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Former pub owner claims bar targeted over black patrons

Cannon's Blackthorn in downtown Rockville Centre closed in

Cannon's Blackthorn in downtown Rockville Centre closed in 2018. Credit: Kirsten Luce

A former pub owner is suing the Village of Rockville Centre for allegedly waging a campaign through its police department to shut the venue down because of its predominantly African American clientele.

Lawyers for Steve Fleming, the owner of the shuttered Cannon’s Blackthorn, filed an amended complaint late last month in the federal lawsuit against Rockville Centre, Mayor Francis X. Murray, former village police officer Paul W. Pope Jr. and other unnamed village police officers. The suit alleges violations of Fleming's right to freedom of expression, equal protection and due process under the Constitution's first, fourth and 14th amendments. It is seeking $10 million in monetary damages and other compensation.

The complaint alleges village police in 2016 disproportionately targeted the former bar and restaurant and made disparaging remarks about the racial makeup of the venue's customers and security guards at a meeting and a random police inspection.

"The inspections were made at the direction of Murray, who ordered the Police Department to 'bring the Blackthorn down,' " the amended complaint reads.

Rockville Centre spokeswoman Julie Scully said, "The Village believes this litigation is without merit and will defend it vigorously to seek dismissal at the earliest opportunity." She declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.

Pope's attorney did not respond to a request for comment. Murray said Pope has retired from his position in the village. Fleming is represented by Peter J. Famighetti, a Melville-based attorney.

Cannon's Blackthorn opened at its downtown location on North Village Avenue in 1996, according to the complaint.

In 2016, the Blackthorn saw an increase in black customers and the village allegedly conducted a series of inspections at the venue. A police officer allegedly told Fleming that African American gangs from Far Rockaway had "infiltrated" the pub. During a subsequent inspection, Pope allegedly said to Fleming, "What are you running, a hip-hop club? It is getting very dark in here."

Fleming asked, "What do you mean? Black?"

Pope allegedly replied, "Let's just call them undesirables." Later, he allegedly said, "You have an element here we don't want. Get rid of it or they'll get rid of you."

Census data show 79.4% of Rockville Centre residents are white.

Later that year, after two fights broke out days apart in and outside the Blackthorn, Pope allegedly said to Fleming, "I'm writing you a lot of tickets, and this is coming all the way from the top, and the Mayor."

The village then issued nearly 40 violations against the Blackthorn, the complaint reads. The New York State Liquor Authority followed with its own Alcoholic Beverage Control Law and "disorderly premise" violations and suspended the venue's liquor license.

Fleming fought the suspension in New York State Supreme Court, which reinstated it. But it placed restrictions on the pub's operations, including a curfew and a prohibition on live music and DJs, which made it difficult for the pub to stay open, according to the complaint.

The Blackthorn closed in 2018.

The lawsuit states fights have taken place at other similar Rockville Centre businesses, but they allegedly did not have as many African American customers or security guards and have faced less scrutiny from the village.