Clyde Pemberton, the owner of the restaurant, MIST Harlem, who was punched in the chest by a customer and then wrongfully arrested after employees called 911. Photo by Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times.


A Trinidad and Tobago national who owns a restaurant in Harlem, New York was  arrested June last year after he tried to assist a white female patron who was unconscious and being dragged by two other white females.

Last week the man and two of his employees, who were also arrested filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department for false arrest and violation of their civil rights, claiming that they were arrested simply because they were black.

According to a New York Times article, on June 1, 2017, Dr Clyde Pemberton, a retired psychiatrist, was holding a business meeting at his restaurant when he saw two women leaving the bathroom, dragging a third woman who was visibly unconscious across the room at 10:30 p.m., the complaint states. The women, who were all white, knocked over a stanchion of a rope blocking off a section of the restaurant to customers.

When Pemberton, now 68, walked over to the women to ask what was wrong and suggested the unconscious woman be placed in a chair, one woman punched him in the chest and referred to him with a racial slur, according to the complaint.

A second woman struck Pemberton’s employee, Christian Baptiste, in the head with her purse, according to the lawsuit. Employees called 911 as the women continued to yell, push and kick employees, the lawsuit states.

But, shortly after the arrival of the police officers, who were all white, including some from the 28th precinct, a police supervisor spoke with only one of the women before ordering his officers to arrest Pemberton, Baptiste, 42, and another employee, Thomas Debnam. They were charged with unlawful imprisonment. The charges against the men were dismissed in November.

One of the arresting officers, Anthony Sengco, wrote in his criminal complaint that he observed Pemberton, Baptiste and Debnam blocking the exit to the restaurant, and that the men had stated to him that they were trying to prevent the women from leaving. The men deny that they made any such statements to Sengco or that they were trying to prevent the women from leaving.

New York Times investigation earlier this year found that “testilying,” the practice of testifying or providing statements that are untrue is a stubborn issue within the police department.

Pemberton said he explained that he was the owner of the restaurant and a physician, but that officers never asked him what had happened, and that their supervisor had been hostile, according to the lawsuit.

After spending six hours in custody, the men were given a desk appearance and released, according to the lawsuit.

Pemberton, the lawsuit states, was arrested “for being a conscientious business owner while black,” a reference to the growing list of activities — such as driving while black — that can place someone at risk of being stopped, questioned or arrested by the police.

The men “did nothing wrong, and no reasonable police officer would have believed they did anything wrong,” the lawsuit states. “The NYPD arrested Pemberton, Baptiste, and Debnam not because of their conduct, but because they were there and they are black. Neither their side of the story nor their freedom mattered to the police.”

One of the women was also arrested, according to the lawsuit. She was charged with assault with intent to cause physical injury and other offenses.

“Everything we did was in the right way and approach, and it was overlooked, ignored and disrespected, our rights as human beings,” Debnam, 32 said in an interview. “There’s a flaw in our system.”

The city’s Law Department will “review the case and respond accordingly,” said the agency’s spokesman Nicholas Paolucci.

Elizabeth Saylor, a civil rights attorney representing the men, said that the officer’s statements were not true and that the men never should have been arrested.

“You don’t just arrest everybody on the scene and sort it out later,” Saylor said. “They are privileged black men who have money and the resources to fight this, but despite that it deeply affected them.”

They incurred $15,000 in legal fees to defend themselves.

Pemberton, a green card holder who is a native of Trinidad and Tobago, said he has run into issues while traveling in and out of the country after the arrest and even after the charge was dismissed.

“We thought it was over,” he said, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement continued to stop him in airports.

Pemberton also said that since the arrest, the police have conducted random checks of his establishment, and have increased their presence there, costing him business. And Debnam, who had planned on applying to be a teacher, worries now that because of the arrest that his application would be rejected.

-New York Times/Sept 3,2018.