PROVIDENCE – The problems at the Silhouettes strip club on Allens Avenue that led to a newly filed federal lawsuit began just two days after it opened its doors in March 2021, the people who ran the place say.
Providence police detectives went to the club on March 6 to see whether it was following COVID-19 rules. The club was allowed to have up to 140 people inside, and just 88 people were there, but the detectives told the police detail on scene not to let anyone else in, according to management. Manager Shay DiPina later reached out to a high-ranking police officer to talk about what happened. By the next morning, he alleges, the police department was buzzing: DiPina was a “bad guy” and they were going to get him.
The events of the next year and a half would lead to the closure of the club, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday. The suit alleges that the city’s treatment of Silhouettes, a place managed by and catering to the African-American community, amounted to discrimination.
“This is about African Americans finally having a safe haven that caters to them in the city of Providence,” DiPina, one of the plaintiffs, said in an interview. “The city of Providence and their police officers and license board did everything in their power, with endless tactics and techniques, to intimate, harass and violate the civil rights of African Americans that came to patronize Silhouettes.”
According to the lawsuit, the club documented more than 30 instances when police would station marked cars on their private property; take pictures and video inside with flashlights; or illegally stop and frisk people in the parking lot just for walking to or from the business. Police would pull over cars coming in and out of the parking lot for no reason except that they were leaving Silhouettes, the suit alleges. The conduct, the suit says, amounted to racial profiling of Silhouettes’ customers. They’d do it at peak business hours, scaring customers away and damaging the business, the suit says.
DiPina said the club never had issues with patrons, despite this enforcement focus — in fact, the club at some points tried to get the city police department to provide police details at the entrance, but the police refused, citing staffing concerns, the suit says.
When a rapper named Rowdy Rebel was going to perform there in May of 2022, the club was summoned to the city’s liquor board to respond to anonymous complaints that it didn’t have an entertainment license. DiPina tried to get one, but was denied, even though other clubs had hosted performances without licenses, he alleged.
When Rowdy Rebel showed up at the club – he wasn’t barred from just coming to hang out there – police arrived within 15 minutes and forced the club to shut down for the night, the suit says. Around that time, an officer came to the club to shut them down for having their house DJ, Pretty Lou, at the club. But the club didn’t need a license for Pretty Lou to perform, and he wasn’t even there that evening anyway, the suit says.
Silhouettes says the disparate treatment and intentional interference with the business was so pervasive that the club had to close. No other club in the city faced that sort of treatment, the club says. In an interview, DiPina said it became known in the African-American community not to go to Silhouettes because of police stops.
“It got to a point where it was in our best interest to take this fight to a different forum, that being federal court,” DiPina said. “The racial profiling rose to a level where we felt it was not fair to our patrons to continue to put them through that.”
The damages, the club says, are in excess of $10 million.
The club, at the corner of Allens Avenue and O’Connell Street, has had different names, management, and ownership structures in the past, and weathered a number of controversies along the way. As the Wild Zebra, the club sued in federal court to get its business licenses back after the city tried to shut it down over prostitution and drug allegations. As Cheaters, it was closed in the wake of underage strippers and a sex-trafficking investigation.
A spokesperson for the city declined to comment, citing its policy against commenting on pending litigation.
The suit was filed by Miami Employment Inc., a corporate entity that operated some aspects of Silhouettes; The Pink Building Inc., its landlord; Steven Medeiros, who owns Silhouettes’ corporate entity; and DiPina, Silhouettes’ manager. They are suing the city of Providence, the city police department, and the city liquor board.
The suit claims that the city’s alleged targeted enforcement against Silhouettes violated the Rhode Island and U.S. constitutions, including their First Amendment and due process rights. The suit also says the city violated the state constitution by selectively enforcing local licensing ordinances.
“This is not about a nightclub,” DiPina said. “This is about, in today’s times, everyone being treated fairly. And everyone being treated equally.”