It was in 1991 that the Broward Sheriff’s Office, under the supervision of then Sheriff, Nick Navarro, raided the most popular gay bar in South Florida, the Copa, on a busy Friday night.
It was a remarkable incident. Scores of cops in swat teams enter a huge dance bar with hundreds of patrons targeting half-dozen persons who they had previously done undercover drug deals with. There was no guarantee the named suspects were even going to be there.
Notorious for publicity, the Sheriff personally arrived along with a helicopter, his wife, and television crews. As SWAT type deputies swarmed through the bar, they ordered all the patrons, at gunpoint, up against the wall, laid them on the floor, and randomly searched them for drugs while publishing denigrating epithets.
The cops became thugs and the patrons became victims. Innocent men and women were unlawfully detained, unjustifiably restrained, and purposely humiliated. Twenty years ago, scores of those customers were still in the closet. They were also marched out of the bar with their hands held over their head to waiting TV cameras which filmed and aired their faces.
The cruel and unconstitutional conduct of law enforcement would not stand. The courageous operator of the bar, John Castelli, now a renowned realtor, hired my law firm to file suit immediately.
The entire gay community was justifiably outraged. The suit would not have been settled and the case would have gone on for years but for the public denying Sheriff Navarro re-election in the next year’s primary.
A new sheriff was elected, Democrat Ron Cochran. He was troubled by the conduct of his department that evening, and instructed his attorneys to settle the case. We negotiated an honorable agreement which served not the pecuniary needs of any one party but the interests of the community. BSO presented Center 1, then our county’s largest and oldest AIDS agency, with a check for $25,000.
History repeats itself, doesn’t it? Last fall, Atlanta’s Eagle was raided by the Atlanta police department. The issues are identical to the ones South Florida endured two decades ago. The conduct of law enforcement at The Eagle was reprehensible overkill. They busted into the bar in the middle of the evening while it was packed with customers.
Police shoved innocent patrons into the ground, on the floor, restraining and detaining them illegally and unconscionably. If their conduct had been sensible and coordinated, the arrests would have been timed and responsible. Atlanta cops chose to use an inexcusable display of physical force, armed with guns and verbal epithets.
Police could have waited till the bar was closing. They could have then quietly gone into the dressing rooms and charged dancers who allegedly violated laws without humiliating patrons who did not. The police chose the path of harassment and harm instead of restraint and responsibility.
Twenty years ago in South Florida, the sheriff said he had to raid the Copa because it was ‘awash with drugs.’ But the raid found less than five persons in the bar with narcotics. In Atlanta, NO patrons were found to have any contraband.
The conclusion is inescapable. Atlanta police were just plain wrong and reckless.
How much so? Atlanta had a designated police officer who operated as the liaison to the gay community. They did not tell him about the raid.
Lambda Legal, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and attorney Daniel Grossman have now filed a lawsuit against the Atlanta Police Department on behalf of 19 people who say they were forcibly searched and detained during a raid on an Atlanta gay bar.
The suit is formidable, credibly proving that patrons were battered and brutalized, humiliated and detained- without rhyme or reason, cause or justification. No gay community can let this stand.
As my colleague Pier writes in his column today, maybe it would have been safer to be in China. The Atlanta episode should be a reminder that too much comfort is no comfort at all.