Essence Court Order Shuts Down Event for Black Authors

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A New Orleans bookstore’s event to promote Black authors was abruptly shut down after the Essence Festival of Culture alleged it violated a new city law against competition in some of the city’s tourist-heavy areas.

Lawyers representing the festival issued a cease-and-desist letter Thursday to Baldwin & Co., a Black-owned coffee and bookstore business, and the author event organizers, Lit Diaries LLC, saying it used its trademark to mislead customers.

Store owner Dernell “DJ” Johnson called the temporary restraining order demanding the scheduled Friday event closure ironic and troubling.

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“Such actions are not only unjust but also tarnish the reputation of Essence and raise questions about its commitment to supporting the Black community as a whole,” Johnson said.

Friday morning a Baldwin & Co. post on Instagram announced “All Lit-House Events happening on June 30th” at the bookstore were canceled. The festival said they used the Essence name illegally and violated New Orleans’ “clean zone” law. Civil District Judge Richard Perque signed the restraining order, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported.

Clean Zones are areas around Essence festival events where other events and vendors are banned unless permitted through the city. The clean zone measure says from June 26 at 6 a.m. until Monday at midnight, no one except those approved by City Hall and Essence may advertise or sell merchandise associated with the festival in an area that includes the Caesars Superdome, the Central Business District, Warehouse District, French Quarter and parts of Faubourg Marigny, the 7th Ward and Treme. The law also forbids other outdoor events and festivals in the area during that time period.

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Johnson, whose store falls within the protected zone, called such designations unconstitutional.

“Essence and the city of New Orleans should not be engaged in shutting down local businesses and protected constitutional expression in our community and should cease targeting Baldwin & Co., a local business that contributes to the true essence of Black excellence,” he said.

City Council President JP Morrell, in a statement Friday, said his office was looking into “how this occurred and how to prevent it from ever happening again.”

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“It is completely inappropriate for any large-scale event visiting the city of New Orleans to negatively impact our local businesses with something akin to a non-compete clause. It’s especially concerning that the canceled event was organized by a Black-owned business and would have showcased Black female authors on a weekend that is supposed to be dedicated to Black culture,” Morrell said.

He said it was never the intent of the council for any ordinance, much less the clean zone ordinance, to impact private businesses hosting private events that happened to coincide with the timing of the Essence festival.

However, the festival stands by its actions, calling the store event and ones like it “unfair competition and infringement.”

“Essence has suffered and will continue to suffer irreparable harm as a result of continued publications unlawfully utilizing its name and trademarks,” its lawsuit reads.

James Williams, an attorney representing Essence, told WWL-TV that while clean zones play a role in the cease-and-desist order his client’s concerns are bigger than that.

“This event by this particular promoter at this bookstore falsely advertised to the public that they were an official Essence festival event,” Williams said. “They falsely advertised that they were partnering with Essence to put this event on.”

According to Williams, Essence was made aware of the event when they tried to book authors for Essence programming who thought they were already participating.

“What’s much much worse is that the promoter in this case, Lit Diaries, … were charging authors to be a part of this event. Essence festival doesn’t stand for that,” he said.

Essence filed a similar lawsuit a week ago against the music streaming service Spotify and New Orleans real estate developer Sean Cummings for allegedly violating the 2022 clean zone law during last year’s festival. That suit says the defendants improperly used the Essence name in what Williams called “yet another example of the historic, intentional exploitation of Black culture, Black (intellectual property) Black creators, Black businesses and Black equity.”

A lawyer representing Baldwin & Co. told the television station they plan to file pleadings in the case next week.

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