Fort Worth

‘The buck has to stop somewhere’: Men alleging discrimination at West 7th bar speak out

Marlon Young had just gotten off of work when he left his house and headed toward the West 7th area.

He was meeting his friend, Nathan Murrell, to celebrate Murrell’s 38th birthday.

But when Young, who is black, arrived to The Whiskey Garden, at 2800 Bledsoe St., he said the doorman wouldn’t let him inside because he was alone.

“He gave no other reason,” Young said.

As quickly as the night began, it ended. Young said he was choked by a security guard as another yelled racial slurs at him. Murrell was arrested and jailed overnight, blamed for instigating a fight.

Now, the men have sued Whiskey Garden over what they say was a racially motivated plan to keep Young from entering the bar.

They sat down with the Star-Telegram recently to share what they say happened on July 14, 2017, and the toll it has taken on their lives since.

‘Everything broke loose’

Murrell, who is white, arrived at Whiskey Garden alone, handed his driver’s license to the doorman and went inside to join two other people who had already arrived.

About 45 minutes later, Young got to the bar dressed in a button up and jeans. He handed his driver’s license to the same doorman.

But the doorman — identified as Adam Shafer in the lawsuit — gave Young his license back and told him he couldn’t go inside because he was alone, Young said. He told Young to call his friends who were already inside the bar to meet him at the door.

When Murrell got outside, the doorman said that Young had an attitude. Young maintains he didn’t. Both men say they weren’t drunk, as the bar has claimed.

After a short back-and-forth, Young suggested that he, Murrell and their friends leave.

They could find another place to spend their money, he said.

“I decided then to basically just voice my opinion and I made sure I was on the other side of the gate to make sure I was off the property,” Murrell said. “I wasn’t kicked out or anything at this point. Never was. As I start voicing my opinion, you know about them profiling Marlon, they’re smirking and laughing at me.”

He said one of the employees escalated the situation when he walked to the fence and pushed Murrell on his shoulder.

“I was like, ‘You know I’m not I’m not going to hit you,’” Murrell said. “And he pushed me again like smirking and then that’s when everything broke loose.”

At the same time, Young said he was backing away from the bar.

“Before you knew it, all of the security guards were there,” Young said, adding that he was pushed to the ground and placed into a headlock.

“I didn’t even see the guy,” he said, holding back tears. “I still don’t know who was choking me … his back is on the ground and I’m lying on top of him and he’s choking me and Shafer is standing over the top of me calling me a (n-word).”

When Fort Worth police officers arrived, Murrell was placed into handcuffs. Young was let go. Both men said they weren’t interviewed about what happened and weren’t given an opportunity to tell officers their side of the story, despite saying they wanted to press charges against the men they say attacked them.

Murrell was booked and faced charges of assault and public intoxication. He said he wasn’t drunk.

Both charges were dropped.

A different story

Whiskey Garden’s owner, Emil Bragdon, said last month that the men’s story is false and they were the ones who started the fight.

Both men deny the allegations.

The Star-Telegram filed an open records request for body camera footage taken from Fort Worth officers who were sent to the fight. The city said there are no recordings.

Bragdon, who said he spoke with Shafer about the fight, said Young was refused entry into the bar because he was hostile to Shafer at the door. He also said many other people in the bar that night were black and were let in without any issues.

“We didn’t let (Young) in due to his violent demeanor at the door and he claims racism,” Bragdon said. “How is it that half his party inside was black and we let in ... but we don’t let him in and its racist?”

Murrell and Young’s attorney, Atlanta-based Marcus Roberts, said there were two black men who were allowed inside the bar earlier, but that they “had to beg and plead to be let in the establishment.”

Roberts said it wasn’t easy for the men to get inside and that they were able to because they were with their girlfriends, who are both white.

Murrell said there were other minorities inside the bar while he waited for Young. The issue they have is that Murrell, a white man, was allowed in alone whereas Young, a black man, was not.

A police report said officers broke up the fight.

Two off-duty officers who worked security at the bar said Murrell punched Shafer in the face and Murrell, Young and two other men fought with Shafer, who had cuts on his face. The two officers said Murrell was drunk and screamed at security personnel, according to the police report.

The men also deny those allegations.

‘I realized we’re not the same’

Young and Murrell grew up together in Forest Hill.

Murrell said he has witnessed Young being profiled before. But he said it was that night in 2017 that made him realize they’re different.

“I don’t see him no different because of his skin color,” Murrell said. “We grew up together, we’re friends ... But now I realize, you know, we’re not the same. It hurt me to know that night that he couldn’t go to the same places that I could.

Murrell said he felt like he was doing the right thing by telling the bar he thought they were racist. But he says for speaking out, he and Young were attacked.

“If it’s a crime for me to speak out on them profiling him and what happened, then I mean, they might as well give me life,” he said. “They might as well just go ahead and throw away the key because I will always speak up against that. I wasn’t hurting nobody, I wasn’t hurting their establishment or doing anything. I was just speaking my opinion and I felt like I got punished for it, and he got punished for it obviously.”

Young said he’s thought about that night a lot over the last two years, and reliving what happened makes him choke up.

“If you want to make policies like that, make them for everybody,” he said. “You can’t make policies for just a certain race, not just Latino people or black people. I hope this will wake people up.”

Roberts said the lawsuit is personal for him.

“It’s a very critical issue to me and one that I’ve faced personally in terms of dealing with discrimination,” the attorney said.

Roberts is from Fort Worth and is friends with Murrell and Young.

“It didn’t sit well with me that these types of things were still going on in a community that I still call home,” he said. “The lawsuit is dear to my heart as an African-American man and in the climate that we’re in today I just think it’s critically important to fight these issues head on and don’t let them fester. ... The buck has to stop somewhere. Fort Worth is an amazing city and we certainly don’t need the stain of racism affecting our city.”

Racism on West 7th

Murrell and Young aren’t the first people to say they’ve experienced racism at Whiskey Garden.

A Google review from a woman written nine months ago says a bouncer forcefully grabbed her arms and poured out her drink because she called him racist after he wouldn’t let her Hispanic friends inside the bar.

That woman, Linette Miranda, said it happened the first weekend of November.

“I was already inside whiskey garden with a drink when my friends walk up to the line,” she told the Star-Telegram in a Facebook message.

A friend of hers wasn’t allowed inside the bar because of her shoes.

“Both friends were wearing Timberlands each time,” she said. “They had let in an ex-boyfriend who was white with Jordans and a cap so I was highly suspicious it was a race thing because both friends looked Hispanic.”

Whiskey Garden has a dress code, much like other bars in the West 7th district. But, Miranda argues that it should be enforced for everyone.

After her friends were denied entry, Miranda said she started speaking loudly to a friend about the situation.

The doorman approached her and told her she could leave.

“And I said yes I am leaving in fact because of this stupidity,” she said.

Miranda began to chug her drink, but said the doorman forcefully grabbed her arm and poured it out.

She said she has not gone back to 7th street on a Friday or Saturday night, explaining that she reported the bouncer to police, but nothing was done.

Another review left 11 months ago says two men weren’t allowed in because they were just two men together.

A third review from a year ago says that two Hispanic men weren’t allowed inside because one was wearing a baby blue button-up shirt. A couple or weeks later, the same men were rejected because there were too many men inside. After they were denied entry, the reviewer said, three white men were let in.

Out of the 335 reviews on Google, at least 17 were about racism and discrimination. On Yelp, 22 reviews alleged racism.

When asked about the reviews, Bragdon said they are not a “viable source for true information.”

“Anyone can post these,” he said in an email. “If someone gets mad at a business they have been known to slander it with false accusations.”

A few other reviews also complained of the unaccompanied rule.

Some bars in the West 7th area have been accused of racist behavior in the past. The other incidents happened after Murrell and Young experienced theirs in 2017.

Whiskey Garden is just blocks away from Varsity Tavern, which faced backlash in April 2018 after several club-goers said the dress code was discriminatory based on race.

In response, in May 2018, the Fort Worth Race and Culture Task Force met with members of the West 7th Restaurant & Bar Association to discuss equal access to public accommodations.

At the 2018 meeting, Tino DeFranco, one of the managing members of Whiskey Garden and president of the association, vehemently denied discrimination at Whiskey Garden.

The Star-Telegram identified six other bars that had complaints of racism against them because they turned away minorities at the door. Three of them list dress codes on their websites.

Members of the West 7th Restaurant & Bar Association defended their dress code policies last year.

DeFranco said the dress code is “not discriminatory in any manner” and that they use the same dress code that the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to for the Dallas bar Kung Fu Saloon, which settled a racism dispute in 2015.

During the May 2018 meeting, task force members asked whether the bar owners had a quota for how many minorities could be in their establishments at a given time, whether the bar owners had any data about how many people are turned away in a week, how many of those people are people of color and whether they had a breakdown of how many people of color are on staff.

The answers to all of those questions were no.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why we did this story

The Star-Telegram reported that Nathan Murrell and Marlon Young filed a lawsuit against Whiskey Garden in July, but we wanted to know more.

Reporter Nichole Manna asked their attorney, Marcus Roberts, for a sit-down interview with the two men.

We asked them to explain in detail what they say happened the night of July 14, 2017, how that night has affected their lives since and why they decided to sue the bar.

The Star-Telegram also asked bar owner Emil Bragdon if he would go on camera to talk about what he says happened. He declined the newspaper’s invitation and sent a response via email.

We felt it was important to learn more about the allegations against Whiskey Garden and to see if anyone else had experienced something similar.

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Nichole Manna is an investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she covered crime and breaking news in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She is a 2012 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University and grew up in Florida.
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