PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Attorneys for an Oregon strip club that caters to black clientele told a federal judge Tuesday that Portland shut the club down in a pattern of targeting black club owners.
Donna Thames and Columbia Bar & Grill dba Exotica sued Portland and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission in August last year, claiming they forced her to close as part of a pattern and practice of shutting down black businesses. Thames seeks compensatory and punitive damages of $22.5 million.
“This case is about unconscionable, illegal conduct creating insurmountable obstacles to success of black club owners catering to black people and clubs offering entertainment and playing music appealing to black people,” the lawsuit states. “The city of Portland, working in partnership with state liquor authorities, has a long and shameful history of knowingly and intentionally targeting black clubs with all of their regulatory power in a concerted effort to drive the clubs out of business.”
Thames says officials unfairly punished her for a 2015 shooting in the club parking lot that wounded three men. The shooting was not the fault of the club, but officials told Thames she could either take a “cooling off period” during which she would be forced to close at midnight for three months or close completely for one year.
Thames says that closing early was a financial no-go because the club and its employees make most of their money late at night. She says she was forced to close for good in July 2015.
Thames says Exotica is the only club that faced such restrictions, though there were violent incidents at nearby white-owned clubs too.
On Tuesday, William Manlove argued for the city that there was no evidence of racial bias. Manlove said the police officer who issued the letter announcing the cooling off period didn’t even know Thames was black, or that the club catered to mostly black clientele.
Thames’ attorney, Timothy Volpert, told U.S. District Judge Paul Papak he should not dismiss the case.
“She has been the victim of a racially motivated conspiracy that went over time to shut her down,” Volpert said.
Jesse Davis, attorney for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, told the judge the restrictions it issued were based on valid enforcement concerns, not on race.
“The story told by plaintiffs has a certain appeal, but the reality is these restrictions were imposed based on a serious history of violations,” Davis said.
Volpert called that revisionist history.
“The history is very important here,” Volpert said. “City employees and the OLCC had a pattern and practice of shutting down black businesses.”
Marc Abrams with the Oregon Department of Justice, defending the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, told the judge that allowing Thames’ claim to proceed would set a dangerous precedent.
“Anytime a plaintiff disagreed with so-called hardball tactics they could say, ‘Fine, I’ll shut my business down and sue for damages,’” Abrams told the judge.
Volpert said that logic didn’t hold up.
“In our view, this is like randomly grabbing someone off the street and throwing them in jail and when you say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that,’ they say, ‘Well, you’ll get a trial,’” Volpert said.
Papak didn’t indicate when he would rule.