The party was over for 29-year-old Murat F. before it even began. "Not tonight," he heard the bouncer of Agostea, a large-scale nightclub in Hanover, say one evening in January 2012. Murat's shirt was white, his leather shoes a shiny black. He had no smell of booze, no drugs and absolutely no idea why he wasn't allowed to go inside and party.
It wasn't the first time Murat was turned away from the door at a club. Sometimes the rejection was blamed on his tennis shoes, he says, and sometimes it was because club was supposedly too full. This time the bouncer gave him a surprisingly blatant explanation. "The boss doesn't want foreigners to come in," he allegedly said.
Murat is German, with Kurdish parents. He resonded to the confrontation at Agostea, which touts its "neo-Baroque, Harry Potter style" on its website, with a lawsuit.
Four weeks ago, the Hanover District Court awarded the student €1,000 ($1,325) in compensation. Judge Birgit Passoke found that the club's rejection of Murat at the door violated the General Equal Treatment Law of 2006, which prohibits discrimination based on a number of factors including ethnic origin, religion and sexual orientation. She wrote in her decision that the evidence proved that "while the plaintiff was refused entry to the nightclub, guests without a recognizable immigrant background were able to enter."
A Wave of Pending Lawsuits
What's noteworthy about the decision in Hanover is the relatively high amount of the compensation money. If bouncers at Agostea were to turn Murat away in the future, the clubs owners could face a fine of up to €250,000. Anti-discrimination organizations hope the decision, and others like it, will act as a deterrent. The club owners, for their part, say such cases threaten their valuable business principle: A tough door policy promises the guests exclusivity. The right mixture of clientele is seen as the key to a nighclub's success.
Lawsuits like that of Murat F. could open up doors in cities across Germany to the point that the dance clubs really do fill up. Court proceedings dealing with potentially racist door policies are currently pending in Leipzig, Hamburg, Heilbronn and Bamberg. In Munich, one man from Burkina Faso is seeking to sue 10 nightclubs at once. Over two nights in April, the man went with friends from the Munich Foreigners' Advisory Council to 25 different nightclubs to test their door policies. Only five of the clubs granted access to the group members with dark skin, while the white-looking members were let in much more often.
Even back in late 2011, the Higher Regional Court of Stuttgart awarded €900 to a plaintiff because the evidence showed "males were at least occasionally denied access to the nightclub because of their dark skin color." The case didn't even include indications that the bouncers had mentioned skin color as part of their door policy.
Nightclub owners are quick to give the public appearance of tolerance. "We particularly welcome all guests over 25," the Agostea website says. Yet as soon as there's an accusation of racist discrimination, the club owners have the burden of prooving skin color was not a factor in their door policies. Matthias Doehring, lawyer for Agostea, says that is nearly impossible. He said footage from video cameras could prove that guests of all ethnic backgrounds are treated equally, but that such footage is not always admissable in court because of data protection laws.
Doehring wants to appeal the case. He recommends that club owners have their staff copy the IDs of guests, in order to prove in "black and white" that darker-skinned visitors are also allowed inside. But club owners often dismiss the idea as too expensive.
"The door policy is a balancing act between marketing tactics, the selection of guests, and the boundaries that the law limits this selection to," says Sandra Warden, chief executive of the German Hotel and Restaurant Association. Lawsuits are "isolated cases," she says.
And discrimination lawsuits are not limited to those based on foreign descent. A lawyer sued a Munich nighclub in 2010 for denying him entry because, as the bouncer told him, there were already enough men inside. The case was settled out of court.
In the United States or the United Kingdom, plaintiffs in discrimination cases have been awarded upwards of five figures in compensation. In Germany they're often labelled troublemakers. Murat F. has since become more of a homebody. After repeatedly being rejected at the doors of nightclubs, he says he just doesn't feel like going out at all anymore. The feeling "of being the other, and forever staying the other" is painful, he says.
The city of Hanover has since taken up the issue of discriminatory door policies, holding arbitration meetings, round-table discussions with the mayor, calls for self-policing by club owners and a public service campaign called "Hanover Open."
There has been at least one effect on nightclub owners and bouncers, according to Hanover's city anti-discrimination commissioner Günter Max Behrendt: No one dares say something like, "No foreigners tonight."