A $22 Million Federal Lawsuit Says Portland Discriminated Against a Black Nightclub Owner

The lawsuit says the shutdown of Exotica International Club for Men was part of a pattern of targeting black-owned bars.

By Peter D’Auria and Beth Slovic

The way Donna Thames sees it, her former business in Northeast Portland was part of a proud tradition of social hubs that catered to black Portlanders.

"It was everything," says Thames. "It was the spot. It meant a lot to a lot of people. It was bigger than Cheers."

Thames says her business, Exotica International Club for Men, was a rare, black-owned strip club that enjoyed mostly African-American clientele and employees.

The way city and state officials saw it, Thames' business was dangerous. She was forced to close Exotica in 2015 after three men were wounded in a parking lot shooting.

Thames doesn't deny a shooting occurred on the club's property. Instead, she says city and state officials punished Exotica more harshly than nearby, white-owned businesses where violent crimes also took place.

Now, she's alleging in court that the government response was part of a pattern of Portland-area regulators cracking down on black-owned nightspots.

Thames is bringing a $22 million federal lawsuit against the agencies she says drove her from her business at the corner of Northeast Columbia and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards.

A 48-page complaint, filed Aug. 12 in U.S. District Court, claims the business was the latest victim of long-standing discrimination against African-American club owners by the city of Portland and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

"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 complaint reads. "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."

The Portland Police Bureau, the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and Mayor Charlie Hales declined WW's requests to comment on the lawsuit, saying they do not comment on pending litigation.

"OLCC will continue to provide a level of fairness for all liquor licensees across the state," agency spokeswoman Christie Scott writes in an email.

Thames' suit, filed by Portland attorney Tim Volpert and lawyers at Levi Merrithew Horst, details a long history of what Thames calls unfair treatment at the hands of city and OLCC officials.

Related: Tensions between Portland hip-hop artists and police boil over at a music venue in Southeast Portland.

It is the latest in a series of business-owner allegations that Portland agencies discriminate against black nightlife.

After the 2013 closing of the Fontaine Bleau, a Northeast Portland hip-hop nightclub, following a shooting outside, owner Rodney DeWalt filed a $3 million lawsuit against OLCC and the city of Portland for "a campaign intended to thwart black-owned clubs or clubs that played hip-hop and catered to the black community." The suit is currently in U.S. District Court.

In 2011, after the closure of Seeznin's Bar and Lounge on Northeast 82nd Avenue, owner Sam Thompson accused authorities of racism when the OLCC imposed strict restrictions on Seeznin's because of a series of neighborhood shootings.

"It's better to be a bike or a dog in this town than a black male," Thompson told The Skanner in 2011.

Beth Creighton, a Portland civil rights lawyer, says discrimination cases can be challenging to prove when racism is not overt. "In this day in age, people have gotten smart about discriminating and hiding what their true motives are," she says.

Thames, 43, says scrutiny of Exotica intensified when she took over in 2010 from the previous owner, who was Jordanian.

"I felt like we were being targeted," she says. "The prior owner wasn't treated that way."

In August 2010, Thames alleges, about two months after she took ownership of the club, the OLCC granted her a liquor license, but imposed what Thames calls "draconian" restrictions.

The club was required to have three security officers on duty from Sunday to Thursday and four on Fridays and Saturdays—even on slow nights. Security staff was required to "patrol" the parking lot every 15 minutes. Club patrons were also prohibited from being in possession of more than one alcoholic drink at a time.

In August 2014, the suit alleges, OLCC officers came to the club, "ostensibly to review video of a patron who had been arrested." Thames recorded the interaction on her cellphone with the officers' consent. After viewing the video, officers demanded Thames' cellphone, saying, "It's now evidence in our criminal investigation."

When she would not give it to them, she claims the officers arrested her, confiscated her cellphone, and "marched [her], in handcuffs, through her club, past her customers and staff, and made her stand in the hot, midday sun" for "approximately one and one half hours."

She was arrested for resisting arrest and interfering with a peace officer. The Multnomah County District Attorney's Office declined to charge her, saying the arrest was unwarranted.

"It was very obvious that she had been targeted," her father, C.L. Thames, tells WW. "These people were basically coming at her from every possible angle."

Related: An independent review said Portland has a "lack of transparency" in its policy toward hip-hop shows.

The end came in 2015 after Exotica bouncers denied entry to a group of men believed to be in a gang. One of the ejected patrons then opened fire in Exotica's parking lot, wounding three people.

Thames says her club did nothing wrong, but she was told by city authorities with the Office of Neighborhood Involvement that Exotica was in need of a "prolonged cooling-off period" and would need to close at midnight for three months.

Her dancers and bartenders told Thames they wouldn't work for her if the club closed at midnight because that would cut significantly into their tips.

"Ms. Thames was told, in no uncertain terms, that she could either accept midnight closure for 90 days or face such a closure for a year," the suit alleges.

Thames' suit says no similar restrictions were placed on white-owned clubs where people had been shot.

"A business named 'Skinns,' operated by a white person not far from Exotica, experienced two homicides and a shooting involving two more victims in three separate incidents on the premises between 2011 and 2016," the complaint reads. "Neither the OLCC nor the City imposed any restrictions on that business. It continues to operate."

OLCC spokeswoman Scott confirms that Club Skinn currently operates without restrictions, but says the agency is conducting "a lengthy investigation" into the business.

Exotica International closed in July 2015.

Thames' suit says Portland's over-regulation has shut down most of the bars run by black people.

"Presently, black people in Portland comprise approximately 6.3 percent of the population, but there are only three black-owned clubs or bars in the city," the suit says. "There are no currently operating black clubs in Portland catering to young black people and playing hip-hop music."

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