January 13, 2016

Commissioners and Activists Tackle Downtown Discrimination

City Dope

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Silver Dollar is just one of many downtown bars where black UGA students say they've been discriminated against.

Have downtown bars become those often-mocked politically correct “safe spaces”—safe from diversity, that is? Sure looks like they're trying to be, with dress codes that ban tattoos, earrings, black shirts and, according to many complaints, black skin.

Athens-Clarke County commissioners took a first step last week toward a local anti-discrimination ordinance to supplement federal civil rights laws. But some bar owners are pushing back.

"If you just allow anybody into the bar, that's when you start having crime," Jerzees owner Mitch Jordan told Flagpole. Dress codes keep “troublemakers” out of bars to prevent fights and thefts, he said. But it goes beyond that, Jordan acknowledged. "I got turned away from a bar in Athens because I'm too old," he said, while Little Kings last year briefly barred anyone under 25 on weekends. And it's not just Athens, Jordan said; "all across the country,” bars try to pick their clientele. In Athens, "there are bars that consider themselves Greek-only."

9d's owner Mark Bell (son of Commissioner Diane Bell) attended last week's ACC commission meeting to ask commissioners not to single out the bar industry when they write an anti-discrimination ordinance. He told Flagpole he too was refused entry to an Athens bar—he wouldn't say which one—for wearing earrings. Bell said 9d's posts its dress code explicitly, so it won't be viewed as discriminating based on race or personal characteristics.

"Dress codes are posted as a means to discriminate," Commissioner Melissa Link asserted, including specifying "culturally discriminatory" hair styles.

Some UGA students have found downtown bars unwelcoming, to say the least. In dozens of incidents collected anonymously by UGA's Student Government Association through various student organizations, students—especially black students—recalled being denied entry to bars. In many cases, the students said, similarly-dressed white students were allowed in. Here’s a sample of the stories the SGA collected:

• “After denial of entry into Jerzees for my black male friend wearing a plain black shirt, we tried to go to 9d’s and we were denied entry for the same reason. We pointed out to the bouncer of the white male he just let in with a plain black shirt. The male bouncer said that the white male was different. We got out of line and went home."

• “Encountered discrimination at Whiskey Bent with a black male (I am a white female) who adhered to the posted 'dress code' while in line by removing his jewelry… but the door guy denied him with no reason. He is a student-athlete at UGA but often avoids the downtown bars because of similar discrimination at many places."

• “I was denied access because of my dress, and the bouncer [at Double Barrel] said, ‘We don't let fags in here.’”

• “A bouncer kept out a group of African American women from [the Silver Dollar] with the excuse that they were wearing crop tops—my friend and I (both of whom are white) were just let into the bar and we too were wearing crop tops. I was not the victim in this situation, but want to make sure this incident is shared."

• “My friend was kicked out of the bar for being gay. He was a guy who kissed another guy at the bar, and the bouncer told them to leave."

• “Everyone was accepted [at 100 Proof] except my black friends. They were all denied. When I asked the bouncer why he denied them, he said because they were wearing earrings. I pointed and said my white guy friend was also wearing earrings. He shrugged his shoulders."

• “In front of our group… were all African American and all relatively young… The bouncer looked back nervously for another employee. A second Boar's Head employee walked up and began to tell the group 'Sorry, tonight is students' night'… The group said they were not students, they were locals. The bouncers told them they couldn't get in… When it was our turn to get in, the bouncer said NOTHING about a 'student night.’”

ACC commissioners last week unanimously passed a resolution calling on "all businesses" to "act in a non-discriminatory fashion with regard to race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, citizenship, age, disability or pregnancy" and asked ACC's manager and county attorney to recommend how to enforce compliance, including making liquor licenses contingent on nondiscrimination.

"If there is discrimination, it would have to be proven," said county attorney Bill Berryman, whose office will consider how to establish proof. (Federal law already bars racial discrimination, but enforcement is difficult.)

"I don't think we can legislate how people feel about each other in their hearts, but we can certainly enforce the law," Commissioner Andy Herod said.

Discrimination March: Local music promoters and founders of the Athens Hip Hop Awards Mokah and Knowa Johnson have organized a march in support of the anti-discrimination ordinance on MLK Day, Monday, Jan. 18. It starts at 4 p.m. at the Arch and will wind past General Beauregard’s before winding up at City Hall. “I’ve noticed more than 70 percent of the businesses downtown cater to a distinct audience, which is not inviting to everyone,” Mokah Johnson said. “Due to this, many local African Americans avoid going downtown unless visiting local businesses near Hot Corner.” [Blake Aued]