A chanting, sign-waving, megaphone-wielding crowd of hospitality workers and their supporters staged a march that converged on Frenchmen Street restaurant and nightclub Bamboula's Feb. 23, in protest of what they say was the sexual harassment of one of the group's members.
Holding signs that said "We demand real change; John Besh just retired early" and "Sexual harassment should not be 'just a part' of my waitress job" and "Expect resistance," a raucous group of about 50 people eventually lined up on either side of the doorway of Bamboula's, surrounding the restaurant. While a security guard looked on and uniformed New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers barred the door, a former Bamboula's employee alleging sexual harassment at her prior workplace took up a megaphone and addressed the crowd.
"This place told me I didn't matter. ... This place told me my body isn't mine," the woman, who asked to be identified by her first name, Julianna, said. "I am here not just for myself, but for every single woman in the service industry in New Orleans; no more!"
Demonstrators line up in front of Bamboula's.
In an interview, Julianna described her experience working as a server at Bamboula's last year, saying she had been slapped and inappropriately touched by a member of management there. She said her complaints were brushed off, and that the perpetrating manager was reinstated to his position after initially being disciplined.
"When he did these things, it just made me feel like my value was down to nothing. ... My body was not my property. I felt completely degraded and devalued," she said.
Reached by phone, a member of the Bamboula's management team said she had been instructed not to provide comment by her own supervisors, who were "not ready to give a statement." (They didn't return a message by press time.)
However, as the demonstrators prepared to disperse, someone inside Bamboula's held a sign to the window saying "Go home Juju and put on some underwear." A few minutes later, someone opened what appeared to be the side entrance gate to Bamboula's and shouted at the crowd, "She used to show her p—y to every worker in the f—king place."
Julianna said she had tried to pursue legal action against her manager, but when she was subsequently fired she approached worker advocacy group New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee (NOHWC) to see if they would organize a demonstration on her behalf. Tonight's resulting protest, centered around Julianna's story and culminating in the confrontation at Bamboula's, began with a march from Congo Square through the French Quarter to decry sexual harassment in the restaurant and hospitality industry.
Especially during the past year, the industry has been racked with scandal
as countless workers have come forward to accuse powerful chefs and restaurateurs (John Besh
, Mario Batali
) of sexual harassment and to condemn the anything-goes atmosphere once thought of as just a fact of life in kitchens. Locally, both NOHWC and another industry group called Medusa have moved to organize New Orleans hospitality workers against harassment.
Chanting "worker's rights are women's rights" and "the workers, united, will never be defeated," NOHWC members plus members of New Orleans Workers Group, Louisiana Socialist Network, The People's Assembly, other hospitality workers and allies marched from Congo Square down Toulouse Street to Decatur Street, interrupting the flow of Friday-night traffic. The march continued down North Peters Street and turned down Esplanade to Frenchmen Street, eventually rallying before the restaurant.
Upon arrival, a few organizers entered Bamboula's to present a list of demands, including the termination of two members of management, the posting of anti-harassment rules and regulations and "to no longer foster a culture of sexual or racist harassment." Outside, the larger group chanted, cheered and generally caused a ruckus, effectively closing off the venue's entrance for a short time.
NOHWC organizers said they feel direct actions, such as tonight's confrontation, can help time- and cash-strapped workers seek recourse outside of a legal system some see as burdensome and ineffective at addressing the realities of sexual harassment.
"We have not seen anything when people have gone through the legal system to try to fix this," NOHWC organizer Meg Maloney said. "I'm a big fan of public shaming. ... Other restaurants and hotels are paying attention to this."
"I don't know what other language they understand," Gavrielle Gemma, a New Orleans Workers Group organizer who attended tonight's demonstration, added.
After the demonstration, organizers agreed that their demands had not been met. They vowed continued action against this restaurant and any workplace they see as looking the other way when employees come forward about sexual harassment.
"We just want to make it known that this is not allowed in our industry anymore. ... It's about trying to gain a change," Julianna said. "The point is to hold people accountable. ... We'll come back."