How Denver restaurants are showing solidarity with George Floyd protests

Idris Shareef stands with his son, Maazi, 4, as they wait for Idris’ wife, Ashley, and daughter, Romi, 2, at Whittier Cafe on Wednesday, June 3. Shareef, who grew up in Park Hill and Whitter, has traveled the world and spoke on race relations in the United States following the killing of black Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of police. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

Five years ago, when 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez was shot and killed by Denver police, Millete Birhanemaskel opened the doors of her Whittier Cafe so that community members could come inside, gather and grieve.

“Dozens and dozens” of people showed up that day, Birhanemaskel said. They passed a microphone to pay tribute. Some who had the floor just stood and cried.

“The fact that we can’t even tell people, ‘Come home, let’s have a family meeting, just get it all out …,”  Birhanemaskel said on Tuesday. “We can’t even do that now, so people are mourning alone and are isolated, and I just feel like that was taken from us in the middle of all of this.”

Millete Birhanemaskel speaks about the Black Lives Matter movement taking place nationwide after the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of police officers weeks ago at Whittier Cafe on Wednesday, June 3. Birhanemaskel, who opened the cafe six years ago, said that it is a place of community in which people of color and other underrepresented groups can come to gather and feel supported. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

By “all of this,” she means the coronavirus pandemic, the months-long shutdown of her neighborhood coffee shop and, then, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, which ignited outrage and weeklong protests that continue to simmer and boil over across the nation.

“We are a social justice coffee shop, we’ve always been a gathering place for the community, a place that you’re coming to because you don’t know where else to go,” she added. “It was really frustrating, because we can’t even gather together, mourn together. So how can we still have a voice in this without having a loud voice?”

As she reopened Whittier Cafe’s patio over Memorial Day weekend, for the first time in 10 weeks, Birhanemaskel placed yard signs outside. They carried messages like, “Two deadly viruses are killing Americans: COVID-19 + Racism” and “I can’t breathe,” which were some of Floyd’s last words as he pleaded for his life.

“We’re in a gentrified neighborhood, so it’s been strange,” Birhanemaskel said. “At least we can still ask people to pay attention even as they’re walking by. … At least you think about it.”

Starting Friday and throughout the weekend, the Whittier Cafe will host three food trucks owned by black women. Around Denver, other owners of food businesses are supporting the city’s protests, Black Lives Matter and many more organizing efforts while they have this momentum.

“One thing is trying to capture the gravity of the moment and trying to figure out, first of all, how can we bring attention to the core issues,” said Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches and a food historian known as the “soul food scholar.”

“Very specifically,” Miller said, “we’re talking about police brutality. And the larger issue is the (experience) of African-Americans in this country. Some of the basic enjoyments and liberties in life are things that we have to think about possibly being dangerous.”

Early Monday morning, amid the protests in Louisville, Ky., barbecue business owner David McAtee was shot and killed by law enforcement in an incident that is now under federal investigation. And Miller is paying attention to stories like this as well as other narratives surfacing at the intersection of food and social justice.

“In other cities, you have black businesses being destroyed, and just the supreme irony of that,” he said. “One of the reasons that you’re not having black businesses looted (in Denver) is that this particular downtown area doesn’t have many black businesses.”

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But black-owned food businesses are taking new forms in 2020, and even being born out of the necessity of the protests and the pandemic.

Caterers and partners Kamiya Willoughby and Tess Hurlburt in a matter of weeks turned their SoulNia vegetarian soul food business into a lunch service for the community and health care workers, taking pre-orders and donations of “lunch boxes” each week that they deliver around Denver.

Now the women are taking orders for food and donating half of their proceeds to the local chapter of Black Lives Matter.

“There’s something palpable about black pain that I have experienced my entire life,” Willoughby said. “I don’t feel like I can go to the protests without feeling like there’s this entire weight of — responsibility — to change it, to solve it.”

So instead of trying to solve it, she and Hurlburt educate customers about their experience through soul food, its traditions, history and the people who serve it.

“I very much think we are just fueled by this to continue (that mission),” Hurlburt said. “We’re really invested in reinvesting in the black community here.”

Denver publications, too, are seizing the moment to reinvest in their coverage of black businesses. This week, 5280 Magazine posted a story on its website of black chefs leading the Front Range culinary scene, and 303 Magazine added to a growing list of more than 200 black-owned Denver businesses.

Non-BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) restaurant owners are also showing solidarity with the movement by “silencing” their social media accounts and replacing usual food posts with information about black-led campaigns, organizations and funds to follow.

Lauren Roberts co-owns City O’ City and Make Believe Bakery just a block away from the Capitol on Colfax Avenue. “For us, we don’t often take direct political stances within the business,” she said. “But we want to take this opportunity to at least say this is a fundamental issue that has to change.”

The prominent corner restaurant sustained damage over the weekend from protesters — windows were broken, the building vandalized and some trash cans set on fire. But Roberts says the damage isn’t what matters.

“We’re hopeful that everything that’s been happening will be happening for a greater good,” she said. “Our goal now is to provide a service that the community needs, whether it’s donating food and water to people protesting or providing sanctuary.”

She and her team boarded up the windows to the restaurant and placed messages of protester support on them. Of course, she worries about her business after months of struggling during the shutdown, she said, and then reopening just as protests erupted. But “all of that takes a backseat to the larger conversation, and really that’s our priority right now.”

On Tuesday morning, Birhanemaskel was working at the Whittier Cafe when two women came in to buy coffee. They said they had come from Tennessee and didn’t know where to go in Denver but wanted to support a black-owned business. They took signs with them, too, as they headed to downtown to march.

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“I’m just thankful that we’re still here and folks can still come in,” Birhanemaskel said.

Miller hopes the support and survival of businesses like Birhanemaskel’s go beyond the current upheaval.

“I just want it to build into something that meaningfully reforms the institutions we have,” he said. “A lot of people are good at showing up in the moment, but it’s really the long-term work … that fewer people are interested in.”

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