Labor Day weekend was also Black Gay Pride weekend in Atlanta, a time for LGBT people of color to celebrate being part of two unique communities. But that joy was marred late Sunday night when police forced several bars to close early—the result, authorities claim, of a “communication failure.”
At least four bars and restaurants near 10th Street at Piedmont Avenue, the heart of Atlanta’s gayborhood, were ordered to close at 12:30am Monday morning, even though city policy allows venues to stay open two hours later than normal on the Sunday night before Labor Day. (No other establishments were made to close before 2:30am.)
According to an APD spokesperson, the commanding officer made the call to close the bars, including Blake’s on the Park and Ten, because of concern that crowds spilling out onto the streets could become a public safety hazard.
“Closing the bars early was, very simply, an honest mistake based on a communication failure,” said APD’s Carlos Campos. “The morning watch supervisors should have been aware of the city council’s extension of bar hours for the Labor Day weekend, but they were not.”
Authorities call the incident an honest mistake, but with ongoing tensions between African-Americans and police nationwide, bringing paddy wagons to places filled with queer people of color goes beyond bad optics.
“Given the fact that no other bars were shut down in this way, it is difficult not to interpret the action as discriminatory against the LGBTQ community,” said mayoral candidate Cathy Woolard. “That this incident took place during Atlanta’s 21st annual Black Gay Pride, an event that is extremely significant for our city, only compounds the problematic nature of the decision.”
The situation also reignites accusations of racism within the LGBT community: The commander who ordered the bars closed is gay, as is his supervisor, Major Darin Schierbaum. And Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields came out as as a lesbian earlier this year.
“While I do not believe the commander purposely set out to act in a discriminatory manner, his actions certainly gave that perception to bar owners, managers and patrons,” said Shields. “Our commanders and officers simply must show more sensitivity to the concerns of our diverse communities.”
Schierbaum is expected to apologize in person to bar owners and community leaders.
Police in Atlanta have worked to improve relations with the LGBT community since 2009, when officers raided the Eagle without a warrant, citing reports of “lewd conduct.” Despite no sign of illegal activity, patrons were handcuffed, subjected to anti-gay slurs, and made to lie face down on the floor. Ultimately four go-go boys were charged with dancing in their underwear without a permit.
In the wake of the SWAT-style raid, the city launched its first LGBT Liaison Unit.