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The Year We Remembered That Restaurants Are Political Spaces Too

The past year has been an ongoing reminder that restaurants have long been platforms for civil unrest, social justice, and activism

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images; border image by T_Kimura/Getty Images

It was supposed to be a quiet work dinner on a hot June evening in Washington, D.C. The United States Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and an unidentified companion chose to meet in a dark corner in the back of MXDC Cocina Mexicana, a scene-y Mexican restaurant and bar run by celebrity chef Todd English, just two blocks from the White House. Their small booth seemed discreet enough as not to draw too much attention or foot traffic. But someone in the restaurant recognized the secretary and sent a quick text to a friend, a fellow political activist.

A few minutes later, a group of about 15 people began live streaming as they marched into the restaurant and up to Nielsen’s table. “Secretary Nielsen, how dare you spend your evening eating dinner as you’re complicit in the separation and deportation of 10,000 children separated from their parents,” a member in the mob shouted as Nielsen and her dinner mate tried their best to ignore the barking. “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace,” the group chanted.

Two security agents were able to stand in between Nielsen and the angry group — organized by the Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America — which pointed out to the other diners the irony of Nielsen, the executor of the Trump Administration’s newly enacted zero-tolerance border policy, eating in a Mexican restaurant while thousands of Latin American migrant children were sleeping in cage-like compartments, separated indefinitely from their parents. “Shame!” they chanted.

Nielsen’s public shaming wasn’t the first or last time in 2018 that restaurants served as the backdrop for a political showdown. A few days earlier, Stephen Miller, senior policy advisor to the president and reportedly instrumental to the development of the controversial zero-tolerance policy, had also been confronted at a Mexican restaurant and called a “fascist.” In July, a bartender at a sushi shop in D.C. reportedly followed Miller on his way outside, shouting profanities. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was dining in a Cuban restaurant in Louisville when a man allegedly grabbed the Kentucky senator’s doggie bag and tossed it outside while shouting at him about his stance on Social Security and healthcare. Texas senator Ted Cruz was harassed out of a swanky Italian spot in D.C. for his support of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexually assaulting psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford when they were teenagers in the 1980s.

The confrontations sparked a debate about civility. California Representative Maxine Waters told supporters, “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Critics, meanwhile, called the backlash “uncivil,” arguing that restaurants were no place for rage-filled shouting matches. David Axelrod, former chief campaign strategist and senior advisor for Barack Obama, argued that the hostility only served to further divide the country. The Washington Post editorial board, in a piece titled, “Let the Trump team eat in peace,” described the confrontations as political feelings spilling over into the “private sphere,” saying “we understand the strength of the feelings, but we don’t think the spilling is a healthy development.”

But restaurants have long been platforms for civil unrest, for social justice, and for activism — a fact that has been obscured in the fog of recent history. In the early 1900s, feminists forced their way into restaurants, demanding that they be seated in the main dining rooms, to protest that many American restaurants would not allow women to dine during evening hours without the company of a man. (Many restaurants at the time relegated women to special dining rooms called the Ladies’ Ordinary.) The fight to be seated in the same spaces as men, which extended to court battles, coincided with the women’s suffrage movement and women’s liberation movement.

In the South, for the majority of the twentieth century, a culture of Jim Crow segregation kept people of color from dining in the same establishments or areas as white people. In 1960, during the civil rights movement, four black college students decided to push back by holding a “sit-in” at a lunch counter in a Woolworth retail store in Greensboro North Carolina. Per policy, the counter staff denied service to the group, but the students refused to leave. They returned each day with more volunteers; by the fourth day, 300 supporters had joined them. News coverage of the protests spread, spawning sit-ins at diners, restaurants, and other segregated businesses throughout the South. In some cases, mobs of white segregationists violently confronted the activists. The resulting images of protesters being doused with condiments, hot coffee, and other beverages rattled the country. Black customers began boycotting segregated businesses until many places felt financially compelled to end their discriminatory policies.

Queer people living in mid-century America used a similar tactic to challenge institutional homophobia. In New York City, vague laws permitted restaurant and bar owners to refuse service to “disorderly” people. At the time, living openly as a gay man or woman was considered “disorderly,” in effect permitting restaurants and bars to discriminate against gay and lesbian patrons; establishments that welcomed LGBTQ clientele, on the other hand, were subject to constant police scrutiny. In 1966, a gay rights group called the Mattachine Society held a sip-in at Julius, a Greenwich Village restaurant after they were refused service. News of the protest spread, prompting the New York City Human Rights Commission to clarify in court that bars and restaurants could not in fact use the New York State Liquor Authority laws on serving “disorderly” people to discriminate against gay patrons. Three years later, police raids at the Stonewall Inn, a bar a block away from Julius, sparked riots that would be a milestone in the fight for gay rights.

These historic events took place in restaurants because, while privately owned, they are public spaces — in particular, they function as communal sites outside of home or work, making them a natural stage for the expression of the most deeply rooted tensions in public life. In April, a barista at a Philadelphia Starbucks called police on two black men who were having a business meeting at the store. A video of the encounter between the men and the police sparked a national conversation about black people constantly being asked to prove that they have the right to be in a space. Shortly afterward, countless videos of black people being questioned about their presence in various places, from universities to gyms, went viral, exposing the vast gulf between ideals about public spaces in America and the reality that many face when they simply try to exist in them.

Starbucks, for instance, expressly declares its commitment to being a “third place” where customers are encouraged to not only buy and drink coffee, but stay and get comfortable, socialize, maybe even sit and cry. The company’s website even states that “It’s not unusual to see people coming to Starbucks to chat, meet up or even work. We’re a neighborhood gathering place, a part of the daily routine — and we couldn’t be happier about it.” But the workers charged with putting it into practice have to reconcile that lofty concept with their own biases and the imperfect social structures that construct them — which is how two black men using a Starbucks location as intended can be kicked out by police, while everyone else is left alone.

Owning a business ultimately means wielding power, and wielding power often means taking a political stance or making a statement, for better or for worse. Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the United States government, owned a tavern outside Washington D.C. that was well-known for catering to a largely Confederate clientele. It’s where she helped John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators hide ammunition and other tools they needed to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. More than 150 years later, members of the Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a white nationalists hate group, met up at a Los Angeles bar one night in July. When word got out and protesters arrived to confront the Proud Boys, some employees at the bar seemed to defend the group, with one bouncer allegedly saying, “the only color I see is green” (implying that as long as the men were paying, they were welcome). Police were called as the confrontation intensified, prompting them to shut the bar down for a couple days.

Restaurant owners can also attempt to avoid overtly political issues, but sometimes activists or the government give them no choice. Under a commitment to boost immigration enforcement, ICE conducted four times the number of worksite enforcement raids this fiscal year, according to the agency’s 2018 fiscal year report, and restaurants remain a prime target, with 12 percent of the food preparation work force consisting of undocumented immigrants, the latest statistics from Pew Research Center show. In response, some restaurants have been forced to close or lay off employees. While some restaurants owners have tried to protect workers, refusing to let ICE agents search their kitchens for individuals, many comply, leading to detainments and arrests. In New York City, activists retaliated against a local bakery for complying with ICE audits and firing employees who couldn’t provide papers; top New York restaurants that used the bakery as a supplier, like Le Bernardin, got caught in the crossfire, and were pressured to cut ties with the bakery by protests.

Political clashes in public space are ultimately unavoidable, and restaurants may be America’s quintessential public spaces. While the clashes of the last year may appear “uncivil” and alarming at first, moments like these have historically been springboards for a better — and more civil — future. As the country remains politically divided going into the next year, restaurants will continue to bring together Americans with different beliefs, values, and ideologies, putting them in the position of confronting these issues again and again and again, for better or for worse.

Vince Dixon is Eater’s senior data visualization reporter.

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