Racist policing plagues Portland’s nightclubs

A reckoning is coming for Oregon’s white supremacist past.

In the warm late-night hours of May 25, 2017, in Portland, Oregon, not far from the banks of the Willamette River, Sam Thompson approached the door of a club called Dirty — a Portland hotspot for dancing on tables, drinking cocktails and being seen in a district that overflows with clubs just like it.

Thompson, a tall, black, bearded Portland native with a big smile who moonlights as a comedian and show promoter, was there to host a birthday party. He had to be at work early the next morning, and he knew he’d be tired. Even though he wasn’t getting paid for the gig, he figured he’d get up on the stage, say, “Put your hands in the air” a few times, or maybe “All the ladies, get on the dance floor,” hang around until the party wound down and then head for bed in the early hours of morning.

Thompson was dressed casually: jeans, red Kobe Bryants and a red crewneck sweatshirt by Black Mannequin, a local clothing company. But at the club’s door, the bouncer stopped him. Ruben Monroe, who’d guarded Dirty’s door for two years, checked Thompson’s ID, handed it back, and told him, in no uncertain terms, that he could not enter.

Thompson grimaced, confused. “Why not?”


Monroe gestured to Thompson’s sneakers and sweatshirt. “The red,” he said. Dirty’s dress code, among several other things, prohibits patrons from wearing “excessive matching clothing,” because it could be perceived as gang attire.

Thompson was baffled: He was supposed to be working at the bar he was trying to get into, and he wondered exactly what gang recruits members like him: a friendly father edging toward 40 who gets up early for work. He pulled a business card from his wallet. “I’m the furthest thing from a gang member,” he said, his voice rising. “I’m hosting the party.”

More Dirty security guards gathered around the pair, backing up Monroe. By this time, Thompson was furious. “If y’all want to be racist — OK,” he said. “My lawyers will be talking to you really soon.”

He handed his phone to a friend, and told him to take his picture.

Thompson posted the photo — him standing in his red sweatshirt and sneakers in front of Dirty — to Facebook: “PLEASE SHARE!!!” he wrote, “I couldn’t get in to Dirty because my shirt matched my shoes. ... Tired of getting racially profiled in Portland, Oregon.”

The comments section filled with a chorus of black Portlanders saying they’d experienced the same thing at the doors of Dirty.

Sam Thompson, a social worker who moonlights as a show promoter, poses for a portrait outside the Dirty nightclub in Portland, Oregon, which he was barred from entering, allegedly for wearing the red sweatshirt (pictured here) with red shoes. He is suing the club for discrimination.
Leah Nash for High Country News

A week later, a white friend sent Thompson a picture from inside another Portland nightclub. He’d been out all night and had also stopped in at Dirty earlier in the evening, according to Thompson’s lawyers. In the photo, he’s holding a cocktail, grinning, and wearing a red Black Mannequin T-shirt, jeans and bright red sneakers. 

Thompson laughed when he got the message; it validated everything he thought about clubs in the city. At any other time, he might have just brushed the incident — and the photo — off. He knew what Portland was, always had been and probably always would be. 

But looking at it felt different now — it felt like proof. In recent years, Oregon’s largest city has developed a reputation for its forward-thinking culture and politics, but it’s a picture of the place that many residents of color say they don’t recognize.

“Communities of color have never, ever had a fair shot in the city of Portland,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, the first-ever black woman to be elected to the city council in November 2018. “Race continues to be a huge issue in Oregon and in Portland.”

“There’s a difference between who Oregon (and) Portland thinks it is versus what it really is.”

“There’s a difference between who Oregon (and) Portland thinks it is versus what it really is,” she said.

These incidents are all ripples stemming from the day that Oregon entered the United States. The state was founded on the openly stated premise that it would be a haven for white — and only white — settlers.Take, for example, some recent headlines about the city: In December, a black man staying at a Portland hotel was evicted after he sat down in the lobby to call his mother — an incident that caught the attention of national media. Days later, video surfaced of a white woman in an Oregon city threatening a black family with a knife and hurling racial slurs at them after they parked crookedly. In January, police fatally shot a blind black man who had schizophrenia — one of four people of color killed by police since 2017 in the city.

In fact, less than 24 hours after Thompson was stopped at Dirty’s door, the city was forced to reckon with the bloodiest ways the state’s racist history continues to intertwine with the present. Just before 4:30 p.m. on May 26, 2017, Jeremy Christian — a white ex-felon with a head of long stringy hair — took a few long pulls from a bag of wine and boarded a packed Green Line MAX train headed east across the city.

The 35-year-old had been aimless, but that spring, he’d found a purpose, marching proudly into the public eye at a charged right-wing “March for Free Speech,” giving Nazi salutes and yelling racial slurs, a Revolutionary War flag tied around his neck like a superhero’s cape. On May 25, he’d threatened a black woman on a train and allegedly hit her with a Gatorade bottle. He walked away as Portland police were questioning the woman about the incident.

On the night of May 26, Christian, according to witnesses, hurled a racist screed at two teenage girls on the train — both people of color, one wearing a hijab. Several male passengers confronted him. In response, Christian is accused of pulling a knife from his pocket, stabbing two of the men in the neck, killing them, and slashing at the throat of another, who survived.

In the days after, a vast memorial of prayer candles and chalk-drawn sympathy notes blanketed the train stop. A paper note lay in a pile of wilting red and orange flowers. “Portland,” it read, “We Have To Do Better.”

After two men were killed on a Portland, Oregon, lightrail train in May 2017, a large memorial appeared at the Hollywood MAX station, filled with messages urging the city to reckon with its racist past and present.
Leah Sottile

IN THE EARLY DAYS OF WHITE SETTLEMENT, the Provisional Government of Oregon prohibited slavery, but for an unusual reason: Slavery was prohibited simply because black people were not welcome at all. The law was very clear on the subject. “The object is to keep clear of that most troublesome class of population,” wrote Peter Burnett, the head of the Provisional Government’s Legislative Council, in 1844. “We are in a new world, under the most favorable circumstances and we wish to avoid most of those evils that have so much afflicted the United States and other countries.’’

Early politicians in Portland built a place that was nothing like the East Coast cities they had come from. “This was a designated white homeland,” Darrell Millner, an emeritus professor of black studies at Portland State University, said. “They didn’t build a border wall around the state, but they would have, had they had the resources, I’m sure.”

Millner points to the Donation Land Act of 1850, which explicitly barred African-Americans, Native Americans and Hawaiians from owning land in the Oregon Territory. “You can see the impact, as it has continued to affect every subsequent generation,” he said. “The people who get that land can use that land to make profits.”

Those landowners passed the profits on to their children, by paying for college, by investing, by building political influence. “The decisions made in the 1840s in Oregon did not disappear with that generation,” Millner said.

In the 1900s, the Ku Klux Klan had a stronghold in Oregon, pushing political candidates into the role of governor and posing for photos with leaders of the Portland Police Department. Though the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave black men the right to vote, was ratified in 1870, Oregon refused to ratify it for 89 more years. Blacks in Oregon were not formally granted the vote until 1959.

In the 1940s, black-owned nightclubs became a particular focal point for oppressive policing. On Dec. 20, 1945, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission yanked the license of a well-known black-owned jazz club, the Dude Ranch. Five days later, on Christmas, a Portland Police officer who’d been seen searching black residents at gunpoint and shaking down business owners, stormed into the club after it had closed for the night, shot the doorman in the abdomen and “calmly walked away.”

“I don’t know why I did it,” the officer said, though he later claimed that the doorman reached into a pocket before he shot him.

The Portland police, Millner says, were the ones who enforced the laws laid out by the state’s founders. “That creates a dynamic between them and the groups they’re dealing with that’s going to be long-lasting,” Millner said.

That continues today, in cases like that of Rodney DeWalt — the owner of Le Fontaine Bleau, a club located just a couple of blocks from where the Dude Ranch stood decades ago. In a complaint against the city and members of the Portland Police Department, DeWalt said the city, the liquor commission and the police tried to connect his club to gang activity. He received a shutdown order after a shooting occurred outside the club after it had closed for the night. The decision to issue an emergency shutdown was made by several parties, including Capt. Mark Kruger — a Portland Police officer who is perhaps best known for wearing Nazi memorabilia and nailing a memorial plaque honoring Nazi officers to a tree in a public park.

(Kruger, who has maintained he’s just a history buff, won a settlement requiring that all mention of these activities removed from his personnel file. He remains on the force.)

Newly elected Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty poses for a portrait at City Hall in Portland, Oregon. This year she became the first black woman to serve on the Portland City Council.
Leah Nash for High Country News

“Race continues to be a huge issue in Oregon and in Portland,” said Hardesty, the new councilmember. “We have to stop being ‘Pacific Northwest polite’ and just call things as we see them.” In January, after less than a month in office, Hardesty issued a statement saying “white male privilege” was disrupting council meetings. Letters flooded in: “YOU ARE A BLACK BIGOT!!!!” wrote one constituent.

Hardesty served in the state House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001, and most recently was the president of the NAACP’s Portland branch. When she ran for City Council, she focused on the disparate outcomes for communities of color — unequal treatment that could be proven with statistics and numbers. “You can’t argue with people’s perception of who they are,” she said, “and white Portlanders don’t think they’re racist.”

She points to low rates of home ownership by black Portlanders, the high suspension rate of black students, and the lack of affordable housing. “We did not have a housing crisis until white middle-class Portlanders could no longer afford to live in the city of Portland,” she said. Ever since the mid-1900s, blacks had been segregated to single neighborhoods. Then, in the mid-2000s, those communities were displaced to accommodate new development.

In 2016, one black woman told city commissioners she was afraid to drive: “We’re not safe anywhere.” Blacks comprise just 5.7 percent of the city’s population, but make up the largest demographic of the corrections system. A recent investigation by The Oregonian found that black and brown residents were being flagged by police as “criminal gang affiliates” without an arrest or a conviction.

Millner said that modern Portlanders’ progressive perception of themselves is relatively young.

“Portland was not a progressive city in its origin or in its history. It was dominated by a very conservative white oligarchy,” he said. “This new image of Portland has very little to do with the Portland that actually evolved from its pioneer roots.”

Sam Thompson, center, in red, chats and laughs during a friend’s event at the Mingle Lounge in Portland’s Old Town District.
Leah Nash for High Country News

ABOUT A YEAR AND A HALF after bouncers turned him away from the Dirty, Thompson decided to sue, turning to the law firm of Jesse Merrithew, a tall, white Northeastern-bred attorney with a sharp chin cleft and a tattoo on one arm that reads “Live Free or Die,” the New Hampshire state motto.

Merrithew is also representing DeWalt, the owner of Le Fontaine Bleau, as well as Donna Thames, who owned a strip club called Exotica from 2010 to 2015. For years, musicians and show promoters in Portland have said that police and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission are preserving systemically racist policies under the guise of keeping “a more vigilant watch over hip-hop events.”

 “It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that the city that you love was founded on white supremacy, and that the threads of it are still there.”

“These cases are all about attacking white supremacy,” Merrithew said during an interview last fall at his downtown Portland office. “I think Portlanders would prefer not to think about the extent to which white supremacy exists in their community. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that the city that you love was founded on white supremacy, and that the threads of it are still there.”

In a complaint against Vegasstars, the company that owns Dirty, and its owner, Christopher Lenahan, Thompson’s attorneys assert that he is “only one of hundreds of Black men and women who have been denied public accommodation by defendants because of the color of their skin.” The suit asks for $1.1 million in damages.

The incident that night at the door of Dirty wasn’t unique, even in Thompson’s experience. In 2011, Thompson owned a bar in northeast Portland called Seeznin’s. “That’s my nickname,” he said. The building was painted bright blue and silver, the colors of Grant High School in northeast Portland.

But two months after opening, Thompson started hearing from police that they considered his bar to be a gang hangout, largely because of the blue building. The color, they said, was associated with the Crips.

“I had to paint it a whole different color,” he said. He chose beige to assuage any concerns that it was a place for gang members.

But the bland paint didn’t change anything. From the day it opened, the police paid close attention to the place. Thompson believes his bar was heavily over-policed: Police said they found a gun during a search of the bar’s bathroom garbage, and when the shooting of a teenager occurred three blocks away from Seeznin’s, police claimed it started at Seeznin’s.

“The police used to come to my bar and sit in front of the damn bar with their lights on. For hours,” he said, “like something happened.”

In June 2011, police alleged that a fight broke out at Seeznin’s that led to the shooting death of a man in the parking lot of a restaurant, across a four-lane road. And even though Thompson argued that the fight had nothing to do with his bar, he was slapped with a list of restrictions he had to abide by in order to keep his liquor license, from closing at 11 p.m. to hiring four extra security guards for weekend nights to enforcing a dress code restricting “clothing known to be associated with gang membership” — a requirement similar to the one that later blocked him from the Dirty.

“I didn’t have the money to do it,” he said. So he closed Seeznin’s.

Jesse Merrithew, a defense attorney who is representing Sam Thompson and several black club owners in lawsuits against the city, poses for a portrait at his office in downtown Portland, Oregon.
Leah Nash for High Country News

The irony of being accused, on the one hand, of owning a Crip bar and then being blocked from another for supposedly wearing Blood paraphernalia did not escape Merrithew. “It’s such a fantasy version of what gangs are — like somebody watched some Dr. Dre videos from the ’90s and that’s what their intelligence about gangs is,” he said. “It just smacks of the ignorance that Portland has always had.”

Merrithew sees the IFC show Portlandia as the perfect reflection of white Portlanders’ rebranded, idealized image of themselves. “In general, things in a place like Portland are really great, so little concerns become ridiculous,” the show’s co-creator, Carrie Brownstein, said in a 2012 article on the show in The New Yorker. “There are a lot of people here who can afford — financially but also psychologically — to be really, really concerned about buying local, for instance.”

“I remember reading (that) and just thinking, ‘What a crock of shit,’ ” Merrithew said. “Her basic explanation was that Portland was a place where there are no real problems. And it was at a time when, like, the childhood poverty rate in this state was 25 percent.”

The lawsuits that Merrithew’s firm has pursued, including Thompson’s, Thames’ and DeWalt’s, reveal another Portland, where black residents are excluded from the city’s easy fun and shut out of its economic boom. He’s also representing the family of 17-year-old Quanice Hayes, who was shot and killed while kneeling in front of dozens of Portland Police officers in 2017. Hayes was carrying a fake gun.

“This is a city with serious, serious problems, and these people are living in a bubble where in their little hipster universe nothing is wrong. And then, like, the idea of making a joke out of the fact that Portland is a very white city?” he said. “It’s a very white city for a very particular reason. It’s got a long history of violent racism, which prevented it from becoming a more diverse city.

“The history doesn’t just disappear,” he said. “We’ve never confronted it in any systematic way to try to fix it.”

These lawsuits, he said, are part of Portland’s long-overdue reckoning — part of the fight to force the city to do better, just as white residents had promised in the days after the murders on the MAX train.

Rapper Hollywood Brittany, left, performs at Splash Ultra Lounge in downtown Portland.
Leah Nash for High Country News

A RED SWEATSHIRT DOESN'T MAKE A MAN A GANG MEMBER. But by taking Dirty — a well-known club owned by a longtime member of the nightlife community — to court, Thompson is challenging a “well established, considered” policy that seems to allow club owners to say that it does. In fact, at some point, it became policy to keep people out of your club for wearing “gang attire,” as detailed in a document that was given to new liquor license owners titled “What Every Liquor Licensee Should Know.”

The policy’s self-described purpose was to “give your establishment a better chance to be safe and successful.” Bar owners were told to strictly implement a dress code, prohibiting patrons from wearing athletic jerseys (“with the exception of game day attire for local events such as Blazers’ games”), torn clothes, sweatpants, tracksuits, headwear of any kind and “no known biker or street gang attire (including colors).” Until early December 2018, it was featured on the Portland Police Bureau’s website.

It’s not clear if Dirty was following this exact guide, but in a declaration filed with Multnomah County in early October, the club’s owner, Chris Lenahan, said he continues to enforce a similar dress code. “I regularly remind our security guards and managers that people wearing excessive matching colors violate the dress code,” he said. “If I have referred to ‘color’ regarding individuals trying to get into the club, I meant the color of their clothing, not their skin, for the purposes of … preventing gang-related activity in the club.”

Monroe — the Dirty security guard who initially stopped Thompson — said in a deposition that the dress code of the club derived from a Portland Police Gang Task Force training, which “educates security guards to recognize gang-related activity, including gang signs and gang-related clothing.” Even if this specific document wasn’t used, it is reflective of the dress codes the liquor commission and the police have asked bar owners to implement.

Sam Thompson, left, outside Dirty after being denied entrance. A week later, a friend of his went clubbing wearing a similar red shirt and shoes with no problem.
Courtesy of Sam Thompson

But when High Country News attempted to track down the author of the document, the Portland Police, the city of Portland and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission all sidestepped responsibility.

A representative of Portland’s liquor licensing program declined to comment on whether or not the city tells bars to implement dress codes, but an administrative coordinator said the Portland police or the state Liquor Control Commission would know more about the how-to guide. Before hanging up the phone, she added: “It’s clearly outdated.”

The Liquor Control Commission, too, seemed confused. Matthew Van Sickle, the agency’s public affairs specialist, said determining dress codes is beyond its purview: “Our expertise in this document would have been the section on Alcohol Service. Our inspectors wouldn’t know what to look for in terms of ‘gang attire’ or dress code, because that’s not their focus,” he wrote in an email. “As it’s more than a few years old, it would be good for the city to update this document.”

When reached for comment, a member of the Tactical Operations Division at the Portland Police — which commands the Gang Enforcement Team — said gang colors are, in fact, not a good indicator of gang affiliation.

“On its face, it’s very difficult to just say that a certain dress or a certain color identifies someone,” Lt. Michael Leasure, who has been with the department for 18 years, told me in November. “It just isn’t the case anymore. I think a lot of folks’ idea of what is considered gang culture comes from the late ’80s and early ’90s.” There was a time when Portland street gangs did wear specific colors and identified with certain neighborhoods, but “neighborhoods are changing,” Leasure said.

“We do not help determine dress codes,” he said, adding that the document wasn’t familiar to him either.

When asked later about the educational program that Monroe said Portland Police conducted, which allegedly informed bouncers about dress codes restricting gang colors, Leasure waffled. “Gang culture, as represented in the ’80s and ’90s, may still exist,” he wrote in an email. “That said, I am sure that there are criminal organizations that identify with certain symbols, colors, uniforms, etc. throughout the country.” By late December, after High Country News exchanged several emails with police about the document, it had disappeared from the department’s website.

The National Gang Center does, in fact, consider colors and tattoos to be one of several indicators of gang membership. But police officers across the country, from Connecticut to Los Angeles, say gangs now avoid wearing matching colors, mainly to evade detection. In 2015, one LAPD officer told The Los Angeles Times, “If you dressed in gang attire with the colors, it was pretty much a red flag for officers. … Gang members don’t wear their colors in public anymore.”

Whoever wrote those guidelines, the fixation on club-goers’ clothing has fueled racist practices at clubs like Dirty. Tyrone Sellers, who worked security at Couture, a now-defunct nightclub located next to Dirty, said the police instructed security at Old Town clubs to watch out for gang colors and prohibit people wearing too much of the same color from entering.

“They would never tell us what colors” were gang colors, he said. “I guess they expected us to know.”

Sellers said the way he sees it, dress codes are a way clubs can pick and choose who they want inside their business: “Basically, what the dress code is, is to deter people you don’t want in there. It’s not really anything about the dress code.” And, in his experience, it was only enforced when it came to black club-goers.

In a declaration filed with the court, Artie Haws, a former bartender at Dirty, said Lenahan told staff members to limit the ratio of black and African-American people at his clubs. “He called this ‘bar science’ and said, ‘We don’t want it to get too dark,’ ” Haws said. “He said he didn’t want people coming in and seeing more than 30 percent Black and African-American people because he didn’t want ‘a black bar.’ ”

Mingle Lounge in Portland’s Old Town District.
Leah Nash for High Country News

When asked if the Portland Police still instructs nightclub staff to watch out for colors as an indicator of gang membership, Sgt. Christopher Burley, public information officer, sidestepped the question. “The Police Bureau attempts to reduce crime and the fear of crime through education that encourages an awareness of the totality of the circumstances and not on one factor or a person (sic) affiliation with a group,” he said. Lenahan and his attorneys did not return repeated requests for comment.

On a Friday night in early November, Thompson sipped a beer in a in a neon-lit East Portland sports bar. He had met a couple of his friends to plan a fancy New Year’s party for people over 30 at a swanky local ballroom. But on this night he was wearing the usual: a red hoodie and jeans. Across from him, another one of his friends also wore a red sweatshirt. They flirted with the waitress, noting that the staff here didn’t seem to bat an eye at their red clothing.

The lawsuit against the Dirty is still in progress, with a motion for punitive damages pending and the discovery process underway.

In the year since Thompson was blocked from entering Dirty — the year since the murders on the train — the city continues to boil. Last summer, hundreds of protesters gathered to face off with Patriot Prayer, the same right-wing group Jeremy Christian marched with a month before the train attack. After hours of protest, police rocketed a barrage of crowd control devices at the protesters, but formed a tight barrier around Patriot Prayer, who cheered as munitions were deployed at their detractors.

To Merrithew, this sends a clear message: “I think the response from both the white-owned clubs and the police is basically one and the same,” he says. “If what we’re trying to address is black gang violence, we’ll just ignore the fact that Patriot Prayer acts like a gang and is not going to be designated as a gang.”

Thompson doesn’t plan to give up until people like him can feel safe going out at night. “I’m a well-known person here,” he said. “For another guy, it’s way worse, and they ain’t gonna say nothing. I have a platform.

“I might as well use the platform to stop this.”

Being black in Portland, he said, is like finding a safe path through a minefield: You move carefully. You stay quiet. You don’t make a fuss. “You learn how to move around without shaking the tree too much.”

But he’s done with that. He wants to live without fear. He insists that he will open a bar again and paint it any color he desires. He wants to wear whatever sweatshirt and sneakers he wants to a club like Dirty. To stay up late and wake up for work in the morning early, tired but happy. To ride a train.

He thinks none of this should be too much to ask.

Dirty, a nightclub in Portland, Oregon’s Old Town District, on a busy Friday night. One night two years ago, Sam Thompson, a black local who was wearing a red sweatshirt and red shoes, was barred from entering by club security workers. They told him there was a strict dress code, and that gang colors weren’t allowed.
Leah Nash for High Country News

Leah Sottile is an Oregon-based freelance journalist who writes about the American West for the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, California Sunday Magazine and Playboy, and is the host of the podcast Bundyville. Her work can be found at www.leahsottile.com

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.