A red sweatshirt. Baggy shorts. A ball cap. Blue sneakers. Nikes. A Trail Blazers jersey.
These are articles of clothing that Black men who have been denied entry to some Portland clubs have been wearing—while white patrons wearing the same items have been happily ushered in. If questioned, bouncers often shrug, saying, “It’s not my call, man,” or, “Give me 20 bucks and I’ll let you in.”
For decades, Portland club owners and bouncers have relied on “public safety” concerns to enforce dress codes that disproportionately target Black guests. But while these arbitrary rules are old news for Portland’s Black community, Samuel Thompson is the first to take the issue to court.
In May 2017, Thompson was denied entry from Dirty Nightlife—a club located in Portland’s Old Town/Chinatown district—for wearing a red sweatshirt and red shoes. According to Dirty’s dress code, that kind of “excessive matching” meant he was in a gang. For Thompson, who for decades has seen bouncers exclude Black patrons over arbitrary dress codes, it was the final straw. So he sued.
Thompson, a Portland native who works with gang-involved youth that are exiting the criminal justice system, filed a civil rights lawsuit against Dirty owner Chris Lenahan for discrimination in May 2018. At the time, Lenahan co-owned four other Old Town clubs: Splash Ultra Lounge, Shake Bar, Paris Theatre, and Sanctuary Club. While the case settled before going to trial, recent pre-trial interviews with Lenahan and his current and former staff offer a rare look at how at least one club owner used baseless rules to quietly segregate Portland’s busiest nightlife district.
Thompson’s experience didn’t occur in a vacuum. Portlanders familiar with the Old Town club ecosystem—whether they’re behind the bar, checking IDs at the door, or on the dance floor—say his encounter reflects a type of coded racial profiling that’s saturated Portland’s nightlife. While it’s hard to pin down who has instituted these racist guidelines, it’s clear that Portland’s Black community is most harmed by the tactics.
“They’re isolating an entire race,” says longtime event promoter Monique Taylor. “Folks of color are tired of it. We don’t feel like we’re allowed a space in this city anymore.”
Portland nightlife was built on a history of Black exclusion.
For decades, few Black-owned businesses survived outside of Albina, North Portland’s traditionally African American neighborhood. Take the Golden West Hotel, which, in 1906, became the city’s first hotel and event center that catered to Portland’s tiny Black population, hosting civil rights leaders, Black politicians, and jazz performances. Located in present-day Old Town, the Golden West endured persistent noise complaints, liquor violations, and harassment from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) before eventually relocating to Albina in the early ’30s.
It was the 1980s’ injection of hip-hop into the Pacific Northwest that saw the cautious return of African Americans to downtown Portland. Black-owned bars, Black DJs, and Black hip-hop artists reinvigorated Portland’s sleepy nightlife scene, a moment that inspired Black Portlanders like Thompson and Taylor to remain in the white-dominated city and invest in its growing Black community. That’s when the dress code bans began.
The bans first popped up in the ’90s, when Portland gang members regularly dressed in specific colors to signify their affiliation. That also made it easier for opposing gang members to identify each other in public venues, like at a concert or in a bar, and those encounters often led to violence. Under the strict guidelines of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), bars where a shooting or violent fight breaks out can immediately lose their liquor license. In hopes of deterring gang violence in their establishments, club owners began barring guests that wore known gang colors—red for Bloods, blue for Crips, orange for Hoovers.
“It’s not a coincidence that the colors [the clubs] choose to deny are Black gang colors. What about Asian gangs? White gangs?”—Prime, nightclub security guard
Owners still regularly meet with PPB’s Gun Violence Reduction Team (which, up until late 2018, was called Gang Enforcement Team) to gain intel on new items associated with local gangs, thus expanding the list of clothing barred from clubs. Dirty’s posted dress code prohibits red, blue, or green flannels, single-colored shirts, athletic jerseys, bandanas, baggy clothing, and excessive matching in red, blue, green, and orange.
These sweeping bans feel outdated—if not offensive—to Black Portlanders.
“This isn’t 1987. Gang members dress like everyday people now,” says a longtime Old Town bouncer who asked the Mercury to identify him as “Prime.”
“Look at any recent gang shooting that took place in Old Town,” he says. “I guarantee you they weren’t wearing gang colors.”
Prime, who’s worked for Portland clubs since 2004, says he understands why clubs have basic dress codes (“You don’t want people just wearing sweats in your club,” he says). But the rules he sees perpetuated in Old Town clubs are different.
“It’s not a coincidence that the colors they choose to deny are Black gang colors,” says Prime, who is African American. “What about Asian gangs? White gangs?”
In an April 2019 pre-trial deposition with Thompson’s lawyer, Dirty owner Lenahan said he learned about gang colors from the 1988 film Colors, a movie that depicts 1980s Black and Latino gangs in South Central Los Angeles. Asked if his dress code policy includes a ban on identifying factors of non-Black gang members—like motorcycle patches, neck tattoos, or swastikas—Lenahan stumbled. “No, but it should,” he responded.
Lenahan deferred nearly every dress code question to his head of security, Timothy “Timo” Porotesano. But in his own deposition, Porotesano said he was just following orders from his boss, Lenahan.
Neither Lenahan nor his lawyers responded to the Mercury’s interview request.
Prime stopped patronizing Old Town clubs after being rejected for wearing the wrong thing one too many times.
“I stay away,” he says. “Now club owners just use dress code as an excuse to not let people in they don’t want in there anyway.”
Testimony from people who used to work at Lehanan’s clubs confirm Prime’s assumption.
In an interview with Thompson’s lawyers, former Splash manager Artie Haws said his job was “to let management know when too many people of color came into the bar.” Haws recalled what Lenahan called “bar science”—a calculation that capped Black patrons at 30 percent. “He said... he didn’t want a ‘Black bar,” Haws said.
Carmen Gilberts, a former bartender at Shake, told lawyers she recalls hearing Lenahan scream over the security radio: “Get these n-----s out of here!”
Lehanan’s trick to limiting Black patrons in his clubs, according to former Dirty security guard Kenan Powell, would be “to start enforcing the dress code for patrons of color.” Powell told lawyers that people violating the “arbitrary” dress code would be told they could still get inside the club if they paid extra—a price that ranged anywhere from $5 to $40. Lenahan allegedly used this metaphor to explain his logic to Powell: “I don’t want too many chocolate chips in my bowl of milk, just a few.”
Powell recalled one night when LaMarcus Aldridge and Dante Cunningham, who were Portland Trail Blazers at the time, were told they were violating Dirty’s dress code. “They were probably the best-dressed people I saw all night,” he said. “When they were told that they would have to pay an additional cover... they left.”
James, a Portland native who used to frequent Old Town clubs, tells the Mercury he’s been charged extra at least nine times by different Old Town clubs for ostensibly breaking a dress code—whether that’s because he’s wearing Nikes or simply “matching too much.” James, who the Mercury identify him with a pseudonym for his privacy, used to go club-hopping with members of the Blazers. He says the group of all-Black men were regularly asked to pay extra.
“The owners weren’t stupid. They knew who they were,” says James. “It felt intentional.” He rarely goes to Old Town establishments anymore.
“It’s embarrassing, especially when you have out-of-town guests,” James says. “I’d rather not deal with the hassle.”
It’s easy to make Lenahan out as the villain in this story. But his exclusionary tactics have been allowed to thrive and grow in a system and environment encouraged by local and state law enforcement.
Up until 2017, PPB maintained a database that kept track of suspected “criminal gang affiliates,” many of whom had never been charged with a crime. A 2017 investigation by the Oregonian found that of the 359 people flagged in Portland’s database, 64 percent were Black. Yet African Americans make up only six percent of Portland’s total population. Additionally, a 2018 city audit found that PPB’s Gang Enforcement Team disproportionately stopped African American drivers for traffic violations on the hunch they may be involved in a gang.
Officers’ outsized focus on Black Portlanders is reflected in their conversations with Old Town club owners.
In 2011, the Mercury sat in on a presentation about profiling gang members that PPB officers gave to employees at the now-defunct nightclub Barracuda. They did not mention any of Portland’s white gangs, like the Gypsy Jokers or European Kindred. After ticking through the colors associated with local Black gangs, Officer Derrick Foxworth Jr. cut to the chase: “What’s bringing the gangs here? It’s the format, unfortunately. Gangs don’t go to country bars: It’s the hip-hop, the rap.”
PPB declined the Mercury’s request to comment on policies regarding nightlife and gang policing, due to their involvement in several state and federal lawsuits—including Thompson’s—related to the issue.
Eric Bowler, who co-owns the Old Town club Fortune, says that, over the years, officers have become more accepting of clubs that play hip-hop music and cater to Black customers. Fortune is one of the few Old Town clubs that regularly plays hip-hop.
“Six years ago, police would camp out with arms crossed at the front door,” says Bowler, who is white. “Now they are helping us. I have their cell phone numbers. It’s less combative, more collaborative.”
Not everyone sees it that way.
Event promoter Monique Taylor loses count when she tries to recall every Black-owned Old Town hip-hop club that has been shut down in the last decade, either by a landlord or due to an OLCC violation. For the past 15 years, Taylor has made a business out of planning and hosting events for predominantly Black Portlanders in different clubs and bars. Most of her events feature hip-hop playlists or DJs.
Once she’s hired to orchestrate a party, Taylor coordinates with club owners to schedule and plan the event. But—because of the constant police surveillance of her parties, and discriminatory club policies she’s seen go unchecked by law enforcement—the number of venues she works with has diminished over the years.
Taylor recalls one officer explaining to her why officers always stood outside a now-shuttered hip-hop club. “He said, ‘We don’t like hip-hop. We don’t want all these ghetto Black people in here,’” Taylor says. “They don’t even try to hide the racism.” Then there was the fire marshal who, according to Taylor, would make a habit of walking through her events to “check for capacity violations,” even when a club was half-empty.
Most of Old Town’s popular clubs fall inside the bounds of Portland’s Entertainment District, an area that’s closed to vehicle traffic on Friday and Saturday nights between 10 pm and 3 am and closely patrolled by PPB officers. While the pedestrian zone was established in 2012 on the promise of improving pedestrian safety, critics say the layout adds an extra layer of discomfort for people of color trying to enjoy a night out.
In 2014, an investigation by Portland’s Independent Police Review (IPR) found reason to believe PPB officers were spending an unequal amount of time patrolling concert venues and clubs that featured hip-hop music. The city recommended that the PPB standardize its policies for walking through crowds and lingering outside late night venues.
In that five-year-old report, the IPR also underscored a frequent complaint they heard from patrons at hip-hop clubs: “The use of dress codes or... prohibitions against wearing certain colors that they witnessed bars and nightclubs [applied] differently depending on the patron’s race.”
“It’s really difficult to navigate the injustices in Portland nightlife against Black and brown people.”—Monique Taylor, longtime event promoter
Taylor has stopped hosting parties at any venue where the dress code changes throughout the night, the technique that Lenahan’s staff has used to exclude or overcharge Black patrons.
“The reality is, they want our money. They don’t want our color,” Taylor says. For years, Taylor has wanted to hold accountable the people who’ve created these racist policies, but she’s always encountered the same problem.
“It’s hard to prove who’s to blame,” she says. “The bouncers say it’s the owner’s decision, the owner blames the OLCC and the cops, and then the cops say it’s the club’s rules. It’s really difficult to navigate the injustices in Portland nightlife against Black and brown people.”
Molly Holt, who’s worked as a bartender in Old Town for the past seven years, blames the spread of clothing bans on Old Town’s security teams. According to Holt, most Old Town bouncers have worked as contracted security guards at every club, which might allow one club’s discriminatory rules to perpetuate across venues. Many bouncers work for a specific security contractor, Top Flyte.
Fortune’s Bowler says he’s never been explicitly told by a PPB officer to uphold a dress code. “It was more, ‘If you have someone in the bar with this outfit on, someone else might come in and want to fight them,’” he says.
The OLCC, meanwhile, says it’s up to local jurisdictions to set dress code restrictions. Matt Van Sickle, a spokesperson with the OLCC, says the agency has enforced dress code policies only once in Portland, at a business called Seeznin’s Bar & Lounge, on NE 82nd Avenue that happened to be owned by Thompson.
In 2011, Portland police said that a fatal parking lot shooting began with a fight that took place in Seeznin’s and recommended the OLCC discipline the bar with a series of sanctions. The OLCC chose to limit Seeznin’s hours, mandate bag searches at the door, and refuse entry to anyone “wearing gang-related clothing.” Anticipating an irreversible drop in revenue due to these restrictions, Seeznin’s closed. Thompson says his bar’s closure was one of many frustrating incidents that fueled his decision to file his 2018 lawsuit.
Van Sickle says that was a unique situation. “We had few options,” he says. “Someone had died in a shooting and we had to act. It was an issue of public safety.”
But is a dress code the best way to enforce public safety?
Reuben Buford May, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University, doesn’t think so. May has spent years researching both the subtle and overt ways discrimination shapes a city’s nightlife scene. He says “safety concerns” is the number-one explanation club owners across the US give for instituting strict dress code bans. He doesn’t buy it.
“If it was truly about safety, the club’s behavior would be different,” says May. “For example, if you’re really concerned about criminals and gangs, you’d ban motorcycles or people with shaved heads. You’d frisk for weapons.”
May has never seen a bar or club prohibit clothing or items associated with white gangs. Through his research, May is certain that whenever a club posts a dress code that lists specific items, “it’s a discriminatory policy.”
“If bouncers are given the pretext to evaluate patrons differently,” he says, “there’s going to be a higher potential for discrimination.”
Dan Lenzen, co-owner of Old Town’s Dixie Tavern, cares deeply about keeping his longtime Portland country bar safe. That’s why he doesn’t have a strict dress code. Lenzen, who’s worked in Portland’s nightlife industry for more than 30 years, says it’s simply an ineffective security tool.
“It’s very hard to identify a bad person by their clothing,” says Lenzen, who sits on a state committee that helps shape Oregon’s policies around private security. “We identify people by their attitudes and intoxication levels.” Lenzen says he understands why Black patrons think dress codes are discriminatory.
Unlike other Portland clubs, Lenzen doesn’t rely on outside security teams like Top Flyte. Lenzen’s security staff are on his payroll. Along with their mandatory state security certification, Dixie’s bouncers receive specific training on how to treat patrons. “I teach my security to treat people according to their actions, not by the way they look,” he says.
When a volatile person does stumble into Dixie, Lenzen says he rarely needs to get the police involved. Dixie does not play hip-hop music.
“Portland isn’t as progressive as it thinks it is. We have schools that our kids go to that don’t get the same amount of services as whiter schools. We have lost entire neighborhoods to gentrification. We aren’t even allowed to socialize comfortably.”—Samuel Thompson, plaintiff in discrimination lawsuit
Holt, the Old Town bartender, says the best way to deter violence at a club is to talk to customers and treat them like human beings. “You get to know which groups of people don’t get along with each other, which ones to keep separated,” she says. “That, and you don’t let them get too drunk.”
Holt is frustrated by what she sees as the core reason for these discriminatory rules. “It comes down to white men being uncomfortable,” she says. “That’s it. They’ll take the parts they like about Black culture—the music, the nightlife, the style—and leave the people at the door.”
With only a fraction of the city’s population identifying as Black, Portland remains one of the whitest major cities in the US. That imbalance is reflected in how easily club owners are allowed to discriminate in the city.
“White people who grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods have anxiety around people of color,” says May. “When they go out, they seek out a space where they feel comfortable and can relax.”
In other words: spaces without Black patrons.
“For these bars,” May says, “there is incentive to be discriminatory to keep white money coming in.”
Regardless of what drives these policies, their impact has irreversibly harmed Portland’s Black economy.
Taylor says she’s lost thousands of dollars from being skipped over by club owners who don’t want hip-hop events at their clubs, and she refuses to host events at discriminatory clubs. She’s met with the Portland police and city staff to explain how these policies damage her business, but she’s seen nothing change.
“I love creating experiences and moments for my community,” she says. “But recently, I’ve been thinking about leaving the business. This is exhausting.”
Watching Portland’s nightlife turn its back on Black Portlanders hasn’t been easy for Thompson. Called the “mayor of Portland” by his friends and family, Thompson dedicates much of his free time to building up the city’s tight-knit Black community—whether it be through hosting neighborhood events, investing in friends’ businesses, or spending time with his two-year-old son. It was that community’s support that motivated Thompson to take Lenahan to court.
“My community looks up to me. They trust me,” Thompson says. “I felt it was my duty to be the voice for those who are voiceless in this process.”
The June 19 settlement agreement leaves Thompson with an undisclosed amount of money—and a mandatory change to Lenahan’s clubs. According to Thompson’s lawyers, Noah Horst and Tim Volpert, every club Lenahan owns must stop enforcing dress code rules based on colors. But there’s a catch: In May 2019, a month before Lenahan was due in court, he terminated his ownership of three of his five clubs. Dirty and Paris Theatre are the only businesses with his name still attached to them. According to Horst, that means the settlement’s dress code mandate only applies to those two venues.
Horst and Volpert are also representing local Black-owned bars in two separate federal lawsuits, both of which accuse the PPB and the OLCC of using regulatory tools to discriminate against establishments that cater to Portland’s Black population.
“Based on several civil rights cases we are currently litigating, it is clear that African Americans in Portland cannot socialize in public without facing racial discrimination,” says Horst.
Thompson didn’t expect his case to prompt monumental change in Portland’s segregated nightlife ecosystem. But he hopes it serves as a reality check for a city that’s still struggling to confront long-embedded racist policies.
“Portland isn’t as progressive as it thinks it is,” says Thompson. “We have schools that our kids go to that don’t get the same amount of services as whiter schools. We have lost entire neighborhoods to gentrification. We aren’t even allowed to socialize comfortably.”
Bringing this conversation out of the shadows and into the courts, Thompson says, is a step forward.
“It starts here,” he says. “But I don’t know where it ends.”