Two black men who say they were racially profiled and ordered to leave an LA Fitness gym in Secaucus, New Jersey, earlier this month say they were humiliated when staff called police on them twice while they were working out.
Rachid Maiga, 27, and Tshyrad Oates, 25, are breaking their silence about the April 15 confrontation, which went viral on social media, in an exclusive interview with the News 4 New York I-Team.
Maiga, a semi-pro basketball player, had been a club member for eight years, paying a premium for the Signature location and regularly driving out of his way to go to the gym for its prized basketball court. On that day, he was swiped in with no issues, and he waited for Oates, an account executive, who checked in separately with a four-day guest pass, he said.
The two said they had been playing basketball for several minutes when the staffer who’d checked in Oates confronted them.
"She's telling me I'm not a member. She's not asking me. She's telling me I'm not a member," said Maiga, the longtime LA Fitness member. "I’m telling her that I AM a member, and she’s like, 'If you guys don’t get out of here, we’re going to call the police.'"
The friends refused to leave. "We have nothing to hide, we did nothing wrong," thought Maiga.
Two Secaucus police officers arrived. Maiga went to his locker to get his membership badge and took it to the front desk to be rescanned. He says he decided to start recording with his cellphone because he knew he would not be given the benefit of the doubt -- that the automatic assumption would be that he was the one who did something wrong.
Oates later posted four videos which went viral on social media, fueled by the uproar over an incident three days before where two black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. Starbucks later apologized and announced all stores would close for bias training on May 29th.
"That first video is when my friend scanned," said Oates. "There should have been no more videos because we proved that we were members. We said, 'We’re going to go work out now,' and went back to working out. That should have been the end of the situation."
It wasn’t. The friends returned to the basketball court to resume working out. Shortly afterward, a male manager came storming onto the basketball court.
The manager told them, "'You guys need to go. You guys need to go, or else you're out of here in handcuffs,'" according to Maiga.
"I'm telling him, 'I'm a member here, you can't just kick me out,' and that's when he tells me, 'Your membership is being terminated," said Maiga.
Again, the men refused to leave. And again, police officers arrive -- this time, there were five of them.
"They were peaceful with us, kind," Oates said of the officers. The officers told them, according to Oates, "'Listen, guys, I know we're here again talking to you guys, can we just pull you guys to the side?'"
Oates said, "At this point, now we're embarrassed, we're feeling harassed, and it's just getting out of hand. We're like, you know what, let's just all have this conversation with management."
Oates and Maiga said they felt like suspects as cops escorted them to the lobby.
"It was humiliating," said Maiga. "We’re sitting there and everyone in the gym is looking at us like, 'What’s going on?'"
When they all got to the front desk and started speaking with the male manager, the manager saw that he was being recorded and became upset, according to Maiga.
"He was like, 'You can't record in here,' and he tried to make that the reason why they were terminating me," said Maiga. "Like, 'Now you definitely have to go because you're recording and breaking rules.'"
"Even police asked him for an explanation, and he had nothing to tell police. None of them, not one of those members had something to tell police," he said.
The two friends left the gym and nursed their shock over the encounter into the next day. Ultimately, Oates decided to post the video.
"I'm not the type of person that likes to put my problems out there," said Maiga. "This has happened to me before, racial profiling. Like, I'm just already ready to bite the bullet. Then my friend put it online and I'm glad he did, because it brought awareness to it."
The video racked up 50,000 views overnight and has seen been since millions of times. The massive response revealed how deeply the encounter resonated with so many people, according to Oates and Maiga.
Jill Greuling, a spokesperson for Fitness International, the parent company for LA Fitness, issued the following statement to News 4:
"For over 30 years, people of all races have been welcome in our clubs. We do ask for a Membership card or ID to gain entry. The front desk staff employee was confused and thought the member was a guest. He explained that he was a member, had checked in earlier, and did not want to retrieve his membership card a second time. The front desk employee who made the request was not working when this member checked in the first time, so she was unaware.
"Regrettably, from there our staff unnecessarily escalated the situation and called the police rather than work through it. Clearly, this is a long time member, with a current, valid membership. We want to clarify that no membership was cancelled and no one, including the member’s guest, was banned from the club. We have spoken to the member to apologize and assure him that he and his guests are welcome in our clubs at all times. I can confirm that the 3 employees most closely associated with this incident are no longer with the company."
Civil rights attorney William Wagstaff III, who represents the two men, said he doesn't think the apology is sincere.
"It was a hollow apology, a PR stunt. If that video had not gone viral, they wouldn't have apologized," he said.
Maiga said a woman at the corporate office of LA Fitness reached out to him to apologize, informing him that the three employees had been fired and offering three months of free membership. But Maiga said he won't be returning to the club.
"I don't feel welcome, no," he said.
After the I-Team's interview with Maiga and Oates aired Wednesday, one of the managers fired by LA Fitness spoke with the I-Team, saying she was "disgusted and appalled."
"We all got fired. Let me tell you, it's humiliating. It's disgusting. And it's appalling," said Alicia Demedici.
"I hope they look at how this has ruined our lives," she said, adding that she's gotten threats since the video went viral.
Demedici said she called police because her front desk employee felt threatened by the men.
"Both gentlemen made a comment to her, when she went on that basketball court, and said, 'We're not leaving. The only way you're getting us out of here is you drag us out by our shirt,'" said Demedici. "She called me in tears and perceived that as a threat."
"This has nothing to do with racial profiling. If those gentlemen were any race, the same procedures would have been followed," she said. "Once my employee gets threatened, the police are to be called."
Asked why the front desk employee felt so threatened, Demedici said, "You know, Sarah, that comes to perception."
Demedici added that if Maiga had stopped recording when he was asked to, the situation "would never have gone this far." She also disputes that Maiga was told he was terminated from the gym, saying they only asked him to leave for the day.
Meanwhile, Maiga and Oates say they hope the conversation sparked by the video, especially around race and unconscious, entrenched bias, will continue in a meaningful and lasting way.
"Racism is there, it's every day," said Oates. "And people try to say it's getting worse. The only difference is it's being recorded now."
"I can't tell you how many times I've had to change my voice or try to act, like, super playful just to throw off the 'threatening' effect," said Maiga. "Black people all over the states, their understanding of the situation is nothing new."
"I'm just tired of it. It happens all the time," he said. "And it's always brushed off like it's not gonna be such a big deal because not everybody understands it."
Oates said, "Why does it keep happening? People are just so nervous to speak about race in America... If he didn't have those videos, we wouldn't even be here today, we wouldn't be talking about it. We would be just black people telling our story, complaining, pretty much, is what people see it as. And we're not complaining. We're here to fight for what's right."
"We have to say something, continue to speak up, not be nervous to have this conversation," he added. "We want people to talk about it until they realize it’s wrong."
"We're two educated young males in America," said Oates. "We just happen to be black."