Council probes public accomodation laws

Two recent high-profile cases of alleged racial discrimination were the impetus for a City Council hearing Monday to examine the state’s public accommodation laws, which guarantee access to public venues regardless of race, gender, religion, sexuality or disability.

A case against the Cure Lounge in downtown Boston, where a black student group was allegedly denied entrance, and a pending case against Peggy O’Neil’s, located at 1310 Dorchester Ave., have drawn headlines after Attorney General Martha Coakley filed lawsuits against the two venues. Coakley said the case against Peggy O’Neil’s alleges that customers of color were denied access on multiple occasions because they didn’t know the owner, weren’t the kind of people the owner would know or because the staff didn’t want trouble—all while white patrons continued to be admitted. The owners of the Dorchester Ave. venue have vehemently denied the charges.

City Councillors Tito Jackson and Ayanna Pressley sponsored the hearing, which featured a panel of government officials, including Coakley and Chairman Julian Tynes of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination—the two bodies charged with enforcing accommodation law. A second panel included community activists and representatives from Boston’s tourism and entertainment industries.

Investigations that uncover discrimination should result, as was the case with the Cure Lounge incident, in a combination of punitive and educational measures to prevent future incidents, Coakley said. It should not always be the responsibility of the victims to come forward and make their case, she said, adding that the government and venue owners have a moral obligation to raise awareness and promote access and fair treatment for everyone. Coakley acknowledged that it’s difficult to address the subtler problem of people avoiding venues where they don’t feel welcome.

MCAD Chairman Tynes said that people tend to think of discrimination as a historical issue, but his office received 203 complaints of discrimination in 2011, the majority of which originated in the metropolitan Boston area. He said municipalities can strengthen statewide anti-discrimination statues by revoking and denying licensing to venue owners not in compliance with accommodation laws.

Cases of discrimination in public venues are not always racial as Gunner Scott, founder of the Massachusetts Transgender Protection Coalition, pointed out; he has encountered difficulties finding venues that will sponsor lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender events and one’s that will often gauge prices.

Councillor Pressley said the discriminatory practices described by transgender activists who testified, among others, about discrimination, are ongoing and represent “bad values and bad business.” They also hurt the city’s reputation as an open and welcoming place to live, she said.

Ruthzee Louijuene, who grew up in Roxbury and is now studying at Harvard Law and the Kennedy School of government, was one of the plaintiffs in the Cure Lounge case. In her testimony Monday she said, “When people know what levers to pull government can work for them,” but she wondered how her father, a Haitian immigrant to Mattapan, would have handled a similar situation, not having the same connections or understanding of his rights.

Michael Curry, head of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, called the Cure Lounge incident “low hanging fruit,” and said he wondered if there would be a similar outcry had the black youth not been students and alumni from Harvard and Yale. Curry said he would like to see the City Council and the attorney general do more to quash the “recycled stereotypes” that cast young blacks as trouble makers and cause venues to ignore or mistreat them.