Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Badlands mediation reached


Bar owner Les Natali. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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A 19-month long battle between Castro bar owner Les Natali and a group of patrons and former employees who accused him of racist business practices came to an end Tuesday, January 17 when Natali signed off on a mediated agreement to settle the matter.

Surrounded by his accusers and leaders of the community group And Castro For All, which went public in June 2004 with charges Natali discriminated against blacks and women at his bar SF Badlands, Natali signed the document around 5 p.m. in a hallway outside a hearing room on the fourth floor of City Hall.

His signature brings to an end months of mediation in the case – overseen by former Mayor Willie Brown – that stemmed from a 2005 report by the city's Human Rights Commission staff that found Natali had engaged in discriminatory practices. Natali repeatedly denied the charges and threatened to sue the city over the HRC's findings. He declared vindication when state agencies investigating the matter found no evidence to support the charges and declined to revoke his liquor licenses.

Both sides had threatened to pursue legal action to resolve the matter as negotiations to enter into mediation stalled throughout last summer. Frustrated at the lack of progress, Mayor Gavin Newsom eventually stepped in, asking Brown to help bring both sides to the table and assist the parties in finding a solution.

Neither side would disclose the terms of their deal, saying it is confidential. But both parties said they are pleased with the outcome and are looking forward at moving beyond the vitriol and barbed charges that consumed the Castro for the last year and a half, spilling out onto the streets last spring and summer during weekly Saturday night pickets of Natali's bar.

Natali said, "I am happy we were able to come to an agreement. I appreciate that everyone was sincere and hardworking to reach a resolution."

When asked what impacts the agreement would have on his businesses, Natali said, "You will be seeing lots of people at Badlands."

He said he was unsure of the status of the HRC's findings against him and would be speaking to his attorneys about it. He did say the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has continued to "make unannounced visits" to Badlands and have "found no evidence" to support the charges against him.

"I continue to deny all the allegations," said Natali, adding, "I am happy to reach a resolution with the people who made the complaints."

And Castro For All, which ended its pickets once mediation began, announced this week that it is dropping its boycott of Natali's businesses now that a deal has been reached.

"Mr. Natali has shown a commitment to goodwill going forward and And Castro for All is excited to see greater inclusion in the Castro and in all of its bars," said the group's spokesman Don Romesburg.

Julius Turman, the claimants' attorney, said, "I think the agreement between the claimants and Mr. Natali is a significant step for the race relation issues we had in the Castro and I am pleased with the outcome. The claimants, as well as Mr. Natali, feel it is a solution they can all live with. I can't speak on the terms but I can say look for positive changes in the way we live and do business in the Castro."

Derek Turner, a former Badlands employee who initiated bringing charges against Natali in the fall of 2003, expressed relief Tuesday night at seeing the process come full circle.

"We have been working for so long and we finally reached an agreement we can live with," said Turner. "And Castro For All can continue to do the rest of its work."

John Weber, another claimant in the matter, said he believes the settlement with Natali will impact the entire Castro, not solely Natali's bars.

"As for the historical practices that have transpired in the Castro, I am hopeful this will send a message to other businesses that there are watchdogs looking at what you do and just because you have a business doesn't give you license to practice discrimination," said Weber. "The litmus test will be to see if we see the same practices are if we see blacks, Latinos, Asians and women not just in Natali's bars but in other establishments as well."

Turman said as long as "everybody abides by the terms of the agreement" he does not expect there to be any lawsuits filed. He also said his clients were withdrawing their opposition to the ABC's decision to grant Natali the Pendulum's liquor license. The ABC had planned to hold administrative hearings on the matter.

"All parties are on track to have a very healthy and respectful relationship here on out," said Turman.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who faced accusations from both sides about his loyalties and was criticized at times for not being more forceful against Natali, said news of the agreement is an "important step" for the community.

"This has been a painful process but it has created a great deal of awareness of the distance we need to go to be a truly inclusive community. I appreciate Les Natali for participating in this process and making a commitment that will be important for the future," said Dufty. "I appreciate the courage and steadfastness of And Castro For All as well as their willingness to mediate and reach an agreement for the greater good of the LGBT community."

He said just having both sides reach agreement is a significant development for the entire community.

"I hope for all of us it is an opportunity to heal now and to move forward, with each of us individually committed to be open, welcoming and accepting to people in our community who may be different," he said. "The most significant thing is that for the first time since this arose everyone is on the same page by signing this document."

Larry Brinkin, a compliance officer with the HRC, said Wednesday morning he did not know mediation had been settled nor had he seen the agreement reached. He said it is typical in such mediation for the complainants to withdraw their complaints from all investigatory agencies. He said he would expect Natali would also droop his appeal of the HRC's staff report.

As for the staff's findings of racial discrimination, Brinkin said, "Nothing changes. They remain."

The mediation resolution came just minutes before the Entertainment Commission heard Natali's request for an entertainment permit for the Pendulum, an 18th Street bar long considered to be a gathering spot for LGBT African Americans. With the community groups who earlier opposed Natali's permit request now dropped, the commission approved Natali's application.  

Speaking before the commission Tuesday night, Natali expressed a desire to move beyond the acrimony of the past.

"I believe all the issues have been resolved and I believe we are ready to move forward," he said.

Natali planned to meet with John MacNeil, who is suing him in a dispute over ownership of the Pendulum, Wednesday, January 18 in an effort to resolve the lawsuit before it heads to court later this month. The bar is under construction and Natali said he is at least three months away from reopening it. While neighbors of the bar have expressed concerns about noise issues, Natali agreed to meet with them prior to opening and intends to install a soundproofing awning over the bar's outdoor patio.

As for remaining doubts that African Americans will not feel welcome at the Pendulum, Natali said in an interview, "It will be a welcoming place for African Americans when it reopens, as well as for everyone."

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