Two black men were wrongly accused of not paying to use a gym in New Jersey, and the police were subsequently called on them, days after a similar incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks catapulted the problem of racial profiling in commercial spaces into the national spotlight.
Oates wrote that a half-hour later, he was approached by the same female employee who signed him in and told him he had to leave or pay. After Oates told the employee that she had just checked him in under a guest pass, the employee said it was Oates’s friend who had not paid. The employee did not know that the gym’s manager had already scanned the friend’s membership pass.
“He felt racially profiled and embarrassed by the harassment of this LA Fitness employee in front of other members at the gym,” Oates wrote.
LA Fitness did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for a comment. An employee who answered the phone at the Secaucus location said he was unauthorized to share any information.
A spokeswoman for Fitness International, LA Fitness’s parent company, told the Associated Press that three employees directly involved in the incident were no longer with the company. It was unclear whether those employees had been terminated.
In an email to the AP, Jill Greuling, executive vice president of operations for Fitness International, said the front-desk employee “was confused and thought the member was a guest” because she “was not working when this member checked in the first time.”
“Regrettably, from there our staff unnecessarily escalated the situation and called the police rather than work through it,” Grueling’s email said.
Oates did not return a request for comment.
Oates wrote that he and his friend, who was not named in the post or in attached videos, explained to the police that one had checked in with a guest pass and the other with an active membership card.
Ten minutes later, Oates and his friend were told to leave by an LA Fitness manager. Oates and his friend said, “we did not do anything wrong” and were soon asked to leave by five police officers.
Oates wrote that the LA Fitness manager refused to give a reason for why he and his friend were being kicked out. The manager said Oates was banned from the gym and that his friend’s membership had been terminated.
Capt. Dennis Miller, a spokesman for the Secaucus Police Department, told The Post that the 911 call was made at 5:17 p.m. and that four officers and one supervisor arrived at the LA Fitness a few minutes later. Miller said the police were called about two men who “were refusing to leave due to them not showing their membership cards.”
Miller said the “officers quelled what could have been a volatile situation.” The gym management told the police that Oates and his friend were no longer allowed to be on the property, which was within their right as a private company. Miller said the officers requested that the men leave, and, because the men complied, they were not forcibly removed or arrested.
“In this particular incident, the people in charge of the premises wanted these individuals removed, thereby revoking their privilege to be there,” Miller said. “Whether it was justified on the business side, that’s not for us to say or judge at this time.”
Miller said it is not common for the police to be called on issues related to people allegedly not paying to use the gym, but that the department is frequently called for medical issues, assaults and thefts. Miller could not recollect a recent incident similar to the one involving Oates and his friend.
“I don’t think there’s anything in the report indicating any racial-type gestures or anything like that,” Miller said of the gym’s management. Miller was not one of the officers dispatched to the gym.
Miller said the police left the gym at roughly 6:06 p.m., about 50 minutes after the manager called 911.
Police Chief Kevin Flaherty told The Post that there have been billing disputes at LA Fitness that have involved the police, but “nothing ever, from my knowledge, that was racially based or anything of that nature.” He said the officers handled the incident properly and were able to “maintain the peace.”
Four short videos attached to Oates’s Facebook post show his friend being scanned in with the front desk again. The man says he’s been a member of the club for at least eight years. The gym employee asking the man to re-scan refuses to give his name.
“We’ve got all these police officers here for what reason?” the man says in one of the videos.
In another video, the man says he and Oates are the only black people in the gym, pointing the camera to a sprawling workout area as Hailee Steinfeld’s “Most Girls” plays in the background.
The man says nobody, including the officers, know why his membership contract was being terminated.
“The manager doesn’t like me, so my contract is being terminated,” the man says.