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Black Business Owner Sues D.C. Over Rejected Fireworks Permit, Claims Bias

A longtime African American business owner in D.C. filed a discrimination suit this week against the city after it rejected his application to sell fireworks, a decision he said is due to his race.

James Peters III, president of Capitol Works Inc., said he had for decades sold fireworks to vendors legally and without incident — until this year, when his permit application was denied by the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).

“It’s blatant discrimination, plain and simple,” Peters said during a news conference Wednesday at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest. “On April 16, 1862, the first slaves were freed in the District of Columbia. From then until today, people of color have strived to pull themselves up and to become equals in America. D.C. DCRA is setting us back.”

His suit claims bias against minority business interests in favor of a large corporation operating in the city, namely Costco. Peters said DCRA Administrator Vincent Parker, whom he dismissed as a “rank-and-file bureaucrat,” stopped him from selling pyrotechnics this year in an abrupt manner without regard for due process but allows Costco to continue selling the same products.

Peters criticized DCRA’s timing, as the bulk of firework sales are made between the Memorial Day and July 4 holidays.

“The pyrotechnic industry in D.C. has been managed by people of color, retailers and wholesalers,” Peters said. “Many of its consumers are people of color. It is disheartening and disgraceful that today city officials are working to kill this industry to benefit a multibillion-dollar corporation. After decades, this illegal move effectively puts previously approved firework vendors out of business, the majority of whom are African American. That is why we are suing them.”

Peters, through his attorney Johnny Barnes, filed the lawsuit Tuesday with the D.C. Superior Court’s Civil Division. The suit names Mayor Muriel Bowser and Parker as defendants, with a copy of the suit sent to D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine.

A DCRA spokesperson directed a request for comment to the mayor’s office. Susana Castillo, press secretary for Bowser, said at a Thursday press briefing that the mayor would review the permits process, but would not comment further since the litigation was pending.

Barnes defended his client by citing the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the Trump administration couldn’t terminate a program to help undocumented immigrant children without “a reasoned explanation for its action.”

“If the DCRA and Mr. Parker read the [Supreme Court] decision, they would not have stopped Mr. Peters from conducting his business,” he said.

Barnes said he requested the Superior Court move swiftly to hear Peters’ concerns but conceded it may take longer than usual with the city still in a state of emergency amid the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, he hopes for a timely response “so that Mr. Peters can get to work.”

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