Can't drink that!

Diverse City
By SHAY STEWART-BOULEY  |  March 28, 2014

As a neighborhood bar, Sangillo’s Tavern doesn’t often find itself as the center of attention. But the Hampshire Street watering hole found itself in an unlikely spotlight after word got out in early March that, in an attempt to appease the powers that be and save its liquor license, one of its “corrective actions” would be to ban two kinds of cognac: Remy Martin and Hennessy.

Sangillo’s, considered by many to be one of Portland’s iconic dives, has had a bit of trouble in the past year, so much so that Portland police are recommending that Sangillo’s lose its liquor license, citing 23 calls to the bar, including one involving a recent shooting outside the establishment that left a man paralyzed.

The ban on Remy Martin and Hennessy, however, is what caught the attention of many, since both are drinks that are popular with African Americans. Hennessy was one of the first liquor brands to advertise in black publications, and black hip hop culture has popularized cognacs. Interestingly, the bar owners offered doublespeak on this matter, explaining that the ban is not directed at any specific group yet also saying their managers observed that patrons contributing to the disorderly atmosphere tend to drink one of the banned drinks. This could easily lead those without direct knowledge of Sangillo’s customer base to assume that the real troublemakers are of the African Diaspora.

Maine’s total black population is 1.3 percent compared to 13.1 percent nationwide. Portland, as our largest city, is also our most diverse, home to blacks who are African-Americans as well as African immigrants and other black immigrant groups, making up 4.1 percent of Portland’s total population of about 66,194. That means Portland’s black population is somewhere in the neighborhood
of 3,000.

Look, even if there were 30,000 blacks in Portland, singling them out would be the wrong move, but are there even enough black folks in Portland frequenting Sangillo’s that we need to hide the Remy Martin and the Hennessy? I’m guessing there are a few problem patrons who might drink those drinks, and the owners hope that eliminating those drinks will keep those patrons away. However, by not dealing with people directly and focusing instead on the liquor brands, Sangillo’s is playing into racist tropes about black people and essentially casting them as cognac-swilling savages.

Typically it is blacks or other people of color who are accused of playing the race card and creating racial problems where there are none. In this case, Sangillo’s, by banning a product that is associated with black people, avoids taking responsibility for individuals by (tacitly) placing blame on an entire group. In our current racial climate where racial situations are the norm, even the inference of black people being the problem fans the fire of racial tensions. I don’t discount the fact that Sangillo’s may have a few problem patrons of color but even if that is the problem, why not work with the patrons or ban them rather than banning certain liquors and by doing so inviting charges of racism?

Over the years, the Portland Police Department, including former Police Chief James Craig, has worked with bar owners to cut down on rowdy and dangerous behavior in the Old Port. Steps have included increased police presence near Fore and Wharf streets and improved communication between bar staff and law enforcement. In other words, no one banned the Jameson or the Jagermeister or Kamikaze shots — people took responsible actions to weed out problem patrons or to discourage problematic conduct.

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