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|GA Voice Person of the Year: Dan Grossman|
|Written by Dyana Bagby|
|Friday, 24 December 2010 00:00|
Editor's note: The title of this honor has been changed since it was first awarded. To find out why, please click here.
Thom Hayes, 68, was sitting at the bar of the Atlanta Eagle on Sept. 10, 2009, when the Atlanta Police Department raided it. He was drinking a Sprite. His friend was drinking a Diet Coke.
The story that unfolds is a familiar one told by many others in the gay bar that night — the men were forced to lie face down on the floor as they were frisked, had their IDs checked, even had their cell phones confiscated as members of the Red Dog Unit in their paramilitary gear searched for criminal activity. They found none.
In the months that followed that raid, Dan Grossman could not understand why there was not more outrage in the LGBT community, why there was no one stepping forward to represent the patrons of the bar that night and, most importantly, how the police could get away with behavior that was so blatantly unconstitutional.
“From the very first news reports, which talked about 60-70 people being detained and searched, it seemed clear that the officers must have acted illegally,” Grossman said.
“Even without knowing the full facts, it just didn’t seem possible that the officers could have suspected every single person in such a large group of criminal activity. In the days following the raid I expected some organization or private attorney to file a lawsuit, and I emailed some of my lawyer friends to ask what was happening, but it seemed that no one wanted to take the case,” he said.
For Hayes, the moment the police entered the bar and shined their bright flashlights into his face and screamed for him to get to the floor, he knew his rights were being violated. He just didn’t know what to do about it.
“I felt like I was in a third world country, like I had been taken hostage,” he said. “I have seen enough TV to know that police brutality takes place so I complied as quickly as possible. But it was very, very frightening. How could this be happening in the U.S.A. in 2009?”
Hayes went with many others in the days following the raid to file complaints with APD’s Office of Professional Standards accusing the police of kicking and shoving them while also using anti-gay slurs. (The OPS investigation into these complaints remains open.)
Then Hayes got a call from Grossman.
“He introduced himself as a lawyer and said, ‘I would like to represent you in this case,’” Hayes remembered. “I said I have no money, I’m on a fixed income. And he told me he was not asking for any money and would like to get people to sign onto a lawsuit.”
Hayes, who said he’s never been an activist before, at first was worried about being an openly gay plaintiff in a federal lawsuit. He had family that still didn’t accept him, he lives in the Salvation Army building “where people sit in the lobby and like to gossip.”
“But then I decided, ‘What do I have to lose?’” Hayes said.
But, he added, Grossman was the key allowing him to unlock this new side of himself.
“I gained an extreme amount of strength and dignity out of all of this,” he said. “We became really good friends. He treated us all with dignity and respect. I can’t be too praiseworthy of this man. He was so sincere and valiant — it was a no brainer that I join the suit.”
From laywer to internet guru to Eagle advocate
Grossman graduated from Princeton in 1985, cum laude, and then went to Duke University to get his law degree, graduating in 1989 with honors. He went on to work for Powell Goldstein LLP from 1989-1994, while also maintaining a private practice.
In 1995, Grossman spread his wings and entered into a career in the internet industry. He founded MetroKitchen.com in 1998 and grew it into one of the country’s largest online retailers of gourmet cookware and cutlery.
An avid photographer with his own Flickr account and a personal interest in aviation history, Grossman started looking for the next big thing in his life. He sold MetroKitchen.com in 2005, took some time off, but maintained his private law practice and remained involved in the internet industry. The next big thing was the Atlanta Eagle.
Grossman, who is gay and had been to the Eagle before, said he just couldn’t sit by.
“I think the main reason I offered to help was because I could not imagine such a large-scale violation of civil rights going unchallenged in the city that has been my home for more than 20 years,” he said.
“No one else seemed interested in taking the case and I had the background, training, education, and time to take it on,” he said. “It felt almost like a patriotic duty, really. It’s easy to say you love America, but here was a chance to actually do something and to stand up for what our country is all about.”
Working with Grossman was Gerry Weber of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which joined in the federal lawsuit along with Lambda Legal when it was filed in November 2009.
“Dan was the person that got the ball rolling,” Weber said.
And the ball hasn’t really stopped rolling even after the Dec. 8, 2010, settlement that includes a $1.025 million settlement to the plaintiffs and attorneys as well as extensive changes to APD policy.
The APD has six months to implement the changes that include such basic items as officers wearing a visible name tag, making it illegal to keep people from taking photos of police while they are in public, as well as serious changes that bring the city into constitutional compliance by not allowing police officers to search and detain a large group of people not suspected of any crime.
“I think this was a fantastic resolution … that compensated the clients and the systemic reforms to come will benefit everyone,” Weber said. “I would like to commend the city for belatedly making the sincere changes.”
But Weber easily acknowledges that Grossman led the charge.
“I think Dan’s passion was on another level — this became his life,” Weber said. “He was absolutely tenacious, willing to do the grunt work, doing everything from the most basic things to the most complex.”
Grossman’s background in the internet industry was also very useful, Weber said, and helped in the discovery process when questions of deleted emails, erased cell phone photos and text messages of the officers involved in the raid came up. The city is still investigating these allegations.
“I’ve been doing civil rights law for 20 years and I learned from Dan many skills that I can carry forward in my work,” Weber said.
“My hope is that he’s going to continue to carry this torch and we’ll have a new lawyer on the scene fighting for our constitutional rights,” he added.
Grossman acknowledges he’s been bitten by the bug with the Atlanta Eagle case and has already taken numerous cases of people claiming their civil rights have been violated.
That’s good news for the LGBT community, but most important, that’s good news for all of Atlanta, said Greg Nevins, supervising senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office.
“From the moment he heard what happened, Dan knew what had to be done,” Nevins said. “He made himself available to the patrons, set up the website and spent a lot of time with men who certainly were going through inexplicable trauma. He dealt with them on a personal and professional level.”
“Occasionally I’m amazed at what we accomplished and go, ‘Wow,’” Grossman said. “I went house to house [in the beginning] and literally held hands with a lot of people who were resistant to sign on, explaining why I wanted to do this for them.”
‘The face of gay civil rights’
Grossman said while he, Lambda Legal and SCHR are receiving praise from many, the real heroes are the Atlanta Eagle plaintiffs who agreed to step forward to defend everyone’s rights. They came out even when the LGBT community didn’t seem to be supporting them.
After Atlanta Pride last year honored former APD gay liaison Dani Lee Harris as a grand marshal, many plaintiffs were ready to give up, Grossman said. A controversy erupted and Atlanta Pride named the Atlanta Eagle’s patrons and employees as co-grand marshals.
“After Pride, less than two months after the raid, honored the APD — and nobody has issues with Officer Harris — it was especially demoralizing,” he said. “They wanted to know why they should be involved in this lawsuit when no one cares.”
And the fact that many major Atlanta LGBT groups did not speak out to support the gay bar that has been an institution for more than 20 years was also a bit shocking, Grossman said.
Richard Ramey and Robby Kelley, owners of the bar, are still angered they did not receive more support. They now encourage people to make donations to Lambda Legal rather than other gay groups in the city.
Nevins of Lambda Legal said this case definitely represents a huge win for gay rights in Atlanta, but also for everyone’s rights in the city.
“Dan was consistently the guiding hand to ensure something constructive came out of this,” he said.
For David Thomas, 48, another plaintiff, enough praise cannot be heaped on Grossman.
“I’m very proud Dan was able to come forward and take the forefront for all of us and for all of the city’s residents,” he said.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the face of gay civil rights.”
Top photo: Attorney Dan Grossman championed the civil rights of patrons of the Atlanta Eagle, and this month won a federal lawsuit over the illegal police raid on the gay bar. (by Dyana Bagby)
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