GREENVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- A dispute about seating led to the removal of a prominent social activist from a Greenville movie theater.
The incident happened Tuesday afternoon when Bishop William J. Barber II, former chair of the North Carolina NAACP, went to the AMC Fire Tower 12 theater in Greenville to see "The Color Purple." His 90-year-old mother was with him.
Barber uses two canes and has difficulty walking and sitting in certain chairs because of a form of arthritis known as ankylosing spondylitis, which causes inflammation in the joints and ligaments of the spine. He usually takes his own chair, which resembles a bar stool with a back, to public events.
That's what he did Tuesday, setting it up in the theatre's section designated for people with disabilities, but he claims he was told that was not allowed.
Eventually, conversations between Barber and a theatre staffer escalated, and Greenville police were called.
Police responded about 3:20 p.m. after they were told that "a customer was arguing with employees, and they wished to have them removed from the business."
A police supervisor went to the theater and spoke with everyone and Barber "agreed to leave the theater voluntarily," police said.
Barber was already outside when a second police supervisor arrived and the conflict was "resolved without incident."
No charges were filed.
In a video, Barber appeared to say staffers told him the positioning of his chair was a fire hazard.
In a statement, he wrote in part:
"This is about how people with disabilities regardless of race, color, creed or sexual orientation should be treated fairly. With all the issues and real battles going on in the world, for managers of a theater to decide they can't accommodate you and would rather remove you from a theater is absurd, which is why I prayed for them."
In a statement, AMC apologized to Barber for the handling of the incident.
"We sincerely apologize to Bishop Barber for how he was treated, and for the frustration and inconvenience brought to him, his family, and his guests. AMC's Chairman and CEO Adam Aron has already telephoned him and plans to meet with him in person in Greenville, NC, next week to discuss both this situation and the good works Bishop Barber is engaged in throughout the years.
"AMC welcomes guests with disabilities. We have a number of accommodations in place at our theatres at all times, and our theatre teams work hard to accommodate guests who have needs that fall outside of the normal course of business. We encourage guests who require special seating to speak with a manager in advance to see what can best be accommodated at the theater to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for the guest and those around them. We are also reviewing our policies with our theater teams to help ensure that situations like this do not occur again."
"The Americans with Disabilities Act governs places like movie theatres, restaurants, and requires that if there's a policy in place, a movie theatre for example, has to make a reasonable modification for people with disabilities," said Katherine Macfarlane, who is the Director of Disability Law and Policy Program at Syracuse University College of Law. "That requires an individualized assessment on a case-by-case basis of how any kind of policies or perhaps even the physical structure of a movie theatre has to be adapted to allow a person like this gentleman the ability to sit and enjoy a movie in peace without experiencing pain. If there's a provided form of seating that hurts him, then that's not an acceptable modification to offer,"
Katharine said a person does not need to call ahead for an accommodation.
"What the law envisions is not just letting people in the door, it's allowing people to have the same quality of life, the same ability to experience joy as everyone else," Macfarlane said."
She has rheumatoid arthritis, a condition which like Barber's, can make sitting in certain seating painful.
"There are certain accommodations that are designed for people who use wheelchairs that even though I have a mobility impairment just don't work for me. I'm frequently having to ask for a stool to sit on that allows my knees to hang at a 90-degree angle, so I know exactly what this gentleman is going through," said Macfarlane.
Barber said he planned to hold a news conference on Friday in Greenville. In a statement from Repairers of the Breach -- Barber's social movement group -- Barber agreed to meet with AMC's Aron next week and was hopeful it would "lead to just and good things for those with disabilities."