Abre’ Conner and Novella Coleman set out for a night of karaoke at a diver bar in Fresno, Calif., earlier this month and were shocked when they were asked to leave, they say, for being black.
Conner, 28, told me in a phone interview that she’s new to Fresno, and that The Brig popped up in a Google search as one of a few places where you can sing karaoke in town. She, along with Coleman, 33, and another colleague, signed up to sing a TLC song at Brig, and soon realized that while those who had apparently signed up after them were performing, their group had yet to be called.
According to Conner, when they asked staffers what was going on, “we were told we hadn’t purchased enough drinks.” When she and her friends explained that members of the group had indeed purchased drinks, the staff got aggressive. “One of the employees shouted at us that we need to buy more,” Conner told me, adding, “Another one threw his hands up and started body bumping me” in an effort to physically force her out of the bar. When Conner asked the male employee not to touch her, he called the police.
Conner and Coleman are well-versed in discrimination. Both are staff attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and shared their experience on the ACLU website. They wrote in detail about what happened after the confrontation:
An off-duty server came over to try to smooth things over. We explained that we’d been removed from the karaoke list before we were even told what the rule was. We explained that several other people in the bar didn’t have drinks in their hand. She said the rule was just about business but showed no interest in enforcing it against anyone else. Instead she tried to convince us to leave. We pointed out that the bar staff was only using the rule against us and we seemed to be the only two Black people in the bar.
Conner said that when the police arrived, a number of apparently white bar-goers told the officers that they had tried to purchase drinks for Conner and Coleman to ameliorate the situation, but were refused. Conner told me that “some of the patrons even told the police they had never heard of this rule and it didn’t exist.” Police ultimately escorted Conner and Coleman out.
“Being a black woman in America, I’ve definitely experienced racism and micro-aggressions,” she said, adding, “[but] I’ve never, even being from the south, been kicked out of an establishment because people were refusing to serve me because of my race.” She added that she felt demeaned by the incident. “It was embarrassing and humiliating and shocking that in 2016, that there were people who felt that it was OK to discriminate against us because of the color of our skin… it was just a sad and shocking situation.”
For Conner, writing and speaking publicly about what happened is a way to empower others to come forth with their own experiences. “We knew that it was important for us to tell our stories, and to make sure that people know that if racism happens, that you should call it out by its name.” She added that since she and Coleman wrote about what happened, “we definitely have gotten support from people who also experienced racism in different public places.”
The Brig, for its part, denies accusations of racism. In an interview with The Huffington Post, bar manager Heidi Wilson said claims of racial discrimination by bar employees are “absolutely false.”
“It’s not a racial thing whatsoever; that is 100 percent false… it’s because they were loitering and didn’t purchase anything,” Wilson continued, adding “they refused to leave and the police were on our side and escorted them out… might I say that we have so much different culture in here, and we absolutely love it. Everybody has such a wonderful time.”
Conner says she and Coleman have not ruled out the possibility of taking legal action against the bar. In their ACLU blog post, they pointed out the specific ways in which The Brig may have been acting illegally:
Since a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision, it has been clear that federal law prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of race. This case confirmed that a restaurant in the segregated Deep South could not refuse to serve Black patrons. And that ruling’s legacy means that, today, it’s against the law for a bar in Fresno to force us, two Black women, to leave over a one drink rule that the bar only applied to us.
They continued, “the servers said it wasn’t about race. But for us, and for many other patrons, it was,” adding, “the server who said it wasn’t about race wasn’t on the receiving end of the humiliation of being kicked out of a bar.”
The Fresno Police Department and Brig management did not immediately respond to a request for comment.