On Wednesday, July 25, Rashida Young and her boyfriend, Brendon Quinn, went to the Laurelhurst Theater to see Sorry to Bother You (a film by, for, and about Black people). They say they found two empty seats and one with a hat on it, and sat down in the empty ones.
Quinn told the Mercury that a white couple came down the aisle and asked them to move, saying that because they'd placed a hat on one of the seats, they had a claim to all three seats. Young, who is Black, reportedly refused to move and pointed out a few seats behind her. The man who had left the hat became agitated and caused a scene, Quinn says, and after a few minutes (during which the woman he was with asked the man to sit down in the empty seats) the man allegedly threw his beer on Young and Quinn.
“It’s like being spit on," Young said in an interview with the Mercury. "You don’t have to say the N-word, you don’t have to do racism that’s easy to label. To me it’s very clear what’s happening in that moment.”
Quinn said he left the auditorium to ask a manager to deal with the situation. He says the manager spoke briefly to the alleged assailant, but didn't ask the man to leave.
“The manager just completely dropped the ball and acted like they were powerless in this situation,” Quinn told the Mercury.
However, Laurelhurst management had a different take on the incident.
“A guy came out of the auditorium and said, 'Hey, someone just threw beer on me,’” Woody Wheeler, a co-owner of Laurelhurst, told the Mercury, recounting what he heard from the manager working that night (whom he didn't name). Wheeler added that the manager asked the alleged harasser for his version of events, at which point the man and his partner both calmly denied anything had happened.
“No one else is saying anything," Wheeler said, pointing out that at the time it appeared to be just one angry white guy (Quinn) annoyed with a white couple (the alleged harasser and his partner). “We can’t just pull them out of there with no evidence.”
Wheeler says that, according to what his manager told him, the accused couple had two "nearly full beers" in front of them, which for him cast doubt on the claim that they had thrown one at Quinn and Young. Quinn came back into the lobby with the manager, and things kept escalating as more bystanders started to join in and get upset, Wheeler says.
After a while, Quinn says, the manager called one of the owners of Laurelhurst Theater: Prescott Allen. Quinn says the manager spent "about one minute" explaining the situation and asked Quinn and Young to leave after getting off the phone. Wheeler says that's accurate—Allen just heard a lot of commotion in the background and told the manager to get them out of the lobby.
Quinn says, “Most of our rage is with the Laurelhurst Theater for handling this so badly."
Outside, the couple called the police and Young wrote a post on Facebook talking about the incident.
Wheeler says the incident didn't initially appear to be related to race because Quinn appeared to be the only alleged victim, with Young only joining him in the lobby a bit later. “It was two white guys that had an altercation and then all of a sudden there was a component of race,” Wheeler says. He has talked to the alleged assailant since the event, and says the man maintains his innocence. “He told me he’s a mixed race person whose family is black," Wheeler says. "I don’t know, I’ve never seen him.”
Young says the manager probably acted out of fear. “I thought they were intimidated by [the alleged assailant],” she says.
The morning after the incident, Young and Quinn filed a police report. The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) is investigating, but Public Information Officer Sergeant Peter Simpson says, "Nothing reported to police at this point would constitute evidence of a bias/hate crime."
Quinn is frustrated by the response from Laurelhurst Theater, but police told him the theater isn't criminally liable. On the police officer's advice, he filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
“I feel like the police have handled it appropriately," Young says. "Luckily it was a beer thrown at us and not something violent, a weapon of some sort.”
Wheeler agrees that something went wrong during the theater's response.
“We don’t want them to have bad feelings about us," he says. Wheeler mentioned he might offer a percentage of the proceeds from Sorry to Bother You to go to a charity of the couple's choice. The Laurelhurst Theater may also have its staff undergo "equality training," he adds, noting, “I think we need help to figure out what we could have done differently." Laurelhurst Theater also responded on social media the day after the event, insisting that the decisions weren't made based on race.
Wheeler still isn't sure how the manager should have handled the situation, especially considering how rapidly things escalated in the lobby. “When there are two angry parties, you have to separate them,” he says. “We probably should have ejected them separately.”
The alleged victims have been in contact with Laurelhurst owners since the incident, and say the owners were "apologetic." Young adds that the owners planned a meeting with them for this afternoon, when she hopes they agree to make some policy changes.
“I’m hoping they have an action plan about how to handle people who harass in their facility,” Young says. “I would hope there is some diversity training.... I just want it to be a safer space for employees and patrons alike.”