It just goes to show you what a difference a year — or almost three — can make.
On March 19, the Atlanta City Council approved a settlement in the third Eagle lawsuit filed by attorney Dan Grossman, with the city paying out $330,000 to 10 plaintiffs who alleged their constitutional rights were violated when the Atlanta Police Department raided the bar on Sept. 10, 2009.
The new settlement followed a settlement for $120,000 for eight employees in October 2011 and the original Eagle lawsuit with 26 plaintiffs that settled for more than $1 million in December 2010.
For any business, surviving for 25 years is reason enough to celebrate. For the Eagle, the fact that the anniversary coincides with the end of the legal battle makes it that much sweeter.
“I think it’s great [to celebrate 25 years] considering everything the bar has been through,” said bar co-owner Robby Kelley, who also spends a lot of time slinging drinks for customers.
“We’re happy to be celebrating 25 years and plan to be here a lot longer. I’ll be here as long as my knees hold up,” he said with a laugh.
For Richard Ramey, who owns the bar with Kelley, the end of the three lawsuits marks a milestone not only in the bar’s history or even in the city’s LGBT history — but also for the city’s history.
“We wanted to go through this to make changes for the city,” Ramey said. “And it was worth it for the final outcome.”
Eagle raid part of Atlanta’s gay history
It was Sept. 10, 2009, when Atlanta police raided the Atlanta Eagle, arrested eight employees and forced some 60 patrons to the floor, then confiscated their cellphones and IDs as some officers hurled anti-gay slurs at them. Numerous patrons said they were roughed up by officers who stood on their necks to keep them on the dirty floor of the bar.
The police said they were there that night — the popular “Underwear Night” — to arrest people having illegal sex and also to bust up illegal drug activity. Nobody in the bar that night was arrested on any of those charges. Instead, employees of the bar were arrested for a permit violation.
News of the raid angered many in Atlanta’s LGBT communities. A rally held in the bar’s parking lot days after the raid attracted hundreds as the story made national headlines.
While public support was there in the immediate aftermath, the bar soon saw the darkest days in its history.
Business declined because people were afraid the leather and bear bar was a target for the police.
Hoping at first to get a simple apology from Mayor Shirley Franklin — who was mayor when the raid occurred — and from the APD, the “Eagle 8” employees instead were put on trial for misdemeanor permit violations. Seven of the eight were found not guilty or had their charges dismissed. One person, a dancer, did not show up to court.
Chris Lopez, a former bartender at the Atlanta Eagle represented by attorney Bill Atkins, currently has a federal lawsuit pending against the city.
Ramey and Kelley now praise the efforts of the APD in mending its relationship with the gay community, especially with the bar.
“They have been very responsive,” Ramey said. “One talked to me one night — Deputy Chief Renee Propes — and showed me she was wearing an Atlanta Eagle pin.”
“Things are basically back to normal,” Kelley added. “Especially with the beat officers, we have a good rapport. A few times we’ve had to call them and they’ve come in to help and been very kind to all of us.”
Still, the raid on the Atlanta Eagle will remain a key event in Atlanta’s gay history, and perhaps also in national gay history, Ramey added.
“Without our customers being willing to stand up, we would have never been able to fight against what happened that was so wrong,” he said. “Yes, we have suffered [as a bar] but we are so proud of what we were able to accomplish with a great legal team.”
Added Kelley, “It kind of does make us proud. We’ve got good customers, great employees. And they all stood with us.”
Mayor, Eagle attorney do lunch
The lawsuits filed by Grossman on behalf of the Eagle patrons sought not only monetary damages, but also for the Atlanta Police Department to make changes to its policies, including making it a fireable offense if an officer destroys evidence in a civil case and requiring ongoing training on the Fourth Amendment.
Grossman said he went after significant amounts of money on behalf of his clients to hopefully make the city pay attention, as well as instill better practices at the APD.
“Nothing else was working,” he said, noting the original Eagle plaintiffs simply sought an apology.
“Unfortunately, this is a painful way to get to this,” Grossman said. “My hope is it will motivate the APD and individual officers to follow the law.”
Grossman said the procedural reforms put in place should also ensure the APD and the city do not have to face significant settlements in the future which will save the city money in the long run.
He also added the Atlanta Citizen Review Board has been asking for police changes for years and many of the officers that led to the costly settlements had been investigated in the past.
“The end results are good for the citizens and for the taxpayers,” said Grossman.
Throughout the lawsuits, Grossman had a very contentious public relationship with Mayor Kasim Reed, who took office a few months after the Eagle raid. At a town hall forum last November, Grossman suggested publicly the two go to lunch.
And they actually did, Grossman said.
Reed and Grossman met in December and discussed the cases. It was after then, Grossman said, that conversations with the city’s Law Department became more fruitful and, eventually, led to a settlement that gave his clients “justice.”
The settlements also mean all his lawsuits against the city are finished.
“I’m glad this is behind me,” he said.
Bar owners: ‘Highest respect’ for APD
While Reed took a lot of heat in public from Grossman, Kelley and Ramey said they harbor no ill feelings toward the mayor and Police Chief George Turner.
Reed and the city’s Law Department fought tooth-and-nail against the settlements. Turner also came under criticism for not firing more officers involved in the raid, especially after a damning internal report by Greenberg Traurig proved what the patrons had been saying all along — the police violated the constitutional rights of the patrons and treated them roughly while some also showed anti-gay prejudice.
“The mayor was stuck in a bad situation. I feel kind of bad for him,” Kelley acknowledged. “This case made him look less tolerant than he really is.”
And the police department has “100 percent” tried to mend its relationship with the bar, Ramey added.
“We have the highest respect for the police department,” he said.
Chief Turner, in a statement to the GA Voice, said he is glad the legal fallout from the Eagle raid is essentially over.
“I believe the department is better today as a result of the reforms resulting from this incident. We have made changes to our Standard Operating Procedures that ensure citizens’ constitutional rights are upheld at all times, we’ve undergone training from a nationally-recognized expert on search and seizure and we’ve taken great strides to build a meaningful relationship with the LGBT community, including the hiring of a second departmental liaison and the creation of an advisory board,” he said.
“Our ultimate goal is to ensure the LGBT community becomes true partners in our fight against crime, reflecting our mission statement: ‘To reduce crime and promote the quality of life in partnership with our community.’ We have work to do in this community, as we do with all of our communities. But I’m committed to getting us there,” Turner added.
Reed also said in a statement he hopes the city can move on after the Eagle settlements to close “a painful time in our city’s history.”
“I hope the settlements reached in the Eagle lawsuits help to bring much needed closure to a painful time in our city’s history,” Reed said.
“While we have more work to do, I am proud of the reforms the Atlanta Police Department has implemented and the steps we have taken to heal our community. I believe we are on our way to rebuilding trust. I wasn’t mayor when this incident occurred, but that does not diminish my concern,” the mayor continued.
“Atlanta’s diverse LGBT community is part of what makes our city so special, and I am committed to ensuring that the rights of all of our citizens are always protected.”
Top photo: Atlanta Eagle owners Robby Kelley (left) and Richard Ramey are ready to celebrate 25 years of the bar being in business — and the end of their legal battle against the city. (by Bo Shell)