It's always a boost of hometown pride when you realize Salt Lake City is trending. Oh, never mind, it was because, on Feb. 16, Frank Maea and his cousin Stephen Wily—who are of Polynesian descent—were denied service, they say, due to their ethnicity, at Willie's Lounge, the state's self-proclaimed "finest dive."
Maea had never visited the Main Street bar but heard "they have either karaoke or there was something there that happened on Tuesdays that went down," he tells City Weekly inside the downtown electronics-accessory store he manages, surrounded by fancy iPhone covers, "volume-limiting" tiara-topped headphones for kids and other tech whoozits.
"[The bartender] looked us in the eyes and said 'I can't serve Polynesians,'" he says. "I was taken aback; I was ready to just order a drink."
Maea, who says his poison of choice is a Washington Apple, reacted by posting a video shot inside the bar on his Facebook profile. As of publication, the video tagged #PureIgnorance had more than 5,400 shares.
"I wanted to just, kind of, raise awareness," Maea says of his motive. "Racial discrimination is against the law."
In a response posted on the bar's now-deleted Facebook page, bar owner Geremy Cloyd wrote in part, "Due to certain issues we've had with certain groups of people, we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."
Maea remembers responding "Are you serious?" and adds that he holds no ill will toward the server, who explained she could lose her job if she didn't follow the policy.
In an interview with KUTV Channel 2, Cloyd said barkeeps are instructed to refuse service to "unknown, intimidating-looking males," among them men who seem like they just got out of jail or those with neck tattoos or that "look like they're on drugs. ... It just so happens, that our big problem has been with Polynesians."
"It's been crazy, man," Maea says about the reaction his video has gotten. "It's been more of a positive experience, just with the response from everyone—the Polynesian community here, and just everyone in general. It reached overseas; family members from New Zealand and Australia also. It's all around ... it's been a good experience."
For Cloyd, the ordeal has been the opposite. Standing in his dimly lit office, he says the whole situation has been "very, very misunderstood," and that he's received death threats. He's standing in front of an American flag that proudly hangs on a wall, and says he hasn't slept since the incident garnered viral attention.
"Before you get to judge me, come and get to know me," Cloyd, a decorated Marine vet says. "I know the response is going to be, 'Well, why didn't you get to know them?'" he continues. "We fucked up on that. Period."
Cloyd says his words were taken "out of context" by local media outlets, adding that he operates "probably the most diverse bar ever. I didn't get that way by being what everybody is accusing me of right now. Like, we support all the gays that come in here—we have gay nights. I'm so, so not the way I'm being portrayed right now."
Visibly shaken by some of the comments he's faced in the last days, Cloyd is quick to point out that the red patch on his jacket is the "diver down" flag, a military ensign used on water to caution other vessels a diver is swimming below. It's "because we're a dive bar!" he says, explaining it's not an interpretation of the Confederate flag, as some have accused.
As far as the apology Cloyd posted on the bar's website on Friday, Maea says he accepts it, but "that doesn't excuse the fact that we were pretty much profiled racially and discriminated upon."
Cloyd, who says the infamous video wasn't shot when the refusal happened, but rather an hour later when the men came back, insists the message is sincere and that it is one of many apologies he's attempted to extend to Maea. "I tried to reach out to him that night. I've tried to reach out to him since," he says.
On Saturday, Feb. 20, members of the Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition along with other community leaders gathered at Watchtower Café and led a peaceful march to Willie's Lounge, carrying signs that read "Polynesian rights," and "End discrimination in Utah." The protest, led by Watchtower owner Mike Tuiasoa, did not include a performance of the Haka—the ancestral Mori war cry—as was originally planned, but it did end with bar owner Geremy Cloyd.
Cloyd says "of course" the group would be welcomed in his establishment. Just don't expect a slow-mo, high-fiving, let-the-credits-roll reunion.
"No, I would not go back in there," Maea says about a possible do-over. "That's not gonna validate how I felt that night."
Asked if he'd buy Maea a drink, one of those sour Washington Apples perhaps, Cloyd says, "I can't legally, in the state of Utah, buy a drink [here]. We could go to another place, but, then, it's gonna make it look like I don't want him in here." He pauses, "But I would gladly buy him dinner."
The symbolic handshake only lasted so long. The following Monday, on Feb. 22, Maea and Wily filed a federal lawsuit against the drinking establishment, claiming civil-rights violations.