Community leaders call for change after death of Eric Pope

Tabu Philadelphia

Eric Pope went to Tabu Nightclub for the same reason anyone typically goes to a bar – to drink and have a good time. In mid April, when Pope allegedly became intoxicated and was escorted outside, where he did not appear to be endangering anyone, surveillance footage shows that the bouncer working outside the establishment punched him hard enough that he hit the pavement and fell unconscious. Pope, 41, passed away from his injuries on April 23 at Jefferson University Hospital, a week after the incident. 

PGN spoke with leaders in the Philly LGBTQ+ community about their thoughts on Pope’s death as well as potential solutions for making LGBTQ-friendly bars safer. 

“We clearly need a change in how we look at ‘security’ for our community,” said Sultan Shakir, president and executive officer of Mazzoni Center. “When security is causing this level of pain and violence, it should be clear there’s an issue and there’s been an issue for a long time. Safety involves compassion and care, not brute force, particularly in a space that knows patrons are impaired.”

Shakir was friends with Pope, so this loss was personal to him. “Eric was one of the kindest people I knew,” Shakir said. “No one deserves to be struck, particularly someone who can barely stand up. The person who murdered Eric not only took Eric’s life, he took life from me and the many people who loved him.” 

Deja Lynn Alvarez, who is running to represent the Gayborhood in the Pa. legislature, said of Pope’s death, “it’s horrible, it’s a tragedy. There’s no way to describe it in words. There is now a family grieving the loss of a loved one.” 

She cautioned that as community members and community leaders take action in response to the incident, they must take into account the employees of Tabu and those of Mainline Security, most of whom are Black and Brown, who may get caught in the crossfire. 

“We have to absolutely address the incident and what this one individual did in that moment that led to the death of Mr. Pope,” Alvarez said. “[It’s] beyond atrocious. We also have to take a moment to think about our next steps, our actions and how that will affect everyone else. There are a lot of Black and Brown people whose livelihoods — how they pay their rent, how they buy their food — who are now caught up in this, and they had nothing to do with it.”

Alvarez said she’s had meetings with some of the people who have been protesting Tabu, as well as with Tabu’s owner.

“We’re coming up with plans to make concrete changes in how safety is addressed and what it looks like moving forward,” Alvarez said. “That takes changing the idea around ‘security’ altogether.”

Jonathan Lovitz, special advisor to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce and candidate to represent the 182nd state house district, said that “Every community needs its spaces to be safe, most of all communities who continue to face hate, discrimination, and violence. The act of violence that took Eric Pope away from us reminds us how much work we still have to do — as neighbors, as business owners, as leaders in service to others. But the love and sense of community seen at the vigil in his honor reminds us that we can, we must, do it together. While we work toward accountability and justice, we must never forget his memory, or any in our communities we’ve lost. Building a stronger, safer, more connected LGBTQ+ and allied community in Philadelphia will take all of us.”

VinChelle, an accomplished drag performer who runs events at Woody’s and Voyeur, said they were “very disgusted and very hurt by what had happened.”

They suggested that Philly’s LGBTQ bar owners refrain from employing Mainline Security bouncers from now on, clarifying that they also wouldn’t want that to impact the people of color under the security company’s employ.  

“This is just like how I said it in the town hall, to make a change is to take an actionable step, and an actionable step would be to no longer work with Mainline Security,” VinChelle said. “To hire a security company that doesn’t have a past, that has a legit reputation of securing the building and not hurting anyone. I know a lot of Black folks work at Mainline, and I know that some people that had nothing to do with the situation might be affected by that move. I hate that because I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs.” 

Because the surveillance footage of the incident did not include audio, VinChelle wondered if Pope said anything to provoke Frye, clarifying that nothing would have justified a fatal punch. “I’m not justifying anything, but I want to know what happened,” VinChelle said. “Did he say the N-word and that’s what triggered the security guard to come over? Either scenario, no one should have been hit and punched, but I do want to know what was said.” 

Trans rights activist Kendall Stephens initially commented on the need to know more information about what happened the night of the incident. “But I do know that the community is shocked, outraged and demanding answers that I’m confident that we will get to the bottom of,” she said. “Once we have all the facts, we must band together as a community to brainstorm and build safeguards to prevent a similar incident from ever occurring again.” 

She suggested forming a task force dedicated to providing safety measures in LGBTQ-friendly establishments. “Maybe it’s time for us to form such a committee so that we have a direct hand in how we’re being protected.” 

Stephens, VinChelle and José de Marco, founder of Black and Latinx Community Control of Health, said that they know of others who have had safety issues with Mainline Security bouncers working at LGBTQ bars. 

De Marco expressed sympathies to Pope’s family and friends, and said that Tabu staffers should be held accountable because they poured the liquor that got Pope inebriated. “For them to say this didn’t happen on our property and for them not to claim any culpability in order for them not to be sued, they should really be ashamed of themselves,” de Marco said. “They should be ashamed of every dollar that they take from this community.” 

Following Pope’s death, Tabu owner Jeff Sotland issued a statement to PGN that said in part, “we can only comment that the bouncer involved was not an employee of Tabu and the incident in question did not occur on our property. When the unconscious individual was reported to our management, we immediately called 911 and sought assistance. We also alerted the Philadelphia Police Department of the incident in question and are cooperating with the [PPD] in their investigation.” 

VinChelle and Stephens also criticized Sotland’s statement avoiding culpability. 

“I think a lot of times they just want to wash their hands of it and say, ‘oh well it was a third party,’” VinChelle said. “If that happened at Woody’s, so many people would have so many crazy things to say. I think that [Tabu] should make a statement and do something for Eric.”

Stephens said she thought the owners of Tabu owe “some expression of remorse and condolences to Eric Pope and his family and the community.”

One of Pope’s friends in Washington, DC, Steve Clemons, posted on Facebook that “Eric was such a sweet, lighthearted person; a dependable and steadfast friend, a giver, not a taker. This cripples me and saddens me so profoundly. Why did this bouncer feel as if he had the right to just walk up and slam Eric? This is another form of impunity and folks have to push back, and fight for a return to empathetic respect for one another. Those who violate that respect, who harm others, must be held to account. There have to be consequences for this.”