How about a side of civil protest with your Peekytoe crab salad and black cherry-yuzu mimosa? That’s what diners at chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s two restaurants in the Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle got this past Sunday when protesters staged a “cough-in” — like a sit-in, but with coughing — to draw attention to Twitter troll/President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. It’s a controversial and divisive move that experts say will cause up to 20 million Americans to lose their healthcare. Its undoing will affect workers nationwide, including foodservice workers, and particularly those employed part-time (who often do not qualify for employer-sponsored healthcare, when it’s available).
Activist Mark Milano and Rise & Resist, a relatively new grassroots organization that seeks to draw attention to Trump’s most questionable policy initiatives, decided that Michelin-starred Jean-Georges and its sister restaurant, Nougatine, would be an appropriate setting for a peaceful protest. About 20 members of Rise & Resist made reservations for brunch on Sunday, January 15, using credit cards to secure their seats.
And so it was on a pleasant winter weekend afternoon at Jean-Georges — where the brunch prix fixe costs $58 for two courses — service was interrupted when the sound of loud coughing filled the dining room. “None of us were actually sick,” Milano says, “but the idea was to draw attention to the healthcare issues in this country. When we began coughing, most of the diners looked at us strangely.” Then the group pulled out signs and began chanting, and that’s when diners and staffers knew something was afoot.
“Staff were smiling, they were supportive,” Milano says, but more than a few diners were not pleased. “One man stood up immediately and began snatching signs out of people's hands. Another guy came up to me and began screaming something in my face... he was right within two inches of my face.”
Police almost immediately flooded into the dining room and escorted the protesters out. “We weren’t there long enough to order,” Milano says, “but we all left cash tips for the staff.” Along with other members of Rise & Resist, Milano passed out flyers to diners with information on how repealing the ACA would negatively affect workers across the country.
After the police escorted protesters outside, they were joined by hundreds of others who marched down the street from the restaurant and protested for hours into the afternoon.
Milano says that no one from Trump’s camp or the restaurant or building’s management contacted Rise & Resist in the wake of the protest. Representatives for Jean-Georges and Nougatine did not respond to requests for comment. Though Trump Tower isn’t owned by Trump or his family, the Trump name is emblazoned upon the building in gilded letters, and Jean-Georges occupies a highly visible space on the building’s first floor. Late last year, the restaurant hosted a dinner between Trump and Mitt Romney. It’s also worth noting that Jean-Georges Restaurants employs immigrants, another target of Trump’s ire.
Milano says the group is proud of the response and attention the protest has gotten in the media and on social media. A video was taken of Rise & Resist’s protest; it’s gone viral on Facebook. Watch it in full, below: