A former Portland club owner has reached a settlement with several Black Portlanders who accused him of using arbitrary dress code rules to discriminate against Black patrons. The legal resolution comes after the club owner in question, Chris Lenahan, appears to have relocated his nightclub business to the other side of the country.
Lenahan previously owned several prominent clubs in Portland’s Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood, including Dirty Nightlife, Splash Bar, Shake Bar, the Barrel Room, and the Paris Theatre. Lenahan also oversaw a security team operated by a contractor called Top Flyte, which ran security for each of his clubs.
In a 2019 lawsuit against Lenahan, Portlander Ray Peterson, who is Black, said that security guards prohibited him from entering Splash Bar to attend a friend's birthday party in August 2018 because he was wearing “too many chains.” That same evening, another group of Black clientele—Tiffany King, her husband Michael King, and Michael’s uncle Jonathan King—were denied entrance to Splash to attend the same party because of their clothing. According to the Kings’ lawsuit regarding this incident, filed in 2020, the group was denied entry because Jonathan was wearing a fedora and Michael was wearing shorts.
In both Peterson’s and the Kings’ cases, security guards refused to provide the patrons with information on the club’s dress code, and only offered to let the groups in if they paid guards at least $40. In both lawsuits, the club-goers say that they witnessed guards allowing white patrons to enter Splash dressed in clothing that had prohibited their own entry.
“They watched numerous patrons who were not African American, wearing similar clothes such as hats, shorts, button down shirts, necklaces, and skirts—being allowed into the club without question and without being asked to pay a bribe,” reads the Kings’ lawsuit. Both the Kings and Peterson are represented by Portland civil rights lawyers Noah Horst and Tim Volpert.
The Kings eventually agreed to pay an extra $100 to enter Splash. Peterson left after being denied entry.
“It was really embarrassing, everyone in line was looking at me,” Peterson told the Mercury. “I left because I was angry. I ended up going somewhere else, but I couldn’t even enjoy my night.”
The Kings left the club after an hour. In a deposition interview with Volpert, Tiffany King said she left Splash with her husband because she felt unwelcome at the club.
“I felt as if the security [guards] and managers and the workers were talking about me or something,” said Tiffany. “I felt like I was [the] center of attention in there. And it wasn't a good feeling. So I wanted to leave.”
Both lawsuits accuse Lenahan of using security guards to enforce discriminatory rules that are meant to keep Black patrons out of Splash. Lenahan’s legal team did not respond to the Mercury’s phone calls, though his lawyers denied the lawsuit’s claims in court. Yet, testimony from a previous racial discrimination case against Lenahan prove otherwise.
In May 2018, Portlander Samuel Thompson sued Lenahan over his clubs’ dress code rules that allegedly discriminated against Black people. Thompson was denied entry to Lenahan’s Dirty Nightlife club in 2017 for wearing a red sweatshirt and red shoes—a form of “excessive matching” that the club’s dress code forbade. Interviews between Thompson’s lawyers (also Horst and Volpert) and past club staff revealed the motives behind Lenahan’s dress code regulations.
An excerpt from the Mercury’s past reporting on Thompson’s case:
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.”
Horst and Volpert mention these anecdotes in deposition interviews with other Splash security staff in Peterson’s case, but all of the staff denied ever being told to follow rules that limit the number of Black people in the club. However several staff say that the clothing and chains Peterson and the Kings wore the night they were denied entry did not violate the club’s dress code.
Thompson’s lawsuit was settled in June 2019 for an unspecified amount. Peterson said he was inspired to sue Lenahan after seeing Thompson’s case play out.
“When I heard about Sam’s case, it clicked for me: I realized that the same thing had happened to me,” Peterson said. “The crazy thing is that [Black Portlanders] experience this kind of thing so often, it was second nature to me. Because it happens all the time. We think it’s a normal way to be treated.”
Peterson, who grew up in Portland, said it was common to be excluded or overcharged by club security when he went out at night with his Black friends, often because of what they wore. He said the rules at downtown Portland clubs always seemed to change—some nights he’d be denied entry for wearing a hat, others it would be because he wore jeans—and they never seemed to apply to white patrons. Those nights would often end with Peterson feeling humiliated. He said he knew the process was racist and wrong—but never thought he could hold the clubs responsible for it.
“I stepped up because I want it to be known that this is not a normal way to be treated,” said Peterson. “ It sucks that I have to prepare my son to be treated this way. It shouldn’t be like that. He deserves better. We all deserve better. We get treated so poorly in this city.”
“The crazy thing is that [Black Portlanders] experience this kind of thing so often, it was second nature to me. Because it happens all the time. We think it’s a normal way to be treated.”
Peterson’s lawsuit specifically accused Lenahan of discriminating against a protected class in a “place of public accommodation,” a practice that state law deems illegal. Peterson’s lawyers say it’s rare that their Black clients know that these protections exist.
“Public accommodation discrimination is such a common fact of life for Black people in Portland that many of our potential clients are surprised that Oregon actually has a law against discrimination,” wrote Horst and Volpert in a joint statement emailed to the Mercury. “Being denied entry to a nightclub may not seem like a very big deal at first blush, but imagine if you were systematically targeted and if that targeting were normalized across the entire city.”
While the Kings filed their lawsuit against Lenahan after Peterson, both lawsuits settled this week for an unstated amount of money. In Thompson’s settlement case, lawyers were able to mandate changes to Lenahan’s dress code rules as part of the agreement. But, since Lenahan no longer owns any Portland clubs, this wasn’t an option for the recent settlement decisions.
Oregon state business records show that Lenahan had dissolved all of his Portland-based clubs by early 2021. But his nightclub business isn’t over. A month after settling his lawsuit with Thompson in 2019, records show Lenahan filed a new business license in Tampa, Florida, and opened an establishment called Tangra Nightclub. Earlier this year, Lenahan opened another club next door to Tangra called Showbar Ybor.
Showbar’s website doesn’t mention a dress code. But, a FAQ page on Tangra’s website does. The page reads: “Q: Is there a special dress code at Tangra Nightclub? A: As long as you are presentable we do not have a specified dress code.”
Lenahan’s clubs have already made headlines in Tampa, but not for alleged discriminatory practices. In February, Tampa City Council voted to suspend Tangra’s alcohol permit for three days after inspectors found the club to be packed with largely unmasked patrons in December 2020.
As downtown Portland’s nightlife returns, Horst and Volpert will continue to keep an eye on club practices that inconspicuously work to keep Black Portlanders away.
“We want people who have been discriminated against to know that they don’t have to accept unequal treatment,” the men said. “We will continue to use the courts to hold those who would discriminate accountable.”
Peterson, meanwhile, has no intention to return to Portland’s nightlife after his 2018 incident.
“I’m afraid it will just happen again,” said Peterson. “I don’t want to put up with that. There’s a lot of racism [in Portland]. It just sucks that we get treated like this. We should be able to party in our own city just like everyone else. I hope people see the type of stuff that goes on and I hope this makes a difference.”