A Houston nightclub is accused of charging minority customers a cover charge but letting white patrons in for free—and some spurned bar-goers claim the racist color line has allegedly gone on for years as off-duty police acted as security.
Brandon Ball, 32, says he and two friends went to the Gaslamp, a chic lounge in the city’s Midtown neighborhood, on Sept. 11 and were asked for a $20 entrance fee. All three pals, who are black lawyers, were dressed in button-down shirts, slacks, and blazers and decided to go elsewhere.
But as they left a nearby bar a half-hour later, Ball says he saw people slipping into the Gaslamp without paying a cover. He decided to stick around for 25 minutes to see if there was any “funny business” going on, as he noted in a Facebook post about the incident that garnered more than 11,000 shares.
Ball, a defense attorney, claims Caucasian patrons breezed through the door, while black, Asian, and Latino customers were asked to step aside and wait in line, pay a $20 cover, or were turned away altogether for improper attire. One minority customer couldn’t get in because he wore Polo boots, the barristers claim.
Ball was so shocked by the alleged segregation, that he says he approached a uniformed Harris County sheriff’s deputy, who was there off-duty as club security. “I said, ‘You’re a minority yourself. How are you allowing this to happen?’” Ball recalled to The Daily Beast. “He just said, ‘They’re doing their job. I’m doing mine.’ I let him know he’s complicit.”
After Ball took photos of the scene—including of the bouncer, Mike Ross—the employee allegedly warned that Ball shouldn’t “run up on him in the streets because it would be a problem.” (Ross denied this in an interview with The Daily Beast.)
The alleged case of barroom bigotry has created days’ worth of headlines in Houston and prompted other minority customers to come out of the woodwork. A review of Gaslamp’s Yelp and Foursquare pages reveal a pattern, dating back to 2013, of allegations of the club’s racist admissions process.
On Wednesday, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office announced its deputies are banned from working at the Gaslamp in response to the controversy. A sheriff's spokesman declined to answer further questions posed by The Daily Beast.
“The issue is… we have law enforcement officers who were there and they’re basically giving legitimacy to what these people are doing,” said Dan Scarbrough, who was with Ball the night of the encounter. “They’re enforcing it just with their presence. They’re using their uniform to enforce discriminatory practices.”
Tim Sutherland, an attorney for the Gaslamp, denied the bar was discriminating against Ball, Scarbrough and their friend Ken Piggee.
He told The Daily Beast they were charged a cover because they were a group of men who wanted access to the second and third floors—which include a dance floor and roof deck—and they didn’t have women with them.
“We charge groups of guys a cover… because we don’t want our club to be full of nothing but guys,” Sutherland said, adding that the Gaslamp plans to soon post a sign outside listing a dress code and admissions charges.
Some regulars who have VIP cards and keychains, as well as people who pay for bottle service, are exempt from a cover charge, he said.
Sutherland questioned why Ball didn’t take video evidence of people being charged or turned away from the Gaslamp. “One of the things that’s being missed here is that these are three attorneys… [who] watched white person after white person get in for free,” he said. “Where’s the evidence?”
“By the time we got to address this, they’ve already spread the accusation that we’re racist,” he added.
On Gaslamp’s record of bad online reviews, Sutherland said, “We are aware of our Yelp page being terrible… I’m not calling anyone a liar but I don’t instigate investigations based on Yelp.”
The club’s owner, Ayman Jarrah, who goes by the alias “Dave Yurman,” did not return messages left by the Daily Beast.
Ross, the bouncer, said he told Ball that other people were getting in without a cover because, “Either they know me or they have girls with them.”
“These guys felt it was a race thing,” Ross told The Daily Beast. “After [Ball] told me, ‘It’s because I’m black,’ I said, ‘This is the furthest thing from the truth, sir.’ Everything after that, he made up on his own.”
Piggee said his friends happened to be in Midtown and had never been to the Gaslamp, let alone heard of its negative reputation.
“It may seem... that it is not a rational decision to turn away potential business,” Piggee said. “[But] they feel there’s some market that needs to be catered to, that wants to have an all-white social space for when they come to downtown Houston.”
Online comments about the bar have long claimed a pattern of alleged discrimination.
In Aug. 2014, one Yelp reviewer, Max L., wrote: “Forget about supporting this place, unless you support racism. This place discriminates and gets rewarded for doing so. Expect to pay cover or turned away completely if you are not white. Even if you have white friends with a table and bottles inside, be expected to not be allowed in because of your ethnicity.”
The reviewer said that when a female friend requested a Drake song, a server allegedly responded, “That kind of music isn’t allowed, because we don’t want to attract those kind of people.”
Another would-be customer, Kevin Hernandez, told The Daily Beast he tried getting into the Gaslamp with his friend Peter, who is Asian, when the bouncer asked them to step out of the line and demanded a $20 cover charge. The friends planned to meet a couple of Caucasian girls who were already inside.
“At first we were actually thinking about paying it,” Hernandez said. “We were going to walk away and head to an ATM and saw the bouncer let in a group of Caucasian guys, no problem. We both had button-up shirts and pants. The crowd of Caucasian guys had shorts on, on a Saturday night.”
He said a group of Middle Eastern women were also asked to stand to the side of the line and wait. “That’s when it clicked,” Hernandez added. “When we saw these guys who looked like they just came from a park walk in, it was kind of like a slap in the face.”
Hernandez, a registered dietician, and his pal, who worked in marketing, asked the bouncer why they were being charged. “There was no answer,” Hernandez said. “He said, ‘It’s just 20 bucks.’”
After Ball posted his story, another disgruntled customer shared his own Gaslamp tale—claiming he was threatened by a sheriff’s deputy acting as a guard for the establishment.
Jose Valdes told the Houston Press that he tried to visit a friend who was bartending inside the Gaslamp on Sept. 5 and watched a group of white men ahead of him get in without paying a cover charge.
But when Valdes tried to get in, explaining he was just popping in to see his pal, the bouncer allegedly said, “If you don’t want to pay, then get the fuck out of here.” After Valdes tried to apologize, he says a uniformed Harris County sheriff’s deputy handcuffed him and shoved him into the back of a squad car, which another cop drove around the block. They stopped in an area behind the Gaslamp, where the deputy who cuffed Valdes was waiting. That deputy then allegedly threatened to “beat the fuck out of” Valdes, the Houston Press reported.
Valdes, who says he took a video of his interactions with the cops, was arrested. Court records show he was charged with trespassing.
The reports of racism aren’t the only problems Gaslamp is facing. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission suspended the club’s license until Sept. 23 over an incident in April where the bar served an intoxicated person.
An agency spokesman said the violation stemmed from a citizen’s complaint received on March 6. After the complaint, TABC conducted inspections and undercover operations, which resulted in the suspension.
For his part, Ball said he doesn’t want people to only focus on the Gaslamp. He pointed to the Texas chain of restaurants Kung Fu Saloon, which faced a discrimination suit from the Department of Justice over dozens of African-American and Asian-American customers who were allegedly turned away based on a “dress code,” while white patrons got in wearing the same attire. Kung Fu Saloon settled with the feds this summer.
“This is about getting the word out,” Ball told The Daily Beast. “There’s not one minority who does not have a story, or a friend who has a story, of something like this happening.”