Protest Becomes Accord and Possibly Redemption at Nathan Bill’s…
SPRINGFIELD—An accord to end the tensions between area social justice organizers and a local watering hole had already come together. But, as the sun beat down Saturday afternoon, it did feel as though the passing of Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis the night before, whom many invoked in their remarks, seemed the underscore the importance of finding peace and dialogue in these troubled times.
What was to be a protest of Nathan Bill’s Restaurant & Bar for a seemingly racist dress code sign instead became a moment of unity. Robert Gossman, the bar’s majority owner, apologized for the sign. At-large Councilor Tracye Whitfield announced that Gossman was funding a Black Lives Matter mural downtown. To further bury the hatchet, she urged people to patronize Nathan Bill’s, which had become somewhat controversial due its role in an episode of police misconduct.
“I think it was important because we need to forgive and we need to come together,” said Whitfield, one of the protest organizers.
Whitfield and others crediting Ward 7 Councilor Timothy Allen, whose district includes the Island Pond Road pub, for bringing people together to resolve the sign issue.
Last month, the second major Springfield protest of the killing of George Floyd began at Nathan Bill’s. Floyd died after a Minneapolis cop kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
A 2015 fracas between the off-duty Springfield cops and Black patrons did not actually happen at Nathan Bill’s. But both groups had been in the bar before the actual assault occurred nearby. The city settled civil cases arising from the incident.
Yet, the connection to Nathan Bill’s stuck, especially after Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed charges against the off-duty cops. She charged other police for allegedly covering up the assault. Prior to Floyd’s death, Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood had reinstated the latter group, despite the pendency of their charges. Later, Mayor Domenic Sarno backtracked amid public outcry.
Nathan Bill’s was already under scrutiny for its association with the incident—boarding up its windows during the last protest did not help. Now anger simmered after the dress code sign circulated on social media. Its strictures seemed to play to racial stereotypes of Blacks and Hispanics.
While not excusing the sign’s references to gang colors, white T-shirts and other sartorial flourishes that seemed to allude to Black of brown people, Gossman said the sign mirror an industry standard that had sprung up in the city.
Speaking outside the establishment, in front of its makeshift coronavirus-era dining patio, Gossman spoke about the pressure bars had faced to limit violence—and often confrontations that lead to violence—in their establishments. He said that the sign at Nathan Bill’s had followed that model, but that did not set aside responsibility.
“It was the norm for the industry, and you can say the status quo,” Gossman said in prepared remarks. “Systemic racism is rampant in our society and following the norm of the status quo, although not intentional, it’s very much part of the problem.”
Gossman said the sign had long predated the outbreak of COVID-19—and thus Floyd’s death—but that it was removed as soon as he realized it was still there.
“I pride myself on not being a sheep following the herd and I failed myself,” he said. Welcoming dialogue, he added, “I would love to work together to help unify the city.”
Gossman spoke after at-large Councilor Justin Hurst and Rev. Talbert Swan, both of whom discussed the history of injustice and the racist canards that had hurt people of color in the United States. But they also both thanked Councilor Allen for hearing their concerns and working to find a solution.
Allen “brought together organizers of this protest and the owner of Nathan Bill’s sat together,” Swan said. “And we were candid we were honest about why we were here, what our complaints were, what our grievances were. And at the end of that meeting, we came to some agreement. That’s what this is all about.”
Hurst said it took courage for Allen to intervene as he had.
Nathan Bill’s sits at the edge of the relatively affluent East Forest Park neighborhood. The pub takes its name form a nearby park. The entire episode had cloven the neighborhood, even Holy Cross, the mother church to many Catholic Springfield luminaries. Among its congregants are Black Lives Matter protesters and some who feel Nathan Bill’s got a bum rap.
Allen did not suggest he did anything extraordinary. As the councilor for the ward, he found the choices of merely attending or not attending the protest unsatisfactory. He had been in touch with Sister Cindy Matthews at Holy Cross about the protests and began a dialogue with Tara Parrish of Pioneer Valley Project, which co-organized the protest.
“Thursday morning, I started on a call list that’s on this,” Allen said in an interview. “I started calling around all different people that might have some to do with it or have a perspective on it.”
Allen found the sides had been unable to bridge the gap, but after talking to Gossman and Parrish, he was able to get a meeting. Gossman’s preference was to meet in person. He, Allen and Matthews joined the organizers of the protest at South Congregational Church. Everyone wore masks and socially distanced in a room with plenty of space.
“One of them was that it wasn’t on Zoom,” Allen said of the factors that led to success. Gossman had already planned to apologize—he had written his Saturday remarks well before then. The protesters had not explicit demands, so the conversation became a catalyst for resolution.
“Everybody came, it was in person,” he said. “The human side of being in a room together with other human beings trying to solve a problem.”
Whitfield agreed. Speaking to WMP&I, she said there was no desire to punish or hurt a successful Springfield business. Communication and understanding was really key. Gossman was reluctant to find the spotlight but he was responsive and his apology plainly sincere.
“He really felt bad, and you can genuinely see it,” Whitfield said. “They also let all of us speak and we were all heard. And I think that was important for all of us to be heard, and to get to the understanding.”
There is more work to do, as everyone acknowledged. For example, Whitfield said there would discussions about bars’ rules, dress codes and other standards that do not stereotype.
“I always hear that government officials, don’t bring people together don’t always provide solutions and I wanted to try to do that,” Allen said, “and I have great people to work with.”