A Black Lives Matter sign during a demonstration in New Orleans on June 4, 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Instagram posts from the Ace Hotel in New Orleans typically garner fewer than 10 comments each. The company shattered its record, however, with over 900 comments on a June 6 post.

“Damn, y’all asked for it…” one of the top comments said. 

The Ace New Orleans’ post was responding to the mass local and global demonstrations sparked by George Floyd’s death 12 days earlier. Floyd was killed after Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who has since been indicted for murder, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, despite pleas from Floyd and bystanders.

“We are outraged by the continued murder and oppression of Black people and the inhumane police brutality perpetuated by a culture of violent white supremacy,” the company’s post said. “We’ve been quiet as we take a hard look inward to identify racism and inequality within our own house. We commit to making the systemic, long-term changes that we know are critical.”

The Ace’s attempt to show solidarity sparked more outrage than praise, however — a similar backlash that companies across the country have experienced as typical public relations strategies flounder. The comments section was quickly overrun with testimony and criticism from former employees.

“As a former employee I will leave my voice right here as further confirmation of how hypocritical the ACE New Orleans is,” one of the comments said. “Let the turnover rate speak for itself. Many [people of color], LGBTQ and other marginalized folks have come through the doors of your hotel as employees and I can’t think of one that would have anything positive about their experience. Your hotel likes the culture and ambiance that these people bring to the table but you treat them like they are disposable and refuse to defend them in situations that need it.”

The Lens spoke with eight former and current Ace New Orleans employees, received written statements from four more, and has reviewed exit reviews and resignation letters from three of them, as well as a company witness statement from one. The workers accused the company of using the identities of its Black and LGBTQ employees to sell their brand, while standing idle as employees were harassed and held back over those very same identities.

“I had no idea, because they lure you in with this whole progressive, freedom of expression kind of environment,” former employee Darrien Bell, who is Black and worked at the hotel from 2018 to November 2019, told The Lens. “And so I was ecstatic. I felt like, OK, this is finally a place that suits me and I like all the people I’ve met so far.”

The first Ace Hotel was started in Seattle in 1999 and has grown to 11 locations since. The brand is characterized, more than anything, as a hip alternative to other chains like Hilton or Westin. The Ace prides itself on the individuality of each of its hotels, designed to “embrace the cities we’re in by building spaces for collective gathering,” according to the Ace’s website.

“We find out who’s doing cool stuff, become friends with them, and have them help us — that always seems to work, to get to the right space, the right neighborhood, where people want to be. No one else does that,” Ace Hotel Group President Brad Wilson said in a recent interview with InsideHook

The Ace opened a hotel in New Orleans’ Central Business District in 2016. But employees say that the hotel’s celebration of New Orleans and individuality is just empty marketing. 

“They exploit your trust, your identity, your individuality, all to make a buck,” former worker Bryant Thibodeaux told The Lens. Thibodeaux is white and identifies as genderqueer, using they/them pronouns.

Thibodeaux started working for The Ace in 2018. On June 1, Thibodeaux quit as food and beverage manager of Seaworthy, a restaurant and bar attached to the Ace. The Ace also has a second adjacent restaurant, Josephine Estelle, as well as a coffee shop, Stumptown, and a barber shop, The Parker Barber. 

In a resignation email, they cited a lack of support from upper management, lax safety protocols during the coronavirus reopening and no longer feeling the hotel was a safe space for them. 

“They exploit you by putting you in what they consider this safe space for people who are unique and Black and people of color and trans and queer, just so you can be a show for the clientele they’re trying to attract to the hotel,” Thibodeaux said in an interview. “But the clientele they’re trying to attract aren’t the type of people who are working there.”

As hospitality workers, employees who spoke to The Lens said they know how to handle the routine difficult customer, but that the abuse coming from some abrasive or bigoted customers went beyond what they should have to tolerate in order to keep their job. 

“All day you’re giving, giving, getting the life sucked out of you by the guests,” former employee Lizzie Ford, who is Black, and who worked there from 2016 to 2017, told The Lens. “And that’s fine, that’s the job. But in order to do that job you need to have management backing you up to make you feel strong.”

Employees said the company’s “customer is always right” mentality left them navigating these situations with the support of coworkers, but without help or support from upper management. Without clear guidance, protocol or training, they said they felt limited in what they could do when confronted with an aggressive guest without risking their jobs. 

And while there was diversity among the staff even at the executive level, all the employees that spoke with The Lens said they witnessed management being more critical of Black employees, specifically those from New Orleans. They said that better-paid positions were often filled with out-of-town people that were new to the company, instead of long-term employees, who worked in lower-paid positions at the hotel.

“It was pretty obvious a lot of the time when a lot of the managers, how they would talk to people of color differently than those that aren’t. It’s just a common thing,” a former desk manager, who is Black, told The Lens. He asked The Lens to omit his name because he still works for the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. 

The employee, who was born and raised in New Orleans, said he transferred to Los Angeles in part because he didn’t believe he’d move up at the New Orleans hotel. 

“There are plenty of employees, people of color, that have started with Ace at the very beginning, and know their jobs better than their own managers, and even when it comes time to progressing or applying for a higher position, they rarely hire people of color within the company,” the desk manager said. “They always go outside.”

In a June 12 email to employees regarding the recent social media criticism, President Brad Wilson promised to expand a program to increase the “promotion of our employees of color into leadership roles.”

“We have made the diversity of people something we speak about but have failed to make it something we meaningfully foster at every level within our business and with every leader,” the email said.

In a statement to The Lens, Wilson said the company would “fight racial, gender, and LGBTQIA+ based inequity” in the company and “own the much larger and more insidious culture within our hotel ecosystem and the broader hospitality industry.” Company representatives did not respond to specific employee complaints detailed to them by The Lens. 

Five of the Black workers who spoke with The Lens, four of whom are from New Orleans, believe that their identities had an adverse impact on their career development at the Ace. Former Ace New Orleans employee Todd Jackson Jr. believes a manager at the Ace used coded, racist language about the way he dressed and wore his baseball cap when talking about his career development, and believes being Black was an obstacle to moving from houseman, a general sanitation position, to a higher paid bellman job.

“I had [the manager] tell me I had to tone down my appearance if I wanted to be a bellman. Like what does that mean?,” Jackson, who worked at the Ace from 2018 to 2019, said. “It was my understanding that the hotel was supposed to have free-minded employees. I didn’t get that. You had multiple people who came in wearing exactly what they wanted to wear and nothing was said for them.”

Thibodeaux said that upper management would tell middle managers to look out for justifications to fire certain people they wanted to get rid of.

“I was told at the start of shifts straight up employees who they were targeting to be fired,” they said. “Most of these employees were Black people and people of color. So I’m told to watch their actions and what they’re doing so I can report back to them.”

Employees said that for a hotel that prided itself on integrating into the community, it had failed to adequately promote and elevate employees native to New Orleans. 

“I’m from New Orleans and transplants at the Ace were treated better than New Orleans people, that’s a fact,” Ford said. “All these people want to come here for New Orleans culture. They want to come here for our accent, but the Ace wont let us be bartenders. The Ace won’t let us be bartenders, they won’t let us be managers. They just want us to be housekeepers, bellhops, waiters.”

‘Kendall Jenner Pepsi moment’

The Ace isn’t the only New Orleans business who’s response to the Black Live Matter movement has sparked a broader reckoning over the roles that Black people play within the company. 

On Friday, The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate published a report on how the social media backlash against New Orleans eyewear company Krewe helped trigger an employee walkout, the resignation of executive staff and an outpouring of allegations that founder Stirling Barrett was abusive to his mostly women staff. Several Krewe employees who spoke to The Lens echoed the complaints about Barrett’s workplace demeanor.

“He throws tantrums like a child,” one employee who recently left Krewe said in an interview. She asked her name be omitted for fear of retribution from the company. “Slamming his hand down on the desk and saying, ‘This is shit,’ and making you feel really bad about yourself. ‘I know you have it in you, so why are you showing me mediocre work?’ It’s this kind of manipulative type of language that you feel guilty and he’s yelling at you, but then he comes back in an hour and apologizes and tries to give you a high five.”

The company started getting pressure on Instagram over workplace diversity last month after it posted a photo of a Black model in front of the Crescent City Connection, advertising one of its sunglasses. Two days earlier, the company fired the only Black full-time employee working at its headquarters, according to three former employees.

According to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, out of roughly 60 Krewe employees in New Orleans, only three are Black. Two work in retail stores and the only Black employee working in the headquarters is part-time, the paper reported. 

“I don’t think it was very conscious. I don’t think it was ever, ‘We don’t hire black people,’ ” said a former Krewe employee, who is Black. The employee asked that The Lens not publish her name because she had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the company when she left.  

“It is hard to say he’s racist,” she said of Barrett. “But I think the statistics just speak for themselves. A company centered in New Orleans, hiring New Orleanians, but very few of them are black? That’s odd.”

The company ended up responding to the demonstrations on Instagram on the first day of June. The first photo was a black box, and the next three contained a poem written by founder Stirling Barrett: “1 death is too many. 1 voice too suppressed to speak is too much. 1 child too afraid to dream is too numerous.”

“It was a Kendall Jenner Pepsi moment. It was really bad,” former Krewe employeeChloe Dewberry told The Lens, referring to an infamous 2017 Pepsi commercial that critics said appropriated protest and Black Lives Matter imagery. Dewberry, who is Black, worked at Krewe from 2016 to 2017, including as Barrett’s executive assistant.

The Lens interviewed 10 former and current Krewe employees or contractors, who mirrored many of the allegations detailed by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate. The accounts allege worker harassment and abuse, for both Black and non-Black employees, and a lack of diversity in the company.

“It’s a bit of appropriation,” the former employee who signed the nondisclosure agreement said. “You put on the ‘I love Black people’ hat because it’s cool and trendy, and looks New Orleanian, and we have all these jazz bands and second lines at every Krewe event. But behind the scenes, very, very few black people are profiting from this business.”

Krewe’s website has a “celeb-approved” page that promotes photos of national and local celebrities and leaders sporting their products, including Beyonce, Lil Wayne and Trombone Shorty. The company has repeatedly promoted its products with photoshoots of twin brothers Thurman and Terrence Thomas. The Baton Rouge brothers are musicians and founded a charity called Tank Proof to teach underserved kids how to swim.

“We were never compensated money for partnership, modeling, or collaboration,” said a message from Terrence brother’s shared Instagram account. “We were only ever given pairs of glasses. For the last collaboration we did during quarantine, we were promised a pair of frames for the post, but we never received them.” 

The Thomas brothers, who are Black, recently went to Instagram to voice their disappointment in Krewe’s response to the demonstrations, and called on them to publicly announce a plan of action to change.

Many social media users launched similar allegations at Krewe in the comment section of its Black Lives Matter post. But the public airing of grievances on Krewe’s instagram didn’t last long. The company erased all the comments from the Black Lives Matter post, and then disabled new comments on all their instagram altogether. 

The original text for the post said, “We are keeping the conversation going on how we can do more and what we can do next, both internally and externally. We encourage you to keep talking, keep supporting, keep speaking out, and keep being loud about the things that matter.” 

That language was deleted and replaced by an offer from the company to donate 20 percent of Krewe purchases to various organizations. According to their website those organizations include the ACLU and Save the Children. Krewe also set up a Black Lives Matter page on its website, which says that the company “will utilize our platforms to share our communities’ voices.” 

“That’s when we started to notice that they were blocking former Black employees, ones that were and weren’t speaking out,” Dewberry said.

One of those blocked was Christian Davenport, also known as Cubs the Poet, who has been featured in many Krewe advertisements over the past four years. He told The Lens he hadn’t spoken out against the company publicly, and that he was friends with Barrett.

“I do not know why I was blocked.” a statement from Davenport said. “Frankly I was upset because that is a form of silencing and we do not need that. We need to be heard and involved.”

“We all know on an abstract, conceptual level that Krewe has never valued Black New Orleanians, its Black employees or any of its employees,” former Krewe plant curator and barista Caressa Chester, who is Black, told The Lens. “And then the literal silencing of its Black former employees who are trying to speak up. This is no longer abstract. You’re doing everything in your power to use us as props and then try to make us shut up, including former black employees who didn’t say anything.”

On June 4, 22 Krewe employees staged a walkout and signed a letter to Barrett that had a list of 25 demands under the categories of diversity, fair wage, modeling internal culture to mirror external culture, accountability and boundaries. 

“Krewe’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement was cowardly,” it said. “While we are not shocked, we are outraged.”

In response to an inquiry to Krewe, The Lens received an email from Cherie Teamer, owner of Radius Strategy Group, LLC.

“There have not been any walkouts,” Teamer said in an email.

Neither Teamer nor other company representatives responded to follow-up questions. And Barrett did not respond to a phone message from The Lens. 

“Social media is making things visible while they’re literally trying to make us invisible,” Chester said. “It has taken Black women and men who live in New Orleans to put themselves at financial and social risk by using their platforms to push for accountability for this brand. That’s wrong and it’s unnecessary.”

‘An unofficial human resources department’

“I’m talking about the businesses who profit off of Black labor and who are using Black culture to keep those wallets stacked,” Melvin Rogers Stovall III, or @melatmidnight, said in a June 1 Instagram post. “It’s not socially acceptable to be openly racist, just covertly and systematically. Take a good look at the kinds of businesses you support who don’t show up for you when the time is needed to create meaningful change. They only show up when it’s easy to make a quick dollar and profit off the work of activism.”

Stovall is a New Orleans-born chef. His instagram used to be filled with pictures of his culinary creations. But since the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations began, his account pivoted. 

“If any Black folk & non-Black folks would like to anonymously share their stories about your racist and sexist experiences in New Orleans businesses, my DMs are open,” he said in another June 1 post. 

The responses started flooding in, and he’s now compiled testimony from former workers from several New Orleans companies, including the Ace and Krewe.

“I’m more passionate about this than I was cooking, and I love cooking,” Stovall told The Lens. “I do want to keep a platform almost as a checks-and-balances system against workplaces, or a watchdog, or an unofficial human resources department. Because we need it.” 

Nationally, social media has proliferated with accounts dedicated to aggregating and elevating the negative experiences of Black people at specific businesses, schools or organizations.

Students and alumni of schools across the country, for example, have been setting up Instagram accounts for current and former students to submit stories, screenshots and videos outing racism they’ve witnessed at the hands of their teachers or fellow classmates. National and international fashion brands and fast-food chains have been pilloried on Instagram over alleged racism and hypocrisy.

It’s more than just the demonstrations getting workers talking right now. Last month, The Lens wrote about how the coronavirus crisis had created an upswing in local labor organizing by exposing the sharp vulnerability of New Orleans’ working class and giving laid-off and furloughed workers the time and space to process their position in the economy. 

“Because of the pandemic, mostly everyone is at home and there’s no more distractions,” Stovall said. “There’s no sports to distract us, there’s no movies coming out, there’s no entertainment. There’s just straight up, this is our reality. Are we going to try to change it or are we going to wait until we get back to normal?”

And while the coronavirus opened up space for people to reflect on labor practices in this country, the global movement against racism created a sense of urgency to change those systems now. 

“Seeing what happened in Minneapolis is really what inspired me to go through with this,” he said. “Because it’s like, damn, am I gonna have to say this in 10 years? Are we all gonna have to rinse and repeat in a decade? Because I hope not. So it’s a sense of urgency for me. A sense of urgency like there’s never been before.”

A seven-week strike by New Orleans garbage truck hoppers picketing Metro Services Group is illustrating the combination of those two organizing forces. The all-Black group of sanitation workers initiated the strike at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, and their demands included proper personal protective equipment and hazard pay. 

But they took the opportunity to demand resolutions to long-standing issues, including broken equipment that sprays hydraulic fluid on them and their $10.25 an hour wages. They say they deserve a living wage of $15 an hour. In any case, under New Orleans’ Living Wage Ordinance, city contractors are required to pay workers at least $11.19

They have been picketing every day starting at 4 a.m., with signs that say ‘I Am A Man,’ invoking the history of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike, a strike that Martin Luther King Jr. supported and mentioned in his “I’ve Seen The Mountaintop” speech the day before he was assassinated.

‘Since we have something to say, now would be a good time to say it’

Recalling instances where guests crossed the line, every Ace employee The Lens spoke to mentioned the annual debutante ball held at the hotel every year since at least 2017. 

“Overt racism,” Jackson told The Lens. “I have never experienced racism like I did at that damn ball. People really looked at me like I was a slave serving these people.”

In 2017, Ford recalled management refusing to kick out a guest who, she thought, clearly crossed the line. The incident was corroborated by another former employee working that night.

“This white boy took a high top glass, threw it on the ground in front of a Black employee, and said, ‘Boy, you better clean this up,’ “ she said. “We were like, ‘He needs to go.’ But they wouldn’t let us kick him out.”

According to multiple former employees, party guests at the June 2019 ball demanded that the hotel take the LGBTQ pride flags out of the windows of Stumptown Coffee Shop, which is owned by the hotel and attached to the lobby. The hotel took them down, the employees said, noting the flags were put back up for Southern Decadence.

Jackson said he tried to go to management about the comments during the ball in 2018, but that nothing was done. 

“I told one of the event coordinators and she said to just ignore them. Like, what do you mean ignore them? … We work here. We have to be here. They don’t have to be here.”

The managing director of the Ace Hotel New Orleans, Leon Young Sr., admitted that staff were exposed to harassment at the debutante balls in a recent apologetic email to employees, saying that “as a black man that grew up in the 70s and 80s and 90s I’ve witnessed these injustices first hand.”

“Having no experience with these types of events, I did not understand we would be hosting a group of racist individuals who would mistreat our staff, or the scarring that was going to be left with those of you that had to work it and/or be subjected to the fallout,” the email said. “THIS type of event is not who we are and we will no longer subscribe, book, prospect.”

Employees were skeptical about whether the Ace will actually improve working conditions for their employees, saying the company has made similar promises in the past.

“They don’t do enough when we’re reaching out to them and telling them what’s going on. They don’t do enough to fix it,” said a former Ace New Orleans desk manager. “We feel like we have to handle it on our own. We tell them and it’s in one ear and out the other.”

He asked that The Lens not publish his name because of the circumstances under which he eventually left the company

The employee, who worked at the New Orleans hotel from 2016 to 2018, said the company had a responsibility not only to be tolerant itself, but to protect and support its staff against intolerant customers. 

“We work in hospitality and we come across people from all walks of life. I mean, most are good. But then there are some bad ones, the racists and this and that who are going to come at us. And they should know that. So I feel like they should let us know they got our backs.”

Like the other former Ace New Orleans desk manager, the employee, born and raised in New Orleans, moved to Los Angeles at the end of 2018 and transferred to The Ace Hotel located there. But again, he said there was a lack of support from upper management when a guest got abrasive, and began berating the employee over issues checking into the hotel, yelling at him and degrading him for working such a “low” job.

“I’m trying to brush it off, brush it off. I even call hotel security to the front to try to get the man out of there. But they didn’t get up there in time,” said the former employee, who is Black. “The last thing he said before he left, he turned around at me with his finger and said, ‘Come here boy, come here boy.’ Now, that was one of my first times actually experiencing direct racism like that. So I lost my cool. I came up from behind the counter we kind of got in a bucking match and I ended up pushing him. And because of that I was fired.”

A second desk manager, who was unexpectedly called into work that day to replace him, corroborated that story.

“I personally feel like he shouldn’t have gotten fired. A person can only take so much, take so much blatant disrespect. At that point, I felt like, where’s the support of the company?”

The employee who was fired said he knew he shouldn’t have pushed the customer. But he said  that he’s been thinking recently about why all the consequences of the scuffle fell on his head. 

“Ever since the demonstrations came by and people started coming forward with their experiences, it does have me thinking more about it. It had me revisit the whole situation and ask, ‘Am I wrong?’ I started thinking more and more at my time at the Ace and how they handled situations and how a lot of us were being ignored. Right now I feel like we have a voice. If this came up a month ago I feel like it would have fallen on deaf ears. But right now, we all have a voice. So since we have something to say, now would be a good time to say it.” 

Along with former and current workers from the Ace hotels in Los Angeles and New Orleans, workers from the Ace in Chicago and New York are compiling similar workplace problems in a google document.

“This document will serve as an account of the type of misconduct that will not be tolerated or accepted any longer,” the google document says. “It is designed with the intention of being presented to management in order to protect current employees’ well being. Upcoming demands will be made after reviewing the accounts provided.”

‘I don’t think they should make the movement about themselves’

Unlike Krewe, the Ace Hotel hasn’t erased comments or shut down conversation on their social media post. In responses to the comments, the Ace has been consistently apologetic. In general, the company, at least publicly, is not denying the allegations and has freely admitted to some of the failures it is accused of.

”Though our Instagram post last week was genuine, it was evident by the feedback we received that Ace Hotels has failed our valued team members for far too long in far too many instances,”  Wilson said in an email to employees. “Although I was aware of what I perceived to be isolated incidents at some of our locations, it is abundantly clear that these incidents are actually a reflection of a much larger and more insidious culture within our hotel ecosystem that is not welcoming to every community — particularly the Black community,”

Nationally and locally, however, companies are finding less success ingratiating themselves with the current movement than during prior periods of social awakening, such as the #MeToo movement. 

“They want to join in because that’s always been the culture. Like ‘Me Too? Oh what can I do to help?’” Stovall said. “But it’s really just because of what business has taught you about controversy. …  It’s damage control for people who make mistakes and want us to forgive them from the jump. And that’s not how this process goes.”

Dewberry said that she thinks people are more wary now, aware that brands have used past movements to advertise and profit without taking real steps to help.

“There’s definitely been a shift,” Dewberry said. “And I think it’s because for years, these companies have come out and said #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe, and nothing has changed from the inside or from the outside view. And now people are more aware. And we’re tired of it. We’re holding these companies and brands accountable to changes you should have made years ago. Where’s the proof that you are going to actively make these changes. And where’s the proof that inclusivity and diversity trainings are working for you guys? Cearly it hasn’t been.”

Stovall has been openly critical of companies reaching out to him to “come to the table” or make amends, saying that most statements are clearly crafted by public relations teams with the primary mission of reducing negative exposure, rather than effecting change.

“I don’t think it’s the time for that. I don’t think it’s the time for me to care what they think. I don’t think they should make the movement about themselves, because that’s exactly what they’re doing. It’s time for them to shut up and let us speak, basically, unfiltered.”

Some commenters on social media have expressed misgivings about a platform that publishes complaints against businesses and business owners without giving them a chance to respond. In a message that Stovall posted a screenshot of, one man called Stovall’s efforts “wrong, hateful, and disgusting.”

Stovall, however, argues that the space isn’t primarily about coming together with businesses to find solutions. At least not yet, noting that it was a “constantly evolving project.” He said for now, the space was important to make the collective experience of Black and non-back workers more visible, as well as validate those workplace injustices that workers have witnessed for years. 

“It’s almost like going to a therapist,” he said. “You don’t go to a therapist for them to tell you what to do. You go to a therapist for them to get you to tell yourself what to do. Because it’s like, I already knew that it just took me a while to get to self awareness. So I’m doing the same thing with workers or even just people in their position in society.”

“It’s deeper than people realize. That’s why I never shame anyone for just finding out now, like ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know.’ Well, now you do. So only you are prepared to take that journey if you want it. It’s a journey of unlearning and relearning.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...