UPDATED: 1:30 p.m. ET with statement from Denny’s.
There will “absolutely” be a lawsuit after a white waitress refused to serve two Black men at a Denny’s location in South Dakota, attorneys said while challenging the restaurant chain with a checkered past on race to use the unfortunate incident to bring about “meaningful change.”
The two truckers at the center of the viral incident widely shared in video footage on social media joined their attorneys on Monday during a virtual press conference to not only announce pending litigation but also bring attention to their clients’ lingering trauma from the racist treatment they claim they experienced last month in Sioux Falls.
In case you missed it, video footage recorded by Hector Madera and Damon Whitfield shows them being refused service, accused of being confrontational, told to leave, and reported to the police despite the absence of any criminal activity. While there was never any mention of their race, they said the only difference between them from the other customers being served was the color of their skin.
Denny’s said it was investigating the situation and the waitress in question has been fired, but the response has been insufficient, Madera and Whitfield said on Monday. They say they want to make sure Denny’s publicly accepts responsibility and takes steps to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
“I think more needs to be done about it,” Madera said Monday. “Denny’s needs to be held accountable.”
Whitfield suggested he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly in the capacity of his employment as a trucker.
“Every time we’re on the road and we see a Denny’s sign, we keep reliving this whole ordeal in our head,” Whitfield said, emphasizing how his sleep has been adversely affected as a result.
Madera and Whitfield recalled how they were silenced after being accused of raising their voices to get the attention of the waitress – identified as Anne Fletcher – who referred to them in terms that were construed as being racist.
“‘Well, you know what, I’m not serving you people,’ Whitfield recalled Fletcher telling them. “‘As a matter of fact, you can get your stuff and go now I’m calling the cops.’”
Whitfield said Fletcher then snatched the menus away from them. When Madera approached Fletcher to “diffuse the situation,” Whitfield said the waitress responded curtly: “I want you people out.”
The men’s lawyers said Denny’s has thoroughly mishandled the situation.
“We are disappointed with Denny’s. Their response was perfunctory at best, attorney Erica Wilson said Monday before explaining that “this is an opportunity for Denny’s to be the poster child of how to get it right.”
Civil rights attorney Harry Daniels described what Madera and Whitfield experienced as “actually discrimination, racism.”
Meanwhile, it is unclear if the person who called 911 – Denny’s regional manager Michael Fletcher who may or may not be married to the waitress who was fired – remains employed by the restaurant chain. That increases the likelihood of something like this happening again, Daniels said.
“This is something that’s bound to repeat itself. Historically, Denny’s has repeated itself over and over again,” Daniels said before threatening to sue.
“So the question, ‘is litigation coming’? Absolutely. It’s coming,” Daniels vowed. “We can’t go back and turn back the hands of times on what Hector and Damon felt.”
Shortly after the publication of the article, a statement was sent to NewsOne from the CEO of Denny’s along with the Denny’s franchise owner in South Dakota claiming that the restaurant chain was “committed to making it right.”
The statement added: “We have reached out to the guests to resolve this matter in a way agreeable to all parties.”
A history of anti-Black racism
As Daniels said, this isn’t Denny’s first racist rodeo.
Back in 1993, six Black Secret Service agents filed a federal discrimination suit claiming a Denny’s in Annapolis, Maryland, refused to serve them. That particular instance made national headlines and was so well known in popular culture that the renowned jazz musician Branford Marsalis (under the stage name Buckshot LeFonque) released a hip-hop-fused song called “Breakfast at Denny’s” the following year — just around the time that Denny’s paid $54 million “to settle lawsuits filed by thousands of black customers who had been refused service or had been forced to wait longer or pay more than white customers,” as the New York Times reported.
And in 2003, two Black customers took legal action against a Los Angeles Denny’s after they were asked to pay before eating.
In 2017, a Black patron at a Denny’s in Washington state claimed a waitress and manager demanded he and his fellow Black male diners pay for their food prior to eating. Palmer L. Pellham said the men were the only ones in the restaurant asked to pay for their food beforehand. He also claimed that they were forced to wait 10 minutes before being seated, even though there were plenty of available tables.
One year later, 25 Black churchgoers said they were refused service at a Denny’s in Lake City, Florida. Elijah Henderson Jr. said he was told his party couldn’t be served because the restaurant was understaffed. However, soon after another large group was seated.
In each of the above cases, Denny’s was forced to issue an apology.
But in the case of the Sioux Falls location, a marketing agency representing the restaurant chain responded to an inquiry from NewsOne about the viral video without offering an apology on behalf of Denny’s.
Instead, FINN Partners only said Denny’s was investigating the incident.
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