An owner of a Harlem nightclub alleges being arrested for “working while black” in a new federal civil rights suit against the New York City Police department claiming false arrest and malicious prosecution, among other causes of action.
Dr. Clyde Pemberton, the 69-year-old chairman and CEO of the parent company that owns the MIST nightclub in Harlem, claimed officers called to assist an unconscious club-goer in June 2017 ended up arresting him and two other club workers. The episode, Pemberton’s attorneys at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady claim, represents another instance of an all-too-common instance in today’s social climate: a black individual whose very presence invites the unwanted and unwarranted interest of law enforcement, despite having done nothing wrong.
According to Pemberton’s complaint, while participating in a business meeting at the club, he witnessed an unconscious woman being dragged through the club by two other women. All three were white, according to the complaint.
When Pemberton, a medical doctor, approached them over concern about the safety of the unconscious woman, suggesting she be placed in a chair. He and other staff that intervened were assaulted physically and verbally by the other women, including being subjected to racial slurs and told to “go back to the Congo.”
Paramedics and police arrived after club staff was directed to call 911. The complaint alleged that police observed the two women yelling offensive language and acting belligerent. According to Pemberton, when he spoke to the supervising officer on the scene to tell him he was the club owner and a medical doctor, he was told, “You are no doctor or any s–t like that here tonight.”
The supervising officer then directed officers to arrest Pemberton and two others associated with the club, the complaint stated. No NYPD officer spoke to Pemberton or the others before arresting them, taking them to the precinct and charging them. On their way to the precinct, the three were told they were “just being taken down to the precinct for questioning” and they had nothing to worry about “because [they] didn’t do anything wrong,” the complaint alleged.
The complaint noted that one of the women was arrested for assault. The unconscious woman was removed from the club by an ambulance. Pemberton claimed in the complaint that if his and his associates’ arrests were based on information provided by the arrested woman, “such information would have been unreliable, and any reasonable police officer would have known that it was unreliable and required further investigation before acting upon it under the circumstances.”
All three of the men from the club were charged with misdemeanor unlawful imprisonment and didn’t leave the precinct until early in the morning after the incident. Pemberton claimed in the complaint that at no time were any of the women forced to remain in the club; they were, in fact, shown were the exit was.
While the charges were ultimately dropped by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s office in November 2017, Pemberton claimed in the complaint that he not only suffered financially due to the negative impact of the arrest on his business and the $15,000 he had to pay in legal costs, but that the incident he and the two other men arrested experienced “fundamentally changed the way they see the police and the extent to which they feel comfortable in their own neighborhoods—and, indeed, in their own skin.”
For Pemberton’s attorney, partner Elizabeth Saylor, the circumstances highlight the continued problems the NYPD has dealing with discrimination within its ranks.
“Unfortunately, the NYPD does not effectively discipline or hold officers accountable who wrongly arrest people, wrongly assault people, and discriminate against people,” she told the New York Law Journal. “The NYPD does not have a practice of doing that.”
Saylor was joined by Emery Celli associate Doug Lieb on the action.
A spokesman for the NYPD declined to comment on the suit, referring questions to the New York City Law Department.
“We’ll review the complaint and respond accordingly,” a Law Department spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.