The #BoycottNellies protests were guaranteed every Friday night throughout the summer in response to the viral footage of bar security dragging a young Black woman down the stairs by her hair in mid-June. Some weeks there were a few dozen people, other weeks there were over a hundred gathered outside standing in solidarity for Keisha Young and calling for the bar’s owner to meet the community’s demands for change.
What started as one protest turned into a movement that helped raise money for Young’s legal support, sent complaints against Nellie’s to the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) and gathered a town hall to continue citywide discussions on race, gentrification and accountability in LGBTQ spaces.
The protests took the form of block parties to create a safe space for the Black LGBTQ community while raising awareness to what organizers said is a history of racism in Ward 1 and incidents at Nellie’s, a popular gay bar in the District.
“We shook not only this establishment, this neighborhood and the city . . . and we did it while having pleasure,” said Makia Green, one of the organizers behind the weekly events that wrapped with a final send-off Friday. “We didn’t do it in the sense of what you see time and time again of the most marginalized carrying a movement or a protest on our backs like mules. . . . You can fight for freedom and have pleasure and joy at the same time.”
An attorney for Nellie’s owner, Douglas Schantz, did not respond to requests for comment, and Schantz could not be reached. In previous statements issued through its Facebook page, the bar apologized to Young and said it didn’t condone some of the actions of security contractors from that night who were later fired.
Local activist and racial justice groups went into “rapid response mode” after footage of Young’s interaction with security from the early hours of June 13 went viral, Green said. The groups included the Palm Collective, Stop Police Terror Project D.C., HIPS, D.C. Ward 1 Mutual Aid and Harriet’s Wildest Dreams.
“We were emotionally triggered by seeing this video” said Green, a co-conductor of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams. “I was so worried about Keisha. I wanted to make sure she was okay.”
Nee Nee Taylor, a fellow co-conductor at Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, said she was contacted by Young’s mother for help the following day, who explained that Young’s phone and glasses were still at the bar following the incident.
Hoping to speak with Schantz about what happened and retrieve Young’s items, Taylor said she went to Nellie’s with Young, but he did not show up to speak with her. They were able to get Young’s phone back but not her glasses.
“I said, ‘If Doug don’t come here, his club is closed,’ ” Taylor said. “And I meant that from the bottom of my heart.”
The co-organizers created a list of demands. They wanted a public apology to Young, the release of all the video footage from the night Young was at the bar in June, continued pay to staff during the boycott, reparations and a community listening session. Green, Taylor and others said they never heard from Schantz after they reached out, so they launched the Friday protests.
Sitting in a chair in front of Nellie’s during one Friday protest, Tamika Spellman, a pioneer in the local activist community, said she was there to “make sure we get some justice.”
“I am sick of how this country and this city are policing Black women, girls, femmes, gender nonbinary and transgender women,” said Spellman, the policy and advocacy associate at HIPS, a nonprofit group that helps those engaged in sex work or drug use.
Following the incident with Young, Nellie’s closed its doors until July “to allow for a thorough review of the incident to be conducted,” the bar said in a statement posted on Facebook.
After the ABRA issued a report at the end of June saying the bar violated District code the night Young was there and sent its findings to the D.C. attorney general to review for possible charges, Nellie’s said in a statement that staffers were assaulted after asking patrons with outside liquor to leave.
“We don’t condone what followed and we terminated the security company responsible, closed the establishment for a period to further investigate and move forward with additional training and a new security company,” the statement said.
In mid-July, Nellie’s issued another statement apologizing to Young and announcing it hired a new manager and director of community engagement to help Nellie’s staff with “diversity sensitivity and inclusion training — with a focus on the concerns of LGBTQ+ people of color.”
But the apology came too late and the new director wasn’t satisfactory, organizers said.
“It’s even more infuriating to have our calls for Black LGBTQ led accountability, reparations, and transformation to be ignored and scapegoated by a non-Black leader in the queer community,” Harriet’s Wildest Dreams said in a statement after Nellie’s announced the new director.
Organizers wanted Schantz to meet directly with the community about allegations of discrimination against Black patrons and to speak with organizers about their demands. But organizers said they were met with no response after multiple attempts and decided to return week after week to protest.
“We had no choice but to continue with the protests,” Green said.
With performers, DJs and dancers hitting “death drops” in the street and protesters going over the demands on a microphone, the scene outside of the bar on Fridays through the summer looked much different from the quieter, less crowded inside.
On Week 10 of the protest block parties, a group of girls, who were all White, walked up to the bar entrance but stopped and looked at the crowd gathered on the sidewalk and street.
“What’s going on?” they said.
“Black people aren’t safe there,” Taylor said to the group pointing to Nellie’s.
The girls glanced at one another, shook their heads and said: “Let’s go. We won’t go there.”
They walked away.
The group’s efforts have also gone beyond the block parties, spotlighting what some say are long-running concerns.
“This is bigger than Nellie’s; it’s about the lack of Black queer spaces and safety in D.C.,” Preston Mitchum, board co-chair of Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), said to the group gathered Thursday for a community listening session.
Hours before Nellie’s had issued its apology to Young, D.C. CASS released a statement declining a request from Schantz to staff training because the bar had not issued an apology to Young or engaged with the community to discuss other demands.
“We are deeply concerned that a training would mean nothing if you are still refusing to issue an apology for the harm and violence your establishment inflicted, let alone the remainder of the demands,” the letter read.
The letter also referenced Nellie’s being “called out” by the community in the past, including for allegations of treating Black patrons differently, price increases for “particular drinks stereotyped as ordinarily purchased by Black patrons, intentional change in music on days predominated by Black patrons” and hanging a Blue Lives Matter flag in 2018.
“We had demands that were tied to Keisha specifically but also to honor the work that Preston and other people have been doing for years,” Green said at the listening session.
Schantz was not at the session in person. His Facebook profile commented in the chat of the live stream, “I am here to listen.”
Frankie Seabron, a community member who attended the listening session, said the protest block parties have created a place where she feels like people are standing up for Black women.
“What the boycotts have given me, in that space that it’s created, is that I can be my whole, total self in a world that continues to tell me that being that is not enough,” Seabron said. “When I see Keisha, I see me.”
Tammy Young, the mother of Keisha, told The Washington Post that her daughter is doing “much better” and that they appreciate everything organizers have done.
“We just hope Nellie’s gets better,” Tammy Young said.
Performers have come from around the country to support the protests, where cars passed by honking in support amid the music before streets were blocked off by police cars and construction trucks.
Neighbors living near Nellie’s bar gave a “diverse amount of support,” Green said, though some also did not understand why the group was out there every week. And each week, the protests cost around $800 to $1,000, Green said, funded in partnership with D.C. Ward 1 Mutual Aid, Stop Police Terror Project D.C. and the Palm Collective.
“It was really beautiful to see other queer, Black queer and trans leaders come out in support and in this type of joy space . . . that was focused on resistance,” Green said. “It felt like . . . the feeling you get when you walk up to a family reunion.”
Nya Cunningham, a 16-year-old trained ballet dancer, danced to rapper Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” to a cheering crowd one Friday.
“Black women have been suppressed for so long, for decades, centuries, everything,” Cunningham said. “I feel like it’s my time . . . as a young artist that I should be using my art to stand up for what I believe in.”
At Friday’s final protest, dancers and DJs were back for one last party, but Green said the work to #BoycottNellies will continue.
Speaking to the crowd gathered in front of Nellie’s on Friday, Green called on allies to send letters to council members and the attorney general’s office as they wait for the results from ABRA’s findings.
Green then led the group in a series of final chants outside of Nellie’s, calling for power and transformation with their voices bouncing off the outside walls of the bar.