On Tuesday night, the Entertainment Commission heard public comment on the SF Badlands bar, a Castro fixture accused of racial discrimination in admission and hiring. Members of And Castro for All (AC4A), the grassroots organization that spearheaded the SF Badlands protests, urged the Entertainment Commission to suspend owner Les Natali’s entertainment permit. “We want to send a message to all gay people of color that this kind of behavior is not tolerated in the gay ‘mecca’,” stated organizer Tia Martinez, “that if people take their personal prejudices and enforce them in a place of public accommodation, it will be prosecuted.”
Though commissioners emphasized that the meeting was not a hearing, Tuesday’s forum was the first action taken by the Entertainment Commission on the issue since the Human Rights Commission (HRC) released its findings in April. The HRC’s report ruled that club owner Les Natali selectively enforced dress codes and ID requirements on the basis of race, usually to prevent African-American customers from entering SF Badlands. At Tuesday’s meeting, community members reiterated these claims and shared personal stories of discrimination experienced at the SF Badlands bar.
Robert McMullin, executive director of the Stop AIDS Project, read a statement by the late Kaya Nati , who alleged that in 2001, Natali ejected him from the bar for wearing Afro-centric clothing, saying, “‘Tonight is not costume night – you’re not welcome here'”. Marvin Miller, one of the original complainants to the HRC, said he was asked by Natali to produce three pieces of ID in order to re-enter the club, then denied admission because he didn’t “meet his dress code”. Meanwhile, he noted, white men in shorts and t-shirts were freely admitted into the club. Others testified that a no-bag policy, though publicly posted, was only enforced against African-Americans, and that people of color were challenged by bouncers as to whether they could pay for drinks.
Current SF Badlands employees who testified before the commission claimed no dress code was in place, nor had there ever been.
“I’ve never been asked to participate in any discriminatory actions against any customers whatsoever,” stated Oscar Martinez, the bar’s current manager, adding, “The ID policy has always been that if the first form of ID does not seem valid, we ask for the second form.” Commissioners asked on what basis employees determined whether ID was valid, and whether Martinez himself was familiar with the five criteria for a valid ID. Martinez replied that he was not.
Bartender Ivan Haselbacher claimed to have witnessed Nati’s ejection from Badlands, and said that Nati had been dancing erratically, as if he were taking drugs. Commissioner Audrey Joseph rejected this claim, however, noting that Haselbacher did not start working at SF Badlands until September 2003, two years after the disputed incident.
Several former Badlands employees supported AC4A’s allegations. Michael Killen, who worked part-time as a doorman from May 2001 to May 2002, testified that he “repeatedly witnessed Les Natali selectively employ policies” against African-American patrons, most notably a non-posted dress code. Killen asserted that Natali informed him in a private meeting that some customers “were not welcome . were just there to sell drugs” and “could go across the street” – an apparent reference to the Pendulum, the Castro’s only mostly-Black gay bar, also owned by Natali.
The Pendulum has recently become the locus of further Castro controversy. In July, representatives from the statewide Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) investigated SF Badlands’ admission practices. Though the ABC concluded there was insufficient evidence to revoke Natali’s liquor license, the department placed three conditions on Natali’s license for the Pendulum: compliance with civil rights law, anti-discrimination training for employees, and public signage indicating that the bar does not discriminate. Natali’s attorney, Stephen Goldstein, has argued that the ABC’s findings “completely exonerate” him; opponents contend that the conditions placed on the Pendulum license indicate that the ABC remains concerned with Natali’s actions. In addition, as of last week Natali has closed the Pendulum indefinitely for renovations, sparking a new round of community protests.
Though commission members stressed that their power is limited – the Commission cannot revoke, only suspend, an establishment’s permit – representatives promised to follow up on speakers’ complaints, and rejected Goldstein’s suggestion that mediation between Natali and AC4A, planned for this weekend, should stall action on the part of the Commission.
“We must be careful not to prejudge this cause,” cautioned commissioner Jim Meko, “but no one can deny that this entire commission has been touched by your testimony today. We will do our very best to produce justice.”
“You’ve touched us,” echoed commissioner Terrance Alan. “That will not end in fifteen minutes.”