Exterior of Nellie's Sports Bar
Nellie's Sports Bar Credit: "2020.05.07 DC People and Places, Washington, DC USA 127 13208-Edit" by tedeytan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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Update at 4:45 p.m. on 6/14: This story has been updated to include a statement from Nellie’s.

During Pride weekend in D.C., security at a well known gay bar forcibly removed a Black woman by dragging her down a flight of stairs. Video of the incident went viral on social media, and now some locals are protesting and boycotting Nellie’s Sports Bar located at 900 U Street NW. The family of the young woman is also pursuing a civil claim against the bar.  

Posted on Instagram early Sunday, cell phone video appears to show Nellie’s security personnel dragging a Black woman, later identified as 22-year-old Keisha Young, down the stairs by her limbs. (A lawyer for Young says security grabbed her by the hair.) You can hear patrons scream, “Oh my God” as they watch. Video also shows a few observers, later identified as the cousins of Young, jump in and a fight ensues between them and security. 

Outraged by the graphic footage they saw, locals used social media to organize a Sunday evening protest outside of Nellie’s. The protest also served as an opportunity for Young to attempt to retrieve her personal belongings—her phone and glasses—from the bar.

Nee Nee Taylor, a co-conductor with Harriet’s Dreams (a Black-led abolitionist community defense hub that centers Black lives and liberation in the D.C. region), helped Young gather her stuff. Taylor was only able to retrieve her phone. While doing so, Taylor says she asked a Nellie’s employee if they could facilitate a meeting between Young and the bar’s White owner, Douglas Schantz. Schantz was not at the Nellie’s at the time, and did not plan to visit, Taylor tells City Paper. Protesters later went to his purported home. 

“The owner of Nellie’s don’t care enough about Black people to come and make sure that his Black patron, who is Keisha, was safe and OK,” Taylor tells journalist Chuck Modi. “So we ask the people to protest and boycott Nellie’s because the owner, who is a White man, don’t care about Black women. If he cared, he would come out here and be concerned about what security done to a Black woman in his club.” 

While she was speaking with various Nellie’s employees on Sunday, Taylor says one security guard told her that they are instructed to remove rude patrons the best way they can. This security guard condoned the actions of his colleague, she says. 

Young relayed at the protest that security dragged her down the stairs after misidentifying her as someone who brought a bottle inside the bar. She says she didn’t do anything wrong. When asked what she wants to happen to Nellie’s, Young told WUSA9: “I want them gone.” 

Nellie’s says it is investigating the incident. “We were incredibly upset and disturbed to see the unfortunate event that took place,” the bar’s social media posts read. “We are undergoing a full investigation of the situation. At Nellie’s we foster an inclusive and safe environment, so events like this are completely unacceptable to us.” It’s unclear whether the security guard that dragged Young is still employed at Nellie’s. (Nellie’s disabled comments on Instagram Monday.)  

Schantz did not respond to City Paper’s request for comment on the status of the investigation, allegations that his bar has long treated Black patrons differently than White ones, whether he employs any Black people other than security guards, what the bar’s written policies are when it comes to asking a customer to leave, or whether he is willing to speak directly with Young about her experience at Nellie’s. 

Brandon Burrell, an attorney for the Young family, says they are pursuing a civil claim against Nellie’s. They believe Nellie’s is liable for assault. The family is also considering filing a police report. Immediately, the family is calling on Nellie’s to release any security footage or surveillance video from the incident, as well as calling on Nellie’s to immediately fire security involved. It’s not entirely clear from cell phone video whether more than one employee was involved, which is why the family is asking for additional footage. 

“I’m definitely not sure what Nellie’s policy is. I would say whatever their policy is …  it definitely isn’t consistent with what the law is,” Burrell tells City Paper. “I don’t think most people would think that their behavior was reasonable towards Keisha, nor would it be reasonable even towards the person who actually did bring the bottle, if anyone did bring a bottle.” 

Young is now raising money for legal fees and therapy on GoFundMe. Burrell says Young is not feeling well. “She is unsteady on her feet,” he says. She went to the hospital Sunday, and is awaiting test results. Schantz has yet to reach out to Young, according to Burrell.

During the protests outside Nellie’s locals shouted “Justice for Keisha” and “Respect Black women.” They encouraged patrons to leave the bar and join the movement. A few pointed out that Nellie’s had displayed a “Black Lives Matter” sign. “The movement has been commodified,” Toni Sanders, a member of Black Lives Matter who protested, said on a livestream.  

Preston Mitchum, an attorney who co-chairs the board of the Collective Action for Safe Spaces, participated in Sunday night’s protest and has been tweeting about Nellie’s the past few days. In 2016, Nellie’s was one of Mitchum’s favorite bars in D.C. He lives nearby and would go about twice a week with friends, including what he fondly recalls as “Chocolate Sunday Fundays.” But when he says he started noticing how staff were treating Black patrons differently than White ones when “tensions would flare up,” he tried to engage Schantz in a dialogue that he says didn’t go very far. He also wrote Schantz a letter in 2017 discussing some of his concerns.

When Black customers were involved in fights or disagreements, Mitchum says, “what we often observed were cops being called and the immediacy of being kicked out,” but “when White patrons were fighting or harassing gay Black men, we saw some staff members be a little kinder—they used different tools to deescalate [situations].” 

Mitchum explains that he has not personally experienced violence or discrimination at Nellie’s. He says he’s only witnessed it happening to other Black patrons. “I didn’t have a negative experience,” he says. “But I’m not separating myself from when other Black people are being harmed because I know it’s only a matter of time.” 

He says it troubles him immensely that the Nellie’s building sports Black Lives Matter signage. “Suffice it to say, the pervasive truth is Nellie’s has had a history of racism,” he says. “If you say my name to Doug Schantz, I’m sure he will roll his eyes. We’ve gone back and forth and argued for years and not because we want attention. It’s because this is unjust. Our Black bodies matter. Not just our Black dollars. Certainly they will take our money, but when it comes to protecting us, Nellie’s does not care.”

Mitchum says he wants the security guard (or guards) who dragged Young out of Nellie’s fired because nothing justifies that level of violence. But that’s not all. “I want Nellie’s done,” he says. “But, I know how capitalism works. It’s not going to be done unless White communities, White gay men and White women who go during bachelorette parties stop going. We really need for people to think beyond what they like and realize there are so many places we can explore.” 

The incident prompted others to share similar impressions of the bar on social media. It brands itself as a gay bar, but some argue Nellie’s is only a safe space for White, cisgender men. “Nellie’s has long had a problem with catering to the Black queer community on U St, it was an issue when I lived there a decade ago. This is so awful and I hope that woman  has a strong network around her,” tweeted Shamira Ibrahim. “I have seen completely wasted, belligerent people handled with more care than this 22-year-old woman who had an outside bottle. I cannot fathom a justification and, frankly, it plays to the character of Nellie’s,” tweeted Gillian Branstetter

This is not the first time locals protested Nellie’s. In 2018, the bar came under scrutiny for waiving a Blue Lives Matter flag alongside its rainbow and American flags. No Justice No Pride, an activist organization that supports trans women of color and sex workers, shared an image of the bar’s flags on social media. “Nellie’s Sports Bar is cancelled,” tweeted No Justice No Pride in March 2018. “In the wake of the murder of Stephon Clark and non indictment of the officers who killed Alton Sterling, they have the audacity to fly a flag that tells us they don’t value Black lives.” The bar later apologized on the company’s Facebook page; Nellie’s hung the flag to welcome queer officers for an event at the bar.  

Following the publication of this article, a representative from Nellie’s Sports Bar submitted the following statement to City Paper:

“Nellie’s Sports Bar has terminated, with immediate effect, the independent security vendor hired to protect our guests during Pride Week. Our investigation into the matter is ongoing, and we will cooperate with any law enforcement investigation, however we do not need to wait for the investigation’s conclusion before we take decisive action. We offer a heartfelt apology to all who witnessed the horrific events of this past weekend. No matter what behavior occurred prior, nothing warrants mistreating, and disrespecting, one of our guests. What we can say is we have heard the concerns of the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities. Nellie’s will be closed this week as we evaluate this regrettable situation, though we will continue to pay all non-security staff their normal wages. In the interim, we will use this time to listen and understand what more we can do to create the safe and friendly atmosphere our guests have come to expect from Nellie’s Sports Bar over the past 14 years.”

—Amanda Michelle Gomez and Laura Hayes (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com)

This post has been updated to correct that Nee Nee Taylor no longer works with Black Lives Matter DC but Harriet’s Dreams.

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