A protester speaks into a megaphone in front of Nellie's Sports Bar
Credit: Sloane Airey

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For the third consecutive weekend, a few hundred people gathered at the intersection of U Street NW and 9th Street NW to protest Nellie’s Sports Bar. The gay bar came under public scrutiny after cell phone video showed security forcibly removing a 22-year-old Black woman named Keisha Young by dragging her down a flight of stairs. Nellie’s near-immediately responded by firing security. The Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, the government agency that issues and renews liquor licenses, is now investigating the incident that happened on June 12. 

“We are here to uplift the Black, queer, and trans community and continue our boycott of Nellie’s,” says Makia Green, a co-conductor of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, a Black-led community defense group that helped organize Friday’s protest. “We are demanding that they shut down. So if they continue to try and open, we are going to be protesting.”   

Protests, promoted through social media, began outside of the Nellie’s the day after the incident, on June 13. Young joined the protests, including the one on Friday. She kept a low profile, and spoke briefly just to thank everyone for their continued support. Organizers say she’s traumatized by what happened to her, which has gone viral and been picked up by national media. “We do not negotiate with the safety of Black women,” shouted one organizer. “Outta the bars and into the streets,” shouted another. 

Nellie’s did not provide comment before publication. 

Photo of OnRaé LaTeal and Makia Green. Credit: Sloane Airey

In between speeches about anti-Black racism at Nellie’s, protesters belted out songs and danced in unison. Walking by and seeing them line dance to the “Cupid Shuffle,” onlookers might have mistaken the action as a block party. Organizers say they encouraged singing and dancing because Young did not get to—the college student looking to celebrate Pride was at Nellie’s for mere minutes before security dragged her out. When the occasional observer pulled a protester aside to ask what they were doing, they’d share what happened to Young. “They don’t do this in Chicago. Amazing,” one woman exclaimed after learning why so many people had gathered.

Organizers plan to protest outside the bar that’s been around for 14 years until a number of demands are met. They are asking for Nellie’s and the owner, Douglas Schantz, to issue a public apology to Young. The bar released a statement via social media a day after the incident, which made no specific reference to Young. “We offer a heartfelt apology to all who witnessed the horrific events of this past weekend,” the statement reads. “No matter what behavior occurred prior, nothing warrants mistreating, and disrespecting, one of our guests.” 

Brandon Burrell, an attorney for the Young family, tells City Paper no one from Nellie’s has contacted them. The family is pursuing a civil claim against Nellie’s, but Burrell says they are waiting on contact from the bar’s counsel or insurance before filing the suit. 

According to Burrell, the family also wants Nellie’s to release any security footage or surveillance video from the incident, as do organizers of recent protests. More cell phone footage emerged after the incident went viral. The video shows a fight between what looks to be Nellie’s staff, security, and patrons including Young. Young is seen striking a man who is in an altercation with another man, who Fox 5 reports to be her cousin. Someone then pulls Young down the stairs, and she is seen hitting back. The video lacks context, but Burrell tells Fox 5 that the Nellie’s staff “initiated” the physical altercation after they mistook her as another woman who brought a bottle into the establishment. “Ms. Young was dragged down a staircase by her hair because she tried to protect her family,” Burrell says.   

The family had also wanted Nellie’s to fire security involved in dragging Young down a flight of stairs by her limbs and hair. Nellie’s near-immediately terminated the security vendor the bar hired during Pride Week. The bar has also been closed the last two weeks. In its original statement, Nellie’s said it would close to “listen and understand” what more the bar can do to create a “safe and friendly atmosphere” for patrons.

For those who protested outside of Nellie’s on Friday evening and into midnight, terminating the security officer seen in the video (who is also Black) and closing the bar for a week or so will not suffice. “I’m really here in solidarity for Keisha,” says Joella Roberts. Roberts is founder of Migration Matters, she says the first and only student organization at a historically Black college or university to center around undocumented students.  “These businesses like they give you some basic statements and they move on. And it’s important that as people—like literal people, not corporations—… that we stand up against them.”

“Like for them to say ‘Oh, we apologize to the people who witnessed stuff,’ not the person who was brutalized, but the people who witnessed, and to also throw a Black man who was doing his job to be 100 percent honest, to throw him under the bus and now he is unfortunately unemployed—there are no lessons learned,” Roberts continues.  

Because they do not see what happened to Young as an isolated incident but rather a pattern of anti-Black racism at Nellie’s, organizers are also demanding that Schantz and the management team agree to attend a public listening session and give reparations to the Black queer and trans community. “We’ve had multiple, tens and tens of people reaching out to us saying ‘I was harmed at Nellie’s. I was discriminated at Nellie’s. I was underpaid at Nellie’s. I was a staff at Nellie’s and I got abused here. I was staffed here and I wasn’t protected,’” says Green. “We need them to have reparations for the abuses in the community and we deserve a space. Black queer and trans people deserve a space that is led by us and for us.”

The bar’s liquor license could be in jeopardy, effectively shutting Nellie’s down, depending on the outcome of an investigation from the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. An ABRA spokesperson says the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will review the investigative case report to determine whether it needs to be sent to the Office of the Attorney General for a hearing. A report is expected to be produced no later than Wednesday. That hearing could result in anything from fines to a suspended or revoked liquor license, depending on what charges are brought by the OAG. The spokesperson did not specify what prompted the agency to investigate the matter.

The organizers are familiar faces in local protests that happen year round. Organizers are affiliated with various racial-justice, grassroots organizations including the Defund MPD, Freedom Fighters DC, The Palm Collective, Stop Police Terror Project, and DC Mutual Aid Network. People could not help but connect what happened at Nellie’s with the social issues they typically organize around. One organizer noted the police presence; officers had closed off the streets and surrounded protesters. “If you work for MPD, quit your job,” they said to the crowd. Another organizer who took the mic said street vendors affiliated with Ward 1 Mutual Aid were giving out free food, including tamales. “When someone attacks one member, we come out,” they said. To close out their speech, they called for decriminalizing street vending. As each individual spoke, someone was interpreting what they were saying into sign language. 

All the individuals and groups work in coalition with one another. In fact, Green says it was Ward 1 Mutual Aid who suggested residents file complaints with ABRA so that Nellie’s could lose its liquor license. “A lot of us are abolitionists. We actually protest for Black Lives Matter,” says Green. “A lot of the movement is led by a Black queer and trans people anyway. You find us at the intersection of every movement. So we’re grateful that people are here and people who are walking by can join the movement.”

Credit: Sloane Airey

Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com)

This post has been updated to include Roberts’ organization affiliation.

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