Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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Stereotypes stop Pacific Islanders at the bar door

DENIED ENTRY: Pae Uti was with his wife, Lotu, when he was denied entry to the Asia Garden bar to celebrate his birthday because he's Pacific Islander. (BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News)DENIED ENTRY: Pae Uti was with his wife, Lotu, when he was denied entry to the Asia Garden bar to celebrate his birthday because he's Pacific Islander. (BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News)

A couple of Friday nights ago, Pae Uti and his wife, Lotu, went to Asia Garden Restaurant to meet friends for a karaoke birthday party. But when they got to the door, they say the owner, Fei Harding, told them Pacific Islanders would not be admitted.

Mainly she meant Pae, they told me. He's an imposing guy, a city maintenance worker who stands just under 6 feet and weighs close to 300 pounds. He's Samoan, born and raised in Hawaii.

There had been trouble previously, they said Harding told them, a stabbing involving Islanders. All Islanders looked the same to her, she explained. She couldn't tell them apart. So none would be allowed in.

"We even tried to plead with her. It wasn't us, it wasn't me, you know, that was there," Pae Uti told me last week. "I did not even know there was a stabbing there."

It happened that Corinna Delgado, a radio personality on MOViN' 104.9, was part of the group showing up for the birthday party. Also present were members of Uti's church. Delgado says she witnessed some of what happened. A few days later she wrote about it on her blog and talked about it on the air. Soon, three television stations made their way to Asia Garden for an explanation.

Harding's side of story shifted over the course of the day. In the morning, she told a reporter from Channel 13 that the Utis' version was basically true. I interviewed her a few hours later, and she denied banning Islanders. By the time she talked to Channel 2, she was calling the whole thing a miscommunication.

Uti and his wife say they filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission on Tuesday. Outside of that, there wasn't much community outrage. But since the incident, there has been a lot of discussion in the Samoan community. It appears that what happened to Uti isn't an isolated event.

"A lot of people came out and told me, 'That happened to me too,' " Pae Uti told me.

I've heard the same thing. Stories came mostly from Islander men about treatment at bars including Asia Garden. No business can legally deny service to a patron based on race, though a business can deny people for other reasons. But it seemed that none of the people who wrote me reported what happened. They weren't even sure it was illegal. Most just kept it to themselves.

Payton Augafa, 31, a UAA student, told me he had a similar experience at a different bar. He said he was also told that Islanders had caused problems before.

"It was a pretty horrible feeling to have to walk away knowing you were lumped in with someone else," he said.

Jessie Talivaa, 29, a graphic designer, told me he'd been denied at other bars as well as Asia Garden. He said he has never been in a fight.

"I get really upset about it. I know there's fights at bars. But if a black person gets into a fight at a bar, are you going to ban all the black people?"

The answer to that is probably no. Alaska has one of the largest Pacific Islander communities, percentage-wise, in the United States. We rank third behind Hawaii and Utah. The community in Anchorage has many strong but separate churches and several community organizations, but no equivalent of the NAACP.

Mao Tosi, a young Samoan community leader who works with youth, said his Facebook page lit up with comments after the incident. People agreed that discrimination is wrong, but they were also concerned about what's underneath it.

"That sucks about the discrimination piece, but it also sucks we're seen in such a bad light," Tosi said.

Are there hard truths at the root of the stereotype? Tosi said the answer is difficult to get at. Too often Islanders wind up getting press attention for being involved in violent crimes, he said. There are cultural and economic aspects to that, he said. On average, the community is one of the least educated and lowest income in the city. School drop-out rates and representation in the criminal justice system are also disproportionately high.

And, Islander culture can be physical. That can mean athleticism. And it can mean violence. Even in families. What children experience at home, and what they see their older siblings doing on the streets perpetuates that.

"We are warriors. We are proud. We don't back down. Coming to America, and being part of a American culture, it's a conflict," he said.

In school, young Islander men are encouraged to use their physicality, to be athletes, to play football. After school they are encouraged to go into physical professions, to join the military, become laborers or to do security work. Tosi said he wished there was equal encouragement for them to use their minds and to pursue education.

"I don't know of any teachers or doctors or lawyers that are Samoan, there's probably one, but I don't know," he said. "Everyone I grew up around were athletes, but the majority of them were in the streets, gang stuff, drugs, all that."

He said he wished the Islander community in Anchorage had way to get together and solve problems.

Tosi's brother, Lau, used to be a bouncer. Lau told me he could understand why a big group of islanders might get the attention of the person at the door.

"When I used to be a bouncer, I tended to watch the bigger people. It would take one punch and they could hurt a person really quick," he said.

But if someone is violent, the bar can take their picture and know not to let them in. They don't need to discriminate.

I couldn't help thinking about the attitudes that fuel discrimination at the door of some local bars. Were they filtering into workplaces? Were they filtering into schools? What does it do to Islanders to live in a place where people assume, just by looking at them, that they are going to be violent? And why, after what appears to be obvious racial discrimination at the door of Asia Garden, aren't more people upset?

Here is the story of what happened at Asia Garden, told by Pae Uti, his wife Lotu Uti and their friend, Amanda Soliai:

Here's what the bar owner, Fei Harding, had to say in response:

Read reader discussion about these videos in this blog post from last week.

Mao Tosi has organized an event, the Polynesian Pride Dance Competition, he hopes will promote unity. It will be held Saturday, April 24, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Northway Mall. The admission is free. The winner will take home $500.

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