Pelted!

When an animal rights activist came up against Neiman Marcus, she had more than some dead fur to contend with

It was a disappointment, as far as protests go. Animal rights activist Lydia Nichols had sent out a press release promising a "major disruption that could get confrontational" outside the downtown Neiman Marcus on September 27, 1997. But the media didn't show up, and neither did the protesters--save for her, her boyfriend, and two other anti-fur activists. So much for spoiling Neiman Marcus' 90th anniversary celebration, when the luxury retailer, buoyed by the comeback of fur in the fashion world, was promoting "90 furs for 90 years."

Undaunted by the turnout, the small group passed out leaflets bearing the photo of a wet, puppy-faced fox, and the message, "Neiman Marcus doesn't want you to know that animals are gassed, anally electrocuted and even have their necks broken so they can fill their stores with fur-trimmed coats."

At 28, Nichols, standing only 5 feet 4 inches and looking gaunt at 115 pounds, handed out flyers to Neiman's Saturday shoppers, most of whom politely accepted but otherwise paid scant attention to the piece of paper. Monitoring the situation for Neiman's was its head of security--Rodney Lewis, a well-coifed man in plainclothes who weighed in at a hefty 230 pounds. As he sat in a chair observing the spectacle, he occasionally chitchatted with Nichols, seemingly friendly and at times even curious about her devout vegetarianism.

J.P. Goodwin, Nichols' boyfriend, stood nearby but kept his distance. A lanky 25-year-old with a crewcut, Goodwin first encountered security chief Lewis while leafleting Neiman's at a demonstration a few weeks earlier. At the time, Goodwin had waxed bombastic about owning the sidewalk with his tax dollars and how his forefathers had died for his First Amendment rights.

But this time, when Goodwin took off to put more money in the parking meter--as Lydia Nichols tells it--Lewis suddenly changed his tone toward her.

"Has anyone ever been hurt during a protest?" she recalls him asking. "If anyone comes into my store, somebody's going to get hurt."

Nichols says she felt threatened, and when her boyfriend returned, she told him it was time to leave. As they crossed the street, she heard Lewis shouting out, "Lydia! Lydia!" Several fast paces later, she said to Goodwin, "I think there's someone following us."

It was Bernard Tonquest, another Neiman's security guard. The couple say they stopped and pleaded for him to leave them alone. After some discussion, she recalls Tonquest saying, "OK, I guess I can tell my boss you got on the train and lost me," and he turned back toward the store.

As she and Goodwin got into her car, they noticed Rodney Lewis driving off in a Jeep Cherokee. Somehow she ended up behind him at a red light on Akard and Elm streets, three blocks away from Neiman's. Clearly upset by Lewis' presence, Nichols got out of her car and knocked on his car window, which he rolled down.

"Why do you keep following us?" she asked. Next to Lewis sat Kim D'Angelo, Neiman Marcus' department manager for sportswear. She was holding a piece of paper with Nichols' license plate number. Although Lewis would later claim that Nichols hit him repeatedly on the chest, Nichols says she only told him, "Hey, I want my license plate number back," and reached into the Cherokee to grab the paper. Then, she says, Lewis rolled up the window, trapping her hand, which was jolted loose when he opened his door.

"He got out of the car and punched her in the face and choked her and slammed her to the ground and kicked her," recalls boyfriend Goodwin, who, in response, got out of her car brandishing a hammer. Lewis had called someone on his radio, and before Goodwin could take a swing, Bernard Tonquest came sprinting from around the corner and tackled Goodwin. "We wrestled for a long time," Goodwin says.

"I wasn't sure what was happening--I was blacking out," Nichols says. "I just remember telling J.P., 'I can't breathe.'"

When Dallas police arrived, a semi-conscious Nichols was on the ground with red handprints on her neck, bruises on her ribs, and three lumps on the back of her head. Goodwin also lay on the ground injured, and had been handcuffed by one of the two security guards involved in the scuffle. Lewis was standing near the cars, and a woman from Neiman's brought him some bottled water.

Nichols refused treatment from the paramedics at first. But 20 minutes later, she felt as if she were about to pass out, and the ambulance returned, transporting her to Baylor hospital, where she was diagnosed with a concussion. Police interviewed several witnesses waiting at the nearby DART rail stop. After three said they would testify that the man in the suit and tie assaulted Nichols and beat her severely, police arrested Lewis at the scene.

The September street brawl made Dallas an overnight hotspot on the anti-fur map of America. Previously, the only notable occurrence here happened when an activist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) threw a pie into the face of designer Oscar de la Renta at a charity fashion show in 1996. But now, the animal rights contingent has found itself a new enemy, and Neiman Marcus has found itself on the front lines of a war that only seems to be growing more virulent as the fashion industry embraces the fur trade for the first time in several decades, unfettered by what might have once been considered politically incorrect.

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