After run-in with a River North bouncer, Black millennials call out discriminatory practices in Chicago nightlife
It was St. Patrick’s Day 2017 weekend in Chicago and, like most partygoers that night, Keyana Marshall and her friends weren’t quite ready to call it quits after their first party ended about 1:30 a.m. Saturday.
Eager to show her friend Erin Lockette – who was visiting from Atlanta – a good time in her city, Marshall asked another friend to recommend a late-night spot. That friend suggested The Boss Bar, a River North joint on Clark and Hubbard that’s open until 4 a.m. on Fridays and 5 a.m. on Saturdays.
So, Marshall, 27, and her friends grabbed a cab outside the Vice District, a Black-owned brewery in the South Loop, and headed to The Boss Bar.
But the night took an unexpected turn when the group of nine made it to the front of the line. The bouncer only let in half of the group, Marshall said, after a friend inside the bar came out and told the bouncer they were with him. Marshall and four others were left behind.
“The bouncer pretty much looked at us up and down, completely ignoring the guy that was with us, but looking at [us] women and said, ‘No. Not tonight. Get out of line,’” Marshall recalled.
Confused, Marshall initially compared their attire to others in line. The ladies were dressed in jeans, tops and heels while the other women in the line appeared more casual, she said. She thought the bar was at capacity.
“[But] they continued to let white women in,” Marshall said. At that point, she and her friends believed they were being denied entry because they were Black.
“That’s when I thought of racial profiling because what other reason would you have besides clothing, besides being at capacity, for you to turn away people with money?” Marshall said.
Soon, the friend inside the bar returned to tell the bouncer that Marshall and the others were with him, too. Once inside the bar, Marshall remembered seeing about three other Black men outside of their group.
“You can’t just tell somebody to get out of line and not give a reason because, nine times out of 10, there’s some type of profiling going on as to why you won’t let them in,” Marshall added. “You can’t make up rules as you go.”
Attempts to reach The Boss Bar for comment about this incident were unsuccessful.
But, according to former and current bouncers in Chicago, who is and isn’t allowed into a bar, club or venue is at the owner and bouncer’s discretion.
“We have the power to tell someone no and we don’t have to give you a reason why,” said Evan F. Moore, an adjunct professor at DePaul University who worked as a bouncer at North Side bars and venues for 10 years.
“People can say what they want – ‘it’s racial profiling. It’s bias. It’s targeting.’ That’s what it is. Let’s just call it what it is,” Moore added. It’s kind of like [it is] with police. A judgment call is made based off of stuff that’s happened. They feel like they’re justified. It may be wrong to target and stereotype people but it’s justified because of things that’s happened.”
Moore, 38, has seen this targeting from both sides of the field. Before becoming a bouncer, he went out to a bar in the Gold Coast with some friends. The bouncer at that establishment told him that he was “too urban looking,” and refused to let him.
“I saw him let white people in there who looked like they had just woke up out of the bed,” Moore explained. “There were also Black people in there, too, so it was kind of like, ‘what’s going on there?’ On first glance, I couldn’t say it was racist but me being in the field myself and finding out how people are screened for various reason, I believe that’s what happened.”
Another bouncer, who asked for anonymity because he still works at bars in Chicago, said he doesn’t blame the owners of establishments for being cautious about whom they allow in. For the sake of this story, we’ve given him the name Chris.
“I’ve worked at establishments like The Green Dolphin that’s been shot up several times,” Chris said. “You mad at homey because he stepped on your shoes. Any little thing can trigger your stupidity. You know how many times I’ve had to grab a gun out of somebody’s hand? Why would you do that here? If I was an owner of an establishment, I wouldn’t want that type of energy surrounding my business either.”
A few negative incidents at predominately Black establishments is what makes it bad for everyone, even those hard-working young Black professionals who just want to have a good time at the end of the work week, Chris said.
“You think about the Chicago [violence] epidemic and how segregated we are. We don’t cross each other in the grocery store. We don’t see each other on the same blocks and parks and neighborhoods,” Chris explained. “Of course, I’m going to look foreign to you. You’re not going to understand my behavior patterns. You can’t relate to me.”
Rickey Layfield, 26, had similar experiences with profiling by bouncers in the River North neighborhood. While out celebrating the 4th of July a couple of years ago, Layfield tried to enter a bar with two of his friends. The ladies got in, Layfield said, but the bouncer didn’t grant him access.
“At first [the bouncers] were like, ‘it’s your attire,’” Layfield remembered. Though he was dressed in pants and hard-bottom shoes, Layfield witnessed four or five white guys exit the bar in cargo shorts and open-toe shoes.
After inquiring more about why the bouncers wouldn’t let him in, Layfield said one of the bouncers eventually told him he couldn’t let him in because of the shootings happening in Englewood over the holiday weekend. Layfield currently works with youth from Englewood and other neighborhoods as a counselor for the UChicago UrbanLabs program, Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man.
“He was basically insinuating that the way I look reminds them of the people that do violence,” Layfield, who rocks dreadlocks, said about the bouncer’s comment. “I ain’t ‘gon lie. I damn near shed a tear on the inside because in high school, growing up in Chicago, I was involved in the streets. I grew up in the urban community. [But] for me to go to college for six, seven years, get a bachelors, get a masters and come back and still have this shit happen, without it being warranted, it definitely hit me.”
Kamiah Dabney, 25, encountered what she, too, calls racial profiling while in River North in 2015. A bouncer told her and her girl friends that they had to pay $700 for bottle service in order to get in one establishment, she said. Upon surveying the white women who got into the club, Dabney said she learned that they didn’t pay $700 to get inside.
“So I went up to the bouncer and I was like, you’re being racist. You’re not letting us in because we’re Black, not because we’re not paying $700 for bottle service,” Dabney said, remembering that night. “He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘have a good night.’”
Moore, who is also a syndicated columnist and contributor to Rolling Stone Magazine, described the power of bouncers and owners as complex. What’s considered acceptable for entry at clubs and bars changes based on the neighborhood.
“Downtown [Chicago] is completely different than Wrigleyville and Wrigleyville is completely different from Wicker Park and from Logan Square. They’re all like their own little countries with their own rules and regulations,” Moore said. “You’ve obviously got places in the city – like, Logan Square, Wicker Park, West Loop and places like that – where you’re going to get people saying different things and doing whatever to keep out the ‘riff raff.’ It’s different code words that people use. Some bars will say show three forms of ID. Who has three forms of ID?”
Jory Norman, head of security at Subterranean in Wicker Park, is a 38-year-old white man who says he has witnessed friends and family of color be denied entry into an establishment because of their skin color.
“I was about 25 years old. We were going to a nightclub downtown in the city. It was a more upscale nightclub. I was with about three Black guys and about five Hispanics and literally the bouncer told us, ‘the meat’s too dark,’” Norman said. “I think that’s deep rooted. If they have hate in their heart that much, that’s something that’s been planted there for years and it’s really nothing that anybody can say or do to change that.”
According to Moore, there is one way to change the nightlife scene for Black people in Chicago: fight back.
“Go to these meetings. Plenty of these bar owners go to these neighborhood groups where businesses talk,” Moore said. “Try to do it that way.”
Another way: find ways to build streets filled with Black-owned establishments.
“I remember one time a person walked up to me and asked me why we [Black people] don’t have a Milwaukee Avenue or a Clark Street or a Taylor Street on the South or West sides, and I really couldn’t answer them,” Moore said. “Try to open our own bars and clubs and venues. We won’t have to worry about this stuff.”
Brian Lucas, a 41-year-old independent security contractor, said the solution is simple – stop spending Black dollars at places where Black people are not welcomed.
“How do we come up against all odds in this society of American gangster-dom of stealing and corruption? What we do is band together with the knowledge of unity and truth amongst each other and we exercise that amongst each other and we shine light amongst each other,” Lucas said. “Anything outside of that doesn’t matter.”