LGBTQ bar owner who was lending support to George Floyd protesters speaks out about being fired at by police

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Protesters march in honor of George Floyd in downtown Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, the day a local LGBTQ bar owner says he was the subject of aggressive police tactics. (Julia Wall/The News & Observer via AP)

The owner of an LGBTQ bar in downtown Raleigh, N.C., is speaking out about a video (below) that shows police officers openly firing weapons — with what turned out to be blank flash-bangs — at him and others who had set up a support station outside the bar to offer water and medical help to those participating in nearby George Floyd protests.

“The shotguns shoot an extremely loud bang that kind of shakes your chest,” Tim Lemuel, the owner of Ruby Deluxe and the alleged target of police fire, tells Yahoo Life of the firing, which occurred within the very first hours of June, which is Pride Month.

“Everyone there in the parking lot had come to sit peacefully and wash people’s eyes out — queer folks, mind you, so, a group of people already marginalized and who have to look over their shoulder,” he says. When the shots were fired, Lemuel, a U.S. Army field artillery veteran who understood there were no bullets coming at him, says he was not frightened. But his friends and supporters, he says, “ran for their lives, because they thought they were being shot at.”

Jen Verani, one of the supporters with Lemuel that night, told the News & Observer, “I could see how, with everything that was going on, how things could be heightened and their goal to disperse crowds that are being destructive or being harmful would be necessary. But we weren’t chanting. We weren’t yelling. We weren’t gesturing to them. There was nothing that we were doing to instigate a response like that.”

In general, Lemuel observes about the police force in Raleigh, where mostly peaceful protests have at times turned violent, “They have no de-escalation tactics whatsoever.”

In the video, Lemuel can be seen from behind, addressing what appear to be four deputies coming toward him on a nearby sidewalk and pointing to the entrance of Ruby Deluxe, which has been closed since March 15 because of the coronavirus pandemic. He is heard yelling to them, “This is my business! This is my business! I rent this place. I rent here.”

The deputies appear indifferent, and one screams, “You were told! You were told! I don’t care where you go, you’ve got to go!” Then there are two flash-bang shots, followed by an officer screaming, “The game is over! Get out!”

Lemuel continues, “This is my business! This is my business!” before the video ends. In addition to the flash-bang, pepper balls — which are "small projectiles containing chemical irritants," according to Reuters — were shot at some point. No one was injured in the incident.

The welcoming sign outside of Ruby Deluxe in Raleigh, N.C. (Tim Lemuel)

Wake County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Eric Curry disputes Lemuel’s version of events, telling Yahoo Life that the deputies had followed “agitators” from downtown stores that had been burned and looted to the Ruby Deluxe parking lot. There, he says, the agitators were observed “spraying graffiti and then being supplied with water and other items,” he says. “It was at that time our deputies stood at the parking lot entrance on the sidewalk and made a verbal command for this crowd to disperse.” When that didn’t happen, he says, they “fired two audible distraction charges, no more than loud bangs, containing no projectiles, deployed by an orange shotgun that is very distinguishable.”

The alleged troublemakers scattered while, Curry says, Lemuel stayed inside the bar, exiting only once the deputies had returned a second time to fire two more flash-bangs at agitators who they had tracked back there once again. When asked whether it was possible that Lemuel had been supporting peaceful protesters and inadvertently given water to vandals, Curry says, “That could’ve been his honest assessment. However, while his intentions are well and good, our deputies were tracking some of these agitators straight to his front door.”

Lemuel says that Curry’s claim that the deputies showed up twice is “not true” and maintains that the moment captured on video “was our first and only interaction with [them] all night.” As far as the possibility that he could have inadvertently helped agitators, he says, “We gave water to dehydrated humans. We washed the eyes of fellow humans. We did not ask if they were agitators. We didn’t give them a criminal background check.”

But some local officials are troubled by the video. After Raleigh Council Member Nicole Stewart watched the video, according to the News & Observer, she was “distraught” and sent a copy to City Manager Ruffin Hall and Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown to have it investigated. Raleigh Council Member Saige Martin, who is one of two LGBTQ members of the council, was also disturbed, telling the publication, “It is a safe space for so many people. It is a home to queer folks.”

Ruby Deluxe opened in 2015, when Lemuel aimed to provide a creative, trans-inclusive safe space in the city, where conservative, homophobic sentiments can feel oppressive. Offering drag shows, open mics and live music, it soon became a popular, diverse queer hangout, as did Lemuel’s two other venues in town. The place reportedly became the target of homophobic attack in 2018, when a man armed with a gun, knife and Taser yelled gay slurs before being arrested.

In March, the venue, like so many others, was forced to close because of the pandemic. “It really affected us, because we don’t really have a lot of allies in the city, when it comes to politicians … in fact, we have just the opposite,” he says. Because the club is so important to the LGBTQ community, he says, “we had a huge public outcry, and people started to donate.” Resident drag queen Kiara Mel performed virtually, through Instagram, as a fundraiser.

Then came the killing of George Floyd and subsequent national outrage, including in Raleigh, where there have been waves of protests.

“We are in full agreement with protesting and the whole Black Lives Matter movement and have been using our platform to help people donate, protest and to lend support,” Lemuel says. “When it came time for the protest, I talked to some of my staff and said, ‘Everything might be broken, but we have to kind of surrender to that, because it’s a bigger thing than us.”

He wound up joining a protest that took place right near the bar — and when he returned to his club the next day, he found “a bunch of white supremacist symbols all over our building,” and glass doors that had been smashed with rocks.

“My first response was, ‘I’ll be damned if during this amazing protest my building is going to get smashed by a white nationalist. That’s not what’s going on,” he says. So he decided to camp out there at night and put up a sign inviting protesters who may need moral support to swing by. It soon evolved into people dropping off bottled water and eyewash for those who got hit by tear gas or pepper spray. “A bunch of medics showed up, people were being really great, we had a huge eyewash station, a first aid station.”

The sheriff’s station is just across the street — “within eyeshot” — from Ruby Deluxe, Lemuel says, and he and deputies saw one another clearly for hours. “We were there across the street from them for seven hours. They had their helmets off, smoking cigarettes and never thought to come down and talk. … At no point did anyone walk over and say, ‘we have a concern,’ or ‘what’s going on over here?’ The cops said they got anonymous tip we were aiding agitators. … But my point is that he could’ve walked over.”

Curry says the shooting of flash-bangs — which he explains officers “don’t use a lot” and which are “used as a riot control mechanism” — was meant to disperse troublemakers.

“People are asking us, ‘Well, why didn’t you arrest them?’ [Not doing so] was part of our de-escalation,” he says. “We would rather keep that group moving out of downtown, keep them from picking up steam again.” He notes that, during those wee hours, “tensions were running high” and adds, “People can second-guess tactics after the fact, but it was a split-second decision to either sweep them all up off the street or keep them moving.” Regarding the fact that Lemuel can be heard clearly announcing that he is the bar’s proprietor, Curry says, “Well, at that point, we don’t know who’s who. We have to control the situation, and he’s approaching us.”

Now, says Lemuel, he’d simply appreciate an apology but also notes that the experience — particularly during the pandemic, while the popular gathering place remains closed — has been brought many in the LGBTQ community together.

“During Pride Month, we celebrate Stonewall and things that have been terrible but have also yielded results. … So, it’s like, here we go again,” he says. “The queer community is very resilient.”

Lemuel, who notes that he is “half Native American, half Sicilian,” is thankful that no one at his bar was injured but says he will continue speaking out about what happened, “because I think this sums up the problem with police. … I want people to see that while this is a black problem, specifically, it’s about [general] police brutality as well. The whole system is messed up.”

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