The punch, a fruity vodka concoction, was whipped up by the H Street NE bar’s owner, Tony Tomelden, as an admittedly crude but satirical tribute to D.C. Council member Marion Barry’s controversial comments this year criticizing Asian shop owners and Filipino nurses. “The Ward 8 Special,” he called it.
“I put it up there for a reason,” Tomelden said. “He gets away with this stuff continuously.”
There’s more: Drawn on a chalkboard behind the bar was an advertisement for the punch featuring an Asian caricature — bald, with slanted eyes and buck teeth. “No tickee, no punchee,” the sign says.
As I said, admittedly crude. To many, just plain offensive. But illegal?
The sign was removed Friday after a city agency threatened to drag Tomelden before the D.C. Commission on Human Rights in a rare display of the city’s little-known power to regulate speech in places of public accommodation.
First, some disclosure: I may have played a role in sparking this whole dust-up. Tomelden posted the sign shortly after Barry made his controversial comments in April, but the city didn’t take note until last Wednesday, Sept. 5 — the day after I tweeted a picture of the sign while having beers with a friend. I can’t say for certain that someone saw the tweet and complained, but the timing is curious.
On Thursday, the Office of Human Rights delivered a letter to Tomelden calling the sign “racially offensive” and requesting that it be taken down and “Dirty Asian Summer Punch” be taken off the menu.
“We believe that such a sign is not demonstrative of the shared values and practices that make the District a fully inclusive environment for all residents and visitors,” agency director Gustavo F. Velasquez wrote.
And more to the point, Velasquez said the sign violated the District’s Human Rights Act, a law dating to 1977 barring discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion and various other categories. Among the act’s provisions is that the following is unlawful:
To print, circulate, post, or mail, or otherwise cause, directly or indirectly, to be published a statement, advertisement, or sign which indicates that the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of a place of public accommodation will be unlawfully refused, withheld from or denied an individual; or that an individual’s patronage of, or presence at, a place of public accommodation is objectionable, unwelcome, unacceptable, or undesirable.
On those grounds, Tomelden was given 72 hours to remove the “Dirty Asian Summer Punch” sign, lest the agency pursue a “formal charge” against him with the Commission on Human Rights. A commission proceeding can result in a cease-and-desist order and civil fines of up to $10,000 for a first-time offender.
I spoke with Tomelden on Friday, a day after he received the letter. At the time, the sign was still up and he was considering his options. “I have three kids, and I’m just too tired to fight city hall,” he said. “I’m not really a giant crusader or anything like that.”
He wrote an e-mail to Velasquez on Friday noting a few important points — including the fact that his father was half Filipino:
He was born in this city in 1935. He was first generation Irish and Filipino. ... He was always proud of being from DC, and he was always a fan of Marion Barry. Unfortunately, he passed away not too long ago, so I have no way of knowing how he would have reacted to Mr. Barry’s comments regarding asians in Ward 8, quickly followed by his comments about Filipino nurses. I can only assume that it would not have pleased him.
Regarding Barry, Tomelden added, “I believe his comments would fall under the umbrella of making a certain people feel ‘objectionable, unwelcome, unacceptable, or undesirable.’” (Barry apologized for the Asian shop owner comments.)
Velasquez and Tomelden spoke Friday and, in Tomelden’s telling, had a heated conversation but one that ended civilly with an agreement the sign would soon be erased. But that evening, Tomelden says, inspectors showed up and demanded the sign come down immediately, lest he face sanctions.
Tomelden wasn’t at the bar at the time, but an employee erased the sign, believing the inspectors were from the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration.
ABRA Director Fred Moosally said his agency fielded a complaint, but his agents didn’t play a role in the sign’s removal. “When we went out there, the sign was already down,” he said. “We didn’t tell anyone to take a sign down.”
Liquor regulators have only limited powers to police signage, Moosally said, and that does not extend to removing messages some might find offensive. That is, however, solidly within the purview of the Office of Human Rights.
Velasquez was not available for an interview, but his deputy Jennifer Stoff said in a statement responding to my inquiries that it “was the Office’s judgment that the sign at The Pug was not in keeping the intent of the [Human Rights Act].” Since the sign is no more, she added, “an Inquiry will not be commenced.”
“We acknowledge any 1st amendment or political speech concerns, but it is our job to enforce the DC Human Rights Act,” she added, “and we have determined that this establishment’s actions are counter to the intent of the Act.”
Tomelden, meanwhile, is left with a bad taste in his mouth after having his cocktail-borne political statement squelched by city officials. “Look, I’m a [expletive] bartender, not a constitutional scholar. It’s clearly frustrating, and it is what it is,” he said.
The Pug is decorated with various other historical artifacts — including, Tomelden noted, an “Irish Need Not Apply” sign hanging on the wall. “I wonder if they are going to make the Irish bars take down the leprechauns,” he said.