The NYPD has a well-documented history of targeting black people for barbecuing, being tall, basically just being. A new lawsuit now alleges that there's a new item on the list of activities some police seem to view as criminal: "being a conscientious business owner while black."
Clyde Pemberton, a 68-year-old retired psychiatrist (who, incidentally, has worked with the NYPD conducting psychiatric evaluations) is the owner of Harlem events space MIST, where he says police unlawfully arrested him and two of his employees, solely on the grounds of their race. A joint lawsuit against the NYPD, filed on August 29th, alleges that Pemberton and his co-claimants "are among the many black New Yorkers and black Americans arrested for simply doing the normal things that normal people do—driving a car down the street, having a barbecue, or, in this case, doing one's job."
According to the suit, Pemberton was having a business meeting in MIST's restaurant on the night of June 1st, 2017, when he saw two white women hauling an unconscious third out of the bathroom. When they knocked over a section of rope cordoning off part of the restaurant, Pemberton approached them to suggest they let their friend sit down.
The women were aggressively intoxicated, the lawsuit claims, and one "promptly punched Mr. Pemberton in the chest" and began hurling racial slurs at him.
When one of his employees, Christopher Baptiste, tried to shield Pemberton from the blows, the second woman allegedly began smacking Baptise in the head with her purse. Thomas Debnam, MIST's marketing manager, waded into the scuffle and attempted to calm the women, who allegedly continued to yell things like "go back to Africa" and to swat at employees who tried to call 911. The wildly belligerent pair allegedly refused to leave, even though staff asked them repeatedly to do so.
When police and paramedics arrived, the lawsuit says the women were still raging, screaming racially loaded terms in full view of the responding officers. Pemberton identified himself as MIST's owner, clarified that he was a physician, and tried to explain the situation, but the supervising NYPD officer didn't listen. "You are no doctor or any shit like that here tonight," the officer allegedly responded, before police arrested Pemberton, Debnam, and Baptise.
Although the officers allegedly handled the men roughly, the claim maintains that they also told the men they "should be fine because [they] didn't do anything" and the supervisor's orders simply meant they had to be taken in for questioning. Instead, police held the men for hours before eventually charging them with unlawful imprisonment. According to the lawsuit, a signed statement from one Officer Anthony Sengco erroneously accused Pemberton, Debnam, and Baptiste of physically preventing the women from leaving MIST.
"Everything we did was in the right way and approach, and it was overlooked, ignored and disrespected, our rights as human beings," Debnam told the New York Times. "There's a flaw in our system."
The men accrued $15,000 in legal fees thanks to the altercation, which the suit says also attracted heightened police attention at MIST and cost the business money. But more broadly, the lawsuit argues that misguided enforcement actions like this one actively erode relationships between police and the people they serve.
"This is exactly the kind of interaction that destroys trust in law enforcement in minority communities," the complaint reads. "The NYPD arrested Dr. Pemberton, Mr. Baptiste, and Mr. Debnam not because of their conduct, but because they were there and they are black."
A spokesperson for the New York City Law Department said "we will review the case and respond accordingly." It bears noting that police also arrested the woman who attacked Pemberton and charged her with "intent to cause physical injury, among other charges," per the suit. Still, as the New York Times points out, the NYPD has a bad habit of fabricating testimony to protect its own, a practice officers have dubbed "testilying." That's one reason the lawsuit deserves attention, the plaintiffs' attorney, Elizabeth Saylor, explained in a statement.
"It is time for the NYPD to be held accountable," Saylor said. "The NYPD must stop reflexively defending its officers without even conducting an investigation. The NYPD must take real action to stamp out discrimination by holding accountable those officers who violate citizens' constitutional rights."