In May of last year, I went out to the Rack n’ Roll pool hall to see firsthand some of the harassment David Ruttenberg had been telling me about. At the time, David Ruttenberg still had his liquor license. But every weekend, he said, the Manassas Park police department would send squad cars to his bar. They would pull over random customers for drunken driving, for loitering, or for just about anything else they could drum up.
He’d shown me videos. In one, you see a man come outside the bar, stretch, untuck his shirt, then tuck it back in. Minutes later you see two Manassas Park police cars pull up. Two officers get out and arrest the man on the spot. Ruttenberg says the customer later told him he’d been arrested — then later released without charge — for “indecent exposure.” Not sure, but I’d guess this is one of the videos the Black Velvet Bruce Li blog may soon be posting.
Ruttenberg said the harassment was picking up in the weeks before I visited the bar — with one exception. Shortly after I posted the security video of the June 2004 raid on Ruttenberg’s bar last February, a woman named Anke Cheney took interest, began to observe at the bar, and soon became an advocate for Ruttenberg. That’s significant because Cheney has a long and distinguished career in Republican politics, and at the time, the mayor and most of the city council of Manassas Park were, likewise, Republicans. She took up Ruttenberg’s cause, she told me, because he was being wronged. Cheney’s been commenting regularly at the Black Velvet Bruce Li blog (also, incidentally, run by a guy active in local Republican politics) on Ruttenberg’s behalf. It’s clear that she, like me, thinks something’s corrupt in Manassas Park, and that the stench runs rather high up the town’s hierarchy.
What’s interesting is that whenever Cheney was at the bar, the police tended to back off a bit. Apparently, they knew who she was. The harassment still went on, but when Cheney would come out of the bar to witness it, the police would let up. Cheney says she still thinks Ruttenberg’s bar is the safest place in the area for the 18 and older crowd, but added to me that, “that’s in spite of the Manassas Park police, not because of them.”
That’s the background.
The first few hours of my night at the bar were uneventful. My girlfriend and I played some pool, had a drink, and she did some karaoke (badly — but she was very cute!) while I played poker (a legal, no buy-in game, if you’re wondering). “Wait,” Ruttenberg told us, “they’ll be here soon.”
On cue, we spotted lights outside the bar at about 12:30am. I went outside to see what was going on. Two Manassas Park police had pulled over a small Honda with two Hispanic-looking men inside. They’d both been in the bar moments earlier. I watched as the police searched both men thoroughly, then began rifling through their car. One of the officers was huge — I’d guess at least 6’6″ and about 275. He hovered over the two men, who were rather short, in a vaguely threatening manner. The guy was pretty intimidating.
After about a half hour of searching, the police let the men go. They wouldn’t tell me or Ruttenberg why they searched the men. But one of the men told us his version of what happened: He had gone out to get the car while his friend paid the tab. He pulled up to the curb to get his friend, and was there for what he (and others) said was fifteen seconds at most before the squad cars descended on him. He says the police say they pulled him over and searched him for “parking in a fire lane.”
Over the next three hours I watched in awe as one after another after another Manassas Park squad car pulled over Rack n’ Roll customers as they left the bar. They were stopped, searched, and sent on their way. I saw at least six different people get pulled over, and that was just within a few blocks of the place. Other customers told me they’d regularly get stopped another mile or so out.
This, Ruttenberg and his customers assured me, happened nearly every weekend. The harassment had its intended effect. Ruttenberg’s clientele had dwindled to a handful of regulars and a significant number of Hispanics, the latter because Ruttenberg’s is one of the few bars in the area that not only isn’t hostile to them, but actually welcomes their business.
One Hispanic man I talked to went by the name of Jesus. Ruttenberg and others in the bar said he’s well-respected in the Manassas-area Hispanic community, to the point were he’s often called to help resolve disputes and arguments. He doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t consume illicit drugs. Nevertheless, he told me he’d been pulled over more than 20 times over the last two years — each time upon leaving Rack n’ Roll. Each time he was searched, asked to perform sobriety tests, then released.
Jesus next took me out in his car. He pointed out the spots where the Manassas Park police typically lie in wait for Rack n’ Roll customers. Sure enough, that’s exactly where the squad cars were, save for those that were already in the process of pulling someone over. Jesus said Hispanics were particularly prone to the harassment because they’re powerless to do much about it (though many non-Hispanic white people and black people told me they’ve been pulled over multiple times as well). Of course, many of them are also illegal, which makes them especially unlikely to do anything about the harassment (not making any immigration point here — just reporting what I was told). They keep coming back out of loyalty to Ruttenberg and because, frankly, there’s nowhere else in the area for them to go. Few of them would have as much as a beer, though. They didn’t want to give the police a reason to arrest them.
By this point, I was sort of hoping I’d get pulled over — either with Jesus or as I was leaving in my own car. I had more than a few questions I’d have asked had we been pulled over for no reason, and I’m sure they’d have been a bit surprised to see me riding along. Alas, all of he police seemed occupied with other Rack n’ Roll customers by the second time Jesus and I drove through the club’s parking lot. And by the time we left the bar, at around 4am, the police had gone.
I was surprised at how blatant, brazen, and systematic the harassment was. I’d seen Ruttenberg’s security videos, but I expected to see one, maybe two or three customers harassed. Not continual harassment for the better part of three hours. A few customers told me that when they’d been pulled over in the past, the officers flat out told them that if they’d continued to get pulled over for as long as they continued to patronize Rack n’ Roll.
I’d add that my girlfriend was somewhat skeptical of what I’d been telling her about the Rack n’ Roll case before we visited the bar that night — completely understandable, given how flippin’ bizarre this case has been. But by the time we left, she was not only convinced, she was straight pissed off at what she’d seen.
Ruttenberg’s liquor license was revoked a few months ago after a sham of a hearing before the state Alcohol Beverage Control stemming from all of this. The basic charge was that Ruttenberg wasn’t doing enough to keep the place free from drug activity (along with a couple of very minor violations — one count of serving to a minor, and an incident of women baring their breasts at the bar during Mardi Gras). What’s absurd is that Ruttenberg has good evidence that most of the activity was being initiated by the police (which of course brings us back to the off-track betting issue). Problem is, he had a difficult time proving that because Manassas Park police insist on retaining the confidentiality of the undercover officers and the informants they’re using. So confidentiality prevents Ruttenberg from proving the drug activity in his bar is being set up by the police. But at the same time, his bar is being shut down because the police say he hasn’t done enough to combat drug activity.
See the trap they’ve ensnared him in?
Even more absurd is that — as I mentioned before — Ruttenberg has good reason to believe that some of the people he hired for the specific purpose of keeping drug activity out of the bar were working with the police to initiate drug activity in it. Ruttenberg’s evidence is pretty sound, including affidavits from friends, family members, and former employers of the alleged informants (and in one case, from the alleged informant himself). Ruttenberg also has affidavit or taped conversations with ex-girlfriends, friends, and patrons of the bar who say they either did or were asked by Manassas Park police to serve as an informant to help get Ruttenberg. In some cases, these people were promised leniency on other charges in exchange for their help entrapping Ruttenberg. I talked to one of them.
That and more to come.