Monday, July 6, 2009

The Rainbow Lounge Raid: Deja Vu or a Sign of Progress?

This morning's Huffington Post is carrying today's Los Angeles Times story about last weekend's police raid on the Ft. Worth, TX gay dance bar, The Rainbow Lounge. Pam Spaulding reported yesterday in her blog, Pam's House Blend that the NY Times had also covered the story in its Sunday edition.

The gay blogs, including this one, first picked up on the story last weekend, from a Dallas Morning News article. Details have begun to come out over the past week, and there is still more to be uncovered. Here's a summary of events, based on what is known:

The Rainbow Lounge in Ft. Worth was celebrating its grand opening on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Owners had been advised in advance that police and agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) would be coming by to make sure the bar was not serving under-age patrons and was in compliance with other regulations.

When the cops showed up at about 12:30 am, the crowd naturally became fearful. There are numerous eyewitness accounts of police acting aggressively and forcing their way through the crowd. Officers pulled people out of the bar in small groups and made several arrests, presumably on charges of public drunkenness or resisting. Some patrons were allegedly roughed up, with one man, 26 year old Chad Gibson, ending up in the hospital after having his head slammed against a wall. The raid lasted for about an hour.

The following day hundreds gathered outside the Tarrant County Courthouse to protest the raid, with accusations of homophobia and police brutality. Ft. Worth Police and TABC agents countered with accusations that they were verbally taunted with sexually explicit slurs. One officer claimed he was groped in the crotch.

As I read the LA Times account of the events this morning -- one week after the fact -- two things occurred to me.

First, why did it take so long for the mainstream media to pick up on this story? The Rainbow Lounge raid took place in Texas, the reddest of the red states and it happened on the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. The press should have been all over this story. The deja vu element is too big to ignore, but ignore it they did, until Pride Month was safely over.

As I wrote last week, The New York Daily News also waited a week -- exactly 40 years ago today -- to report the raid on the Stonewall Inn and the ensuing riots. It's deja vu all over again!

As a former bartender, the other side of this story is that ABC checks like this are not unusual, especially with a new business. The cops are trying to crack down on drunk driving and want owners and patrons alike to know that they'll be keeping an eye on the place. Here in Virginia, you don't have to be outside the bar to be arrested on a Drunk in Public charge. I've seen it happen.

In any bar, straight or gay, when law enforcement shows up, you stop what you're doing and cooperate. It may be too much to expect when alcohol is involved, but if you don't make a fuss, you're less likely to get busted. In a tense, frightening situation like this, it doesn't take much for things to get out of control. When trying to maintain order in a chaotic situation, it's easier for cops to make arrests now and let the judge sort it out later. I'm not taking sides here, but I know what happens when the cops show up to kill your buzz.

TABC and Ft. Worth police have called on Texas Gov. Rick Perry for an independent inquiry into the incident to sort out who did what. They also report that cultural sensitivity training will be ramped up and will include LGBT issues.

Is this a case of history repeating itself with uncanny accuracy or is The Rainbow Lounge incident just a sign of the times that LGBT Americans are gaining acceptance in larger society?

Maybe the real culprit of the Rainbow Lounge story is alcohol. Bars sell alcohol. People go to bars to drink alcohol. The cops and the ABC agents have the job of enforcing laws that govern alcohol consumption. Any time alcohol is involved, the rules change. Bar owners and law enforcement know the rules, but the general public only think they know them.

Perhaps the reason this wasn't a bigger story is that sometimes a raid on a gay bar is just another raid on a bar.

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