Under fire: Is the Elks Lodge getting a bad rap?
After working a long shift as a chef at the Main Street Arena on Friday, March 15, Kenny Jenkins headed over to the Elks Lodge on Second Street NW for a drink and a dance with his fiancée. A longtime Charlottesville resident, Jenkins has been going to the Elks Lodge, a historic African-American fraternal organization with deep roots in the community, for over 30 years.
"It's a nice place to go, to relax, to see old friends," says Jenkins, 50. "Most people respect the Elks because it has a long history, or their parents went there. Now," he says, "it's really the only place for black folks to go."
Jenkins says the club scene on Friday nights has always been for older, working class African-Americans, but that younger people have started to go there because there are so few other places for them in Charlottesville. On that particular Friday, says Jenkins, an altercation broke out inside the club and a chair was thrown. Out on the street, as Jenkins and other people were leaving the club, the violence suddenly escalated.
Sitting in a cab he had just hailed, Jenkins heard a gunshot and then saw a Charlottesville police officer draw his gun, shout "drop your weapon!" and fire twice.
In the aftermath of the shooting, which left two men wounded and is still officially under investigation, the Elks Lodge has come under fire as a place with a history of chaos and violence after their Friday night dance parties. Nearby business owners have expressed outrage, and the City's police chief has vowed to "aggressively" deal with the problem.
But Jenkins and two prominent African-American leaders say the Elks Lodge, a black club in a predominantly white district, is being unfairly maligned.
Police call records obtained by the Hook appear to bolster that claim.
A violent night
According to the first search warrant filed in Charlottesville Circuit Court, when the party let out after midnight, March 16, several men, including 22-year-old Culpeper County resident Leon T. Brock, tried to jump 56-year-old Albemarle Country resident Frank D. Brown on the street outside the club. Brown, however, according to a second search warrant, was allegedly packing a Hi-Point .380 caliber semi-automatic handgun and, according to the warrant, fired on Brock. As Brock lay wounded on the street, partially propped up against a car, Charlottesville Police Officer Alex Bruner arrived on the scene, drew his own weapon, a Glock 21 .45 caliber semi-automatic, and ordered Brown to drop his. Brown didn't.
Two bullets from Bruner's gun ripped through Brown's body, one that lodged in his abdomen, and another that passed through his right arm and embedded in a nearby utility pole, according to the most recent warrant. Brown and Brock survived their wounds, and no one else in the large crowd outside the Elks Lodge that night was hit by the bullets. Bruner remains on administrative leave pending the completion of the investigation.
Following the shooting, City Councilor Kristen Szakos called dealing with the problems at the Elks Lodge "imperative," and said that more security was needed at the club. Nearby Fellini's #9 owner Jackie Dunkle was vocal about her concerns about disturbances and violence at the Elks Club, and its effect on her own business.
Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo, who says he has been meeting with City Manager Maurice Jones to discuss the issue, told the Hook that his department is prepared to deal with problems at the Elks Lodge in an "aggressive, but lawful manner."
Indeed, police reports show that the Elks Lodge has been on police radar for some time, with roughly 150 calls to service at the Second Street address since 2008, and 54 in 2011 alone.
Dunkle told the Hook that she has chosen to close early on Friday nights so that her own customers don't pour out onto the street at the same time as the Elks crowd, and that, on average, she has to call police concerning some problem at the Elks Lodge at least two Fridays every month.
"Fighting is part of the norm on Friday nights when there is a party there," Dunkle has previously told the Hook.
"People who can't get into the Elks wait in the parking lot for friends to come out– you can watch it unfold," she says. "Come and stand on my roof one night, and you will see the craziness and listen to the shouting and name calling which usually ends up in a fight, all the way down Second Street to McGuffey park."
The Hook has left repeated phone messages with the Elks Lodge, trying to reach the group's president, Pete Carey, but at presstime there was still no response.
According to police reports, places like Fellini's #9, Miller's, and BW3 across town (which was also the site of a recent brawl and shooting incident) have had their own share of disturbances. At Miller's, for example, police have responded to 30 reported assaults, 98 incidents of disorderly conduct, and 41 cases of public drunkenness since 2008, compared to 14 assaults, 49 disorderly conduct incidents, and nine calls for public drunkenness at the Elks Lodge during the same period. Miller's, of course, is open seven nights a week, while the Elks Lodge events are typically only one night a week, but the overall fact remains: police have been called to Miller's more often than the Elks Lodge in the last five years. In total, since 2008, police have been called to Miller's 406 times.
Comparatively, Fellini's #9 is fairly subdued, with only three assaults, 17 disorderly conduct calls, and 17 incidents of public drunkenness. As for BW3, police have responded to 12 assaults, 41 incidents of disorderly conduct, and four public drunkenness incidents since 2008. Again, Fellini's #9 and BW3, like Millers, are open seven days a week.
"It's a black/white thing, no doubt," says Jenkins, speaking about the focus on the Elks Lodge as a problem after the shooting, despite the fact that police have been called to Miller's almost three times as much. "At Miller's, you got thugs coming up in that place, too, and those two guys at the Elks could've shot each other after drinking there."
"It's not an Elks problem," Jenkins says. "It's a Charlottesville problem."
A call to Miller's management had not been returned by presstime.
Charles Alexander, one of the "Charlottesville 12," the first group of black students to enter all-white schools in 1959, and who is now a motivational speaker, recently told the Hook that the Elks Lodge is a "Charlottesville institution," one that has supported the African-American community in many ways over the years.
Indeed, as previously reported, Alexander recalls playing for the Elks Club basketball team in his youth, because he wasn't allowed to play for the all-white team at Lane High School. Today, Alexander teaches a seminar called Yo, let it go, designed to curb youth violence among teenagers by teaching them how to "let go" of frustration and anger. If you don't let things go, Alexander preaches, you end up hurting yourself, others, and the community. Indeed, at the heart of the Elks Lodge shooting lies a painful lesson about what can happen when anger and frustration, combined with a substantial amount of alcohol and a lethal weapon, are used to settle conflicts.
However, Alexander says, the Elks Club has been invaluable to the community for many years, and the focus on this one event, this one venue, he says, diminishes that contribution and ignores the problems that are more widespread.
"Skin is just a cover, but we live in a society where skin color does play a role," says Alexander. "You can call that the 'race card,' but it's real."
Indeed, one wonders what the public reaction would have been if the shooting had taken place on the Mall outside, say, Miller's, and involved its patrons. Would there have been the same focus on the establishment? As noted, Miller's has a history of disturbances just like the Elks Lodge. But, had the shooting happened there, would calls for beefed up security or even its closure have been made?
Alexander doubts it, and in an interview just days after the incident, he described the real problem as "people rage."
"People are on the edge, and we're all walking time bombs these days," he said. "This kind of thing could happen just as easily at Fellini's #9 or anywhere else."
That comment got the attention of Hook readers. "Patently ridiculous," one online commenter called Alexander's statement, calling it a "racist" attempt to "deflect a problem that seems to be systemic in a black establishment by hinting that the problem could happen anywhere."
"The inference in Alexander's comments is that the hubbub is being created because the Elks is a black establishment," wrote the commenter. "The classic 'well, if you are going to look at this black bar, then you need to look at everyone else' argument."
"I understand Mr. Alexander saying, 'people are raging,'" says Dunkle, "but it comes down to civic responsibility. Don't shoot anyone. Especially when you have just consumed mass quantities of alcohol. Don't go to your car and get your gun and shoot someone. And saying it could even happen at Fellini's #9– seriously? I don't need to have a metal detector at my front door. If someone is causing problems, I kick them out and call the police."
NAACP president Rick Turner told the Hook that he's "puzzled, but not surprised" by the media and police attention the Elks Lodge has received after the shooting, given it's a black organization in a predominately white district. A violent shooting like this also "puts a different twist on things," he says, as it alarms and frightens people, but he says the issue really boils down to the question, "How responsible should restaurant and club owners be for what happens outside, when members and customers leave?"
Turner, who told the Hook that there are mixed feelings about the Elks Lodge among the black community, has called for a discussion about the incident between Elks Club officials, nearby business owners, and the community at large.
No where to go
As Jenkins points out, places like MaxTrax on 11th Street, Odyssey on Pantops (where Aunt Sarah's Pancake House used to be), and Katie's on Route 29 used to be places where black people gathered, but all those establishments closed starting in the early 1990s.
"Now there's the Elks Lodge, and that's it," says Jenkins. "There aren't a lot of black-owned businesses in Charlottesville anymore."
Indeed, while the Downtown Mall is flanked on the south side by a predominantly black neighborhood, there are virtually no black-owned businesses or organizations on the Mall, with the exception of the Elks Lodge. In Charlottesville, a city with a black population estimated at roughly 20 percent, according to 2011 census data, there are so few black-owned businesses that the census lists no percentage. By contrast, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a college town of similar size, the black population is estimated at 9.7 percent and an estimated 3.6 percent of businesses are African-American owned.
Back in the day, says Jenkins, black and white people used to mingle at places like Katie's on 29, but that's not so much the case anymore, he says. Black people, he says, want to hang out at places like the Downtown Mall, but he says he and others don't always feel comfortable or welcome.
"I went to play pool upstairs at Miller's a few times," he says, "and all the black people would be on one side and all the white people would be on the other. It's like, 'I'm okay with you during the day, or at work, but at night, you go over there with your people and I'll go here with mine,'" he recalls.
The us/them mentality was evident in the moments after the March 16 shooting. As a white reporter moved among the exclusively African-American crowd outside the Elks Lodge, a man who appeared to be in his late 30s, who was neither drunk or disorderly, approached and spoke. "You a reporter?" he asked. "Oh, great. Now we can expect more negative publicity for black people."
Hopefully, that won't be the case, as City Manager Maurice Jones, along with Police Chief Tim Longo, say they plan to reach out to the owners of the Elks Lodge, and the community at large, to open a dialogue on the issues raised by the shooting and other incidents of violence and tension in the city.
"You make sure you get it right," the man said. "And tell the whole truth."