Death in New Orleans gives rise to campaign against racism

Black student died in fight with bouncers in city's French Quarter

February 21, 2005|By Dahleen Glanton | Dahleen Glanton,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW ORLEANS - It was supposed to be a festive New Year's Eve celebration. Levon Jones and his teammates at Georgia Southern University were in town for a flag football tournament. So on their free time, they did what most college students do in New Orleans - they went to a bar on Bourbon Street.

The evening turned tragic when Jones, 25, got into a scuffle with three bouncers outside a popular nightspot, Razzoo Club and Patio. When it was over, Jones, an African-American, was dead. The bouncers, who are white, held him down, causing his lungs to collapse, and he suffocated, an autopsy found.

The matter might have ended when the bouncers were arrested and charged with negligent homicide. But the case has spiraled into a campaign against racism in New Orleans, placing the city that thrives on a $4.9 billion tourist industry, its police and the French Quarter in the national spotlight.

New Orleans has a majority-black population and a black mayor, and Louisiana is the nation's top destination for African-American tourists. But civil rights activists say that racial discrimination is rampant in the French Quarter and that nightclubs set quotas for the number of blacks allowed inside and selectively use dress codes to enforce them.

Two civil rights groups - the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - and local ministers have called for a boycott of Razzoo. They have threatened to expand the boycott to the entire city if leaders don't address racial problems. The Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation into Jones' death.

The case has increased tensions between the African-American mayor, Ray Nagin, and influential black clergymen in New Orleans who have been critical of the mayor's economic and social policies regarding blacks. Nagin was elected in 2002 with the support of middle-class and wealthy residents, and critics say he has not been a champion of the poor and working class.

"New Orleans is still part of the Deep South, and what happened that night was pure racism," said the Rev. Norwood Thompson, president of the New Orleans chapter of the SCLC. "Even though we have a black mayor and a black police chief, racism has been very flagrant. African-Americans have been asleep, but now we are in an uproar."

In response to the dispute, Nagin and the city's Human Relations Commission announced a plan to determine if racism exists in the French Quarter. The commission will hold a public hearing this week to gather testimony from people who say they were victims of discrimination.

The commission also is conducting an undercover investigation using "mystery customers" who visit businesses and report their treatment. The customers, many of them college students, are from different racial backgrounds and different age groups. They wear different types of clothing, including hip-hop styles favored by young black men.

"We have a moral and legal obligation to ensure that everyone receives the same treatment in New Orleans," Nagin said in a statement. "We are taking steps to determine if patterns of discrimination exist in our shops, restaurants and night clubs."

Racial tensions have long simmered beneath the surface in New Orleans, where blacks make up nearly 65 percent of the population. Some blacks who live in the city have shied away from nightspots in the French Quarter because they felt they were unwelcome, said Thompson.

Some restaurants and other businesses close when large groups of African-Americans come to the city for annual events such as the Essence Music Festival and the Bayou Classic football game between predominantly black Grambling State and Southern University, according to national SCLC President Charles Steele.

"We are aware these things happen, and we send out an e-mail encouraging people to keep their businesses open and welcome all guests to the city," said Earl Bernhardt, who owns four establishments in the Quarter and is executive director of the Bourbon Street Alliance, an organization of business owners. "We want blacks to identify the clubs they have problems with so that people won't patronize them."

Some blacks say a dress code has been used selectively to keep large numbers of African-American men from entering nightclubs. Black men, they said, are turned away, while whites are allowed to enter wearing all types of clothing.

Jones and his friends arrived around midnight at Razzoo. Everyone in the group was allowed inside except Anthony Williams, who was wearing a T-shirt and was denied entry because he violated the club's dress code, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the bar by Jones' parents. The suit said that Jones went outside to intervene after one of the bouncers grappled with Williams, who complained that whites dressed similarly were allowed to enter the club.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.