In my 12 years as a bouncer/doorman/security guard, there were times when I could have been Jemel Roberson, the armed security guard who was killed by a police officer last weekend at a south suburban bar.
Being a door guy or a bouncer (some of us actually hate that term) isn’t an easy gig.
There are late hours, and at 3 a.m., the best-intentioned people can represent the worst of humanity.
In my time in the job, I was called racial slurs, got into fights, broke up fights, got bit and had a knife pulled on me. I was followed home.
But the threats I remember most were those that came when someone was kicked out of the bar or denied access because of a dress code. They would threaten to come back and “shoot this b—h up.” Roberson and a co-worker reportedly were dealing with just that scenario — subduing a man who had come back and shot the place up — when he was shot and killed by the police officer.
On just one occasion when I was working bars did the threat become reality. Someone didn’t like the way he was treated and came back and fired shots into the bar.
Lucky for me, I had left early that night because I wasn’t feeling well. Unlucky for me, my shifts were taken away because I hadn’t been there, on the spot, ready to take a bullet.
This is a cruel gig. There’s no union, nor benefits.
But we all knew what we had signed up for. And if something went wrong, we knew we’d be the first to go.
In Thousand Oaks, California, on Nov. 7, when a man walked into the Borderline Bar & Grill and killed 12 people, the first person he shot was the bouncer, Justin Meek.
That also could have been me.
I can’t comment on what happened outside Manny’s Blue Room in Robbins on the night of Nov. 11, when a Midlothian police officer shot and killed Roberson. I don’t know all the facts. What I can say is that at the bars I worked, the door guys/bouncers made a point of having a decent relationship with the police. They knew who we were because they interacted with us.
When an incident took place, the police knew we were the one’s calling. And when they got to the bar, they checked with us first. And at the places I worked, we weren’t wearing any identifying markers.
That said, I simply don’t know what relationship the door staff at Manny’s had with local law enforcement.
Despite the way things should go, though, many black folks are often caught in the mix created by fear mongering in the guise of promoting public safety. The world is told you’re walking danger.
If you’ve ever seen me, I’m roughly the size of an NFL defensive tackle; and being a physically intimidating black man is a gift and a curse.
I remember walking down Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park one night when a white woman leaving a yoga studio saw me and feared the worst. She took off like Bears running back Tarik Cohen.
In a column on Wednesday about Roberson’s death, my Sun-Times colleague Mary Mitchell hit the nail on the head when describing the fear society has of black men. “It’s not a myth,” she wrote. “It is a condition that many of us suffer from, but few of us will acknowledge.”
If working as a doorman or bouncer can be dangerous, especially perhaps for a black man, you might ask, “Then why do it?”
To which I would reply: For all the same good reasons you go to your job. To pay the bills. To take care of the kids. To build a career. To feel pride and a sense of purpose.
That’s what Jemel Roberson was doing. He was working a dangerous job, according to news reports, to provide for his family and move up to something more.
He wanted to become a police officer.
Evan F. Moore is a digital content producer for news with the Chicago Sun-Times.
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