Lawsuit claims black patrons targeted at Power & Light District - KCTV5 News

Lawsuit claims black patrons targeted at Power and Light District

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A class-action lawsuit alleges that there is repeated and systematic racial discrimination against African American patrons at the Kansas City Power and Light District.

This is the second lawsuit filed against the district's operation since last week. The city owns the district, and has hired a Baltimore firm to oversee the restaurants, clubs and other businesses in the district.

Linda Dickens is the attorney who filed both suits. She filed the class-action lawsuit in federal court Monday afternoon.

The allegations include that Cordish Co. or its representatives hired white men to serve as "rabbits" to create fights with black patrons in order to get them ejected.

Zed Smith, an executive with Cordish Co., vehemently dismissed the claims of discrimination.

"I would challenge you to come back to The Power and Light District on a Friday or Saturday night and see the racial composition here," Smith said. "We are very proud of the fact that we think this is a very diverse asset for us."

The class-action suit names two men who say they were kicked out multiple times in 2010 and 2011. Adam Williams is a trauma sales consultant who was visiting from Oklahoma. Dante Combs is pharmaceutical representative who lives in Overland Park.

Combs chalked up his first encounter as bad luck.

"I just thought it was a guy that was drunk," said Combs. "I had no reason to believe at that point that I was being targeted."

He said he was in the main area texting a friend when a man knocked his phone from his hand, then stopped to antagonize him.

"When I looked up and he's looking at me dead in the face, I said, 'You could at least say that you're sorry,'" described Combs. "And at that point he got in my face and said, 'I don't owe you anything. And I don't owe you an apology.'"

Almost instantly, he said, security swooped in and escorted him off the property.

It's an encounter that fits an elaborate scheme described by an ex-employee who filed a suit on Feb. 28. The former manager and security liaison said he had orders to pay a white patron, known as a "rabbit," to antagonize black patrons in front of security staff so that security would have a reason to thrown them out for responding aggressively. He said the "rabbit" would be tossed, too, but was allowed to re-enter at the opposite side to continue his task with a new set of patrons.

Glen Cusimano was fired in 2013 after punching a patron, something his lawyer said was a set-up, a "rabbit scheme" put into place to get him fired.

Smith sees it another way.

"Here we are talking about an employment issue where an individual was terminated for assaulting a patron. And that's exactly what this is about," Smith said. "This individual has used race to try to obtain leverage and to incite the public."

Cusimano described multiple tactics in addition to the "rabbit scheme."

He said employees taking reservations for tables were told to evaluate whether the voice on the other line "sounded black." If it did, they were to say they had no tables available.

If they were able to make a reservation and showed up, then he claimed they would be turned away due to a reservation mix up or that the restaurant was filled.

Cusimano also said doormen were told to make black patrons wait in line longer and wait for the patrons to raise their voices in aggravation to provide grounds for ejection.

That is what Combs described in his second encounter. He was in line at Mosaic. The customers ahead of him were white. When he reached the front of the line, the doorman asked him to step aside. He moved then watched as several small groups arriving after him were admitted. He said white patrons had no problem entering and his party had long entered. When the line cleared, his request to be let in was denied.

"I was never given an answer, and due to my questioning, it upset the guys," said Combs. "They didn't like it. I was probably never going to get in that night. I asked to speak to a manager. I asked to speak to somebody in some type of management position to give me an explanation. They did not want to do that. It turned hostile. They got in my face. Next thing I know, I'm being escorted out of the building."

Dickens said it was worthwhile to note that Combs was not violating any dress code. To the contrary, he was wearing his usual business attire: a suit, a bow tie and fine Italian leather dress shoes.

"Because of what I do for a living, I always wear a suit," said Combs. "I'm actually known as the bow-tie guy in my industry."

"I think it's very easy for the general public to get the impression that these tactics are used to eject people who look like troublemakers," said Dickens. "And this gentleman doesn't look anything close to a troublemaker."

Combs' final encounter was inside Maker's Mark Restaurant. He said he and a friend were at a table and talking with two women,when a pair of guests came up and asked the women if Combs and his friend were bothering them.

"They were asking the young ladies were OK, as if my friend and I were doing something to them," said Combs.

The ladies said they were fine, he said, but the men asked again.

"At that point," Combs said, "it was obvious that there was some type of hidden agenda. But we played it cool. A good friend of mine, he tried to offer an olive branch. He stuck out his hand, tried to introduce himself to the guy. It was at that point that the guy knocked his hand down and said ... he used some choice words that I won't use today on camera. But he used some choice words. At that point, there was some conflict, it escalated and there was a brawl."

Other white men joined in, they said.

Combs said he was not the aggressor but was treated as if he was. Williams said he was held by a guard as a white man continued to choke him.

Williams said he was dragged in handcuffs to a security office and held for 90 minutes. He said two female doctors who they were with adamantly told the security guards that neither had been the aggressor and that the white man had started the fight.

Williams said he was released after a Maker's Mark bartender showed up and specifically said she witnessed the entire event, and that the white man seemed to purposefully start the fight so that the two black men could be blamed.

The white men involved weren't detained nor were their statements or names taken, the lawsuit alleges.

Smith said there was no evidence that any of Combs' experiences were motivated by race. He said he believes the two men in the class-action seized on an opportunity to benefit financially.

"The other gentlemen, in my view, are opportunists," said Smith.

Combs, however, said his job is such that he would not risk losing his reputation over baseless claims. He would like to see the suit be a springboard for change.

"Anytime you're dealing with people, I think there needs to be some kind of diversity and sensitivity and maybe some type of inclusion training," said Combs. "I don't know if that happens or not. Maybe they do, I don't know. But the question becomes, if problems present themselves, something is not right. And if you are doing something, it's not working and you're going to have to look at it again and revise it."

Smith said the entertainment district will not settle either lawsuit and is preparing to file a counterclaim.

"We want the truth to come out," Smith said.

A previous class-action lawsuit against the district over Cordish's dress code was dismissed. Civil rights attorney Arthur Benson settled out of court in 2011 for an undisclosed amount of money on behalf of an African American family who said they were discriminated against at Mosiac while white patrons wearing similar clothes were allowed entry.

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