When Blake's ran low on ice during a busy Sunday of Black Gay Pride, owner Alan Briggs made a late-night run to restock. When he returned a half-hour later, police had ordered the popular bar to close early and offered shifting explanations about why.
Atlanta police ordered four venues near 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue – two gay bars and two restaurants popular with LGBT patrons – to close more than two hours early on Sept. 3 as party-goers celebrated Black Gay Pride during the Labor Day Weekend holiday. The action impacted Blake's, Ten, G's and 10th & Piedmont, and sparked a controversy, charges of discrimination and the transfer of the police commander who ordered the bars to close.
Briggs said he was deeply troubled by the incident and questioned how it could happen.
"I'm bewildered," Briggs said. "We were wrongfully shut down and I rightfully feel that we were specifically targeted. With all of the laws and regulatory constraints under which we operate every day of the week, the effect of uninformed APD resulted in a loss of thousands of dollars of income to our business, loss of income to our employees and the ill will created by what was perceived as a raid on our business."
"Somehow a simple apology from the APD doesn't seem an equitable resolve. How they allowed this to happen to the businesses on this newly knighted 'rainbow corner,' their employees and customers is beyond me," Briggs added.
Briggs said he left Blake's about 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 3. When he returned a half-hour later with a few hundred pounds of ice to restock, police officers were on site, the music was off, the house lights were on and the crowd was clearing out.
"I was inundated by employees and customers asking me what had happened," Briggs said.
Atlanta police officers told a security guard at the bar that the city did not extend closing times for the holiday weekend. But in fact, closing times were pushed from 12:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Also, Briggs said he noticed that other bars in the Ansley Mall area were not closed when he passed by them earlier as he picked the supply of ice.
Briggs said the closure by police was jarring to customers and employees.
"Several customers were scared and many wondered what we had done wrong to be 'raided' like this. Yes, some thought we were being raided by the police," Briggs said.
Briggs said he then found the city ordinance extending bar hours online and asked a friend to call other LGBT bars in Midtown. They were still open, the friend told him.
"We were having such a great weekend up to this point," Briggs said.
In 2009, Atlanta police raided the Eagle and arrested eight people. The botched action led to several lawsuits that cost the city nearly $3 million in settlements, the firings of six officers, the dismantling of a specialized police unit and court-ordered reforms to the department.
'His actions wreaked havoc on our establishment'
After the bar was closed, Briggs called police to try and find out what happened. He eventually reached the commander who ordered officers to close the businesses. The police lieutenant first blamed the early closure on Blake's, Briggs said.
"On the phone, he said that they couldn't control the crowd and keep them on the sidewalks. I asked him what that had to do with us serving liquor until 2:30 am. He said 'people were coming out of your establishment inebriated sir.' I said, it's a bar and what does that have to do with us serving liquor until 2:30 am," Briggs said.
The police commander then told Briggs that the city didn't extend business hours for the holiday weekend. When Briggs emailed him the ordinance pushing bar hours to 2:30 a.m., the police lieutenant changed his explanation – again.
"He said, 'We don't have a copy of this. If i had this in my possession tonight this wouldn't have happened.' I told him I Googled it in 30 seconds and that anyone could do the same and why didn't he? He told me the source from where they get their information is different. I then told him what havoc his actions wreaked on our establishment and on the community tonight," Briggs said.
In the wake of the incident, Atlanta police apologized and called the closures an "honest mistake." As the controversy festered – mayoral candidates Cathy Woolard, Mary Norwood and Peter Aman criticized it and City Council member Alex Wan called it "disappointing" – police Chief Erika Shields (second photo) said she was "disappointed." Shields reassigned the lieutenant that ordered the closures out of Zone 5, which includes Midtown.
The department also dispatched Major Darin Schierbaum, who took command of Zone 5 just days before the incident, to apologize to the business owners. Briggs said Schierbaum has met with him at Blake's three times since the early closures. Shields, Schierbaum and the lieutenant who shut down the businesses are all gay.
Atlanta police, in a new statement issued Friday, said the department acted "swiftly" to address its mistake.
“Chief Shields has already acknowledged that the early closure of the bars was a mistake and took swift action to move the watch commander involved in that decision to another zone. The Department has already apologized publicly, and privately whenever possible, to bar owners and their patrons affected by the closures," said Carlos Campos, public affairs director for Atlanta police.
"If any bar owner has concerns they’d like to further discuss, we encourage them to reach out to Zone 5 Commander Major Darin Schierbaum," Campos added.
Briggs said the incident marred an otherwise fun weekend for Black Gay Pride attendees and others enjoying their Sunday nightlife.
"'Rainbow corner' and only this corner on Black Pride Sunday was shut down. What a shame. It appeared everyone was having such a good time," Briggs said.