayor's office which stated, among other things, that little empty drug bags were found on the ground in the neighbourhood.

"There's not a problem with the city investigating if they're thinking there's drugs in a bar… or sex going on. The problem lies when they come in to do the investigation, they should arrest the people doing these acts, and not people standing around the bar, in our case watching… TV," Kelley said.

All Eagle staff members and several men who were dancing in their underwear were arrested. Over a month since the incident, the charges are still pending against the eight who were arrested, and they are scheduled to appear again in court next week, on Nov. 3.

After their arrest, the dancers learned they were being charged for stripping without a permit and the staff members were being charged for allowing it. However, Eagle co-owners Kelley and Richard Ramey told IPS they did not believe the dancers legally qualified as strippers because they were in their underwear.

In any event, according to several sources familiar with bar and club licensing issues, having strippers without a permit usually results in a 1,000-dollar fine for the bar, not the arrest of the dancers and owners.

This reporter was on scene for the Atlanta raid, having arrived five minutes after it started, and originally broke the news for Atlanta Progressive News, an online news service.

The following weekend, a protest of some 300 to 500 Atlantans protested at the Eagle Bar. The protest was organised by an ad hoc group called GLBTATL, formed several months ago as a local response to the passage of Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriages in California.

Since the raid, several bar patrons filed complaints with Atlanta Police Department's (APD) internal affairs office. So far they have not heard back from the APD. Some have also filed complaints with a Citizen Review Board which oversees the APD; Kelley is being interviewed by them this week, he said.

According to one complaint, police officers were laughing and high fiving each other. "And they made the statement 'this is fun, we should do it to a fag bar every weekend'. I actually heard that," Kelley said.

According to another complaint, one officer said, "This is more fun than than raiding niggers with crack." This complainant also said the police kicked him in the ribs while he was lying down and that he saw police grab other patrons by their necks and push them to the ground if they did not immediately get on the ground.

In a third complaint, one patron recalled officers saying, "I hate homosexuals," and "I don't like fags," adding, "One officer… told me I should be ashamed for being there."

In a fourth complaint, another patron said he was forced to the ground and that an officer put his boot on his back.

"They also went through the bar asking if people were married or in the military so they could call their wives or their sergeants and tell them where they were found," Kelley said.

"There definitely is an internal investigation. There's no way for us to tell," how long it will take, Officer Dani Lee Harris, APD's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender liaison, told IPS.

"I'm not at liberty to discuss anything under investigation about whether it did or did not happen," Harris said. "If it is something that did happen, of course it would concern me."

"All of the police officers get the sensitivity training on working with the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] community, in addition to the training that's done yearly," Harris said, adding she teaches the sensitivity class.

When asked whether the bar patrons had the right to ask for probable cause of their being detained, Harris said, "Yes they do, and that's one of the things that's also under investigation."

The Atlanta raid raises several questions. For example, "In a time when violent criminals are roaming our streets, was this the most efficient use of our scarce police resources?" City Councilwoman Mary Norwood asked in a statement.

The raid turns out to have been the culmination of a months-long investigation involving several undercover police which cost the city a small fortune, during a time when Mayor Shirley Franklin had to cut back on the police force due to the economic crisis and a city budget shortfall.

Kelley believes the city will pursue the charges against those arrested, resulting in a drawn out legal case. "The police department has already made clear they will take the 32 police officers and put them on the witness stand. They'll be off the street and in court saying yes they saw four men in their underwear at the Atlanta Eagle," he said.

A private pro-bono attorney is representing some of the patrons at the Eagle that night over human rights violations; if the city doesn't apologise soon to the bar owners, Kelley says the bar will likely sue the city as well.

Meanwhile, in Fort Worth, Texas, police raided a gay bar called the Rainbow Lounge in June of this year, ironically during a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York. Seven customers were arrested for public intoxication.

Complaints about police behaviour at the Rainbow Lounge mimicked those at the Eagle, in that witnesses also said police used excessive force. The difference between the two incidents, though, is that the police in Texas later apologised.

The famous Stonewall Riots, which occurred in 1969, were seen as a turning point in gay culture and empowerment: dozens of homosexual men and drag queens rioted against police after a series of police harassment incidents at gay bars in New York. This year, 40th anniversary celebrations were held across the U.S.

But at the Eagle and Rainbow Lounge, it seemed like people were traveling backwards in time.

"This is the 40th year anniversary of Stonewall. After 40 years of marching in parades… gay rights haven't changed at all. They might think they did because they're accepted more in communities, but at the same time, they don't have any more rights than they did in 1968," Kelley said.

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