Last week, restaurants once again served as a battleground in the culture wars, igniting a debate over how Trump administration officials should be treated in public. It started when Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was jeered at MXDC Cocina Mexicana, a D.C. Mexican restaurant, in the wake of the administration’s extreme immigration policies. Days later, it came to light that senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, the architect of the government’s family separation policy and genuinely Bad Person, was called a fascist and heckled by his fellow diners while eating at Espita Mezcaleria in D.C., also a Mexican restaurant. The controversy reached critical mass when, over the weekend, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, mid-dinner because she made the staff uncomfortable.
These moments of everyday protest have come under intense scrutiny from both the right-wing blogosphere and mainstream media outlets, with conservatives blasting the hecklers and restaurant owners for being “bullies,” while liberals and moderates wring their hands over whether or not progressives should “lower” themselves to tactics used by Trump and his administration. “We nonetheless would argue that Ms. Huckabee, and Ms. Nielsen and Mr. Miller, too, should be allowed to eat dinner in peace,” wrote the Washington Post’s editorial board over the weekend. “Down that road lies a world in which only the most zealous sign up for public service. That benefits no one.”
The misguided debate over civility in the face of extreme depravity — this is an administration that has ripped children from the arms of their mothers, is working to gut the social safety net, and has encouraged rampant environmental destruction — fails to consider that civility is frequently employed as a weapon by those in power to stifle resistance by controlling the acceptable terms of discourse. Civility demands incremental gains over radical solutions, that we debate Nazis, not punch them. How one should respond to a fascist is, in fact, not a merely theoretical concern.
Some, like California congresswoman Maxine Waters, believe that the public should take these actions one step further and harass Trump employees and supporters in all spaces. “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,” Waters said at a rally over the weekend.
Some posit that being discourteous will somehow make them less likely to “come around to our side.” But would they have anyway? Is sitting down to a plate of fajitas somehow going to make Kirstjen Nielsen — who, as the head of the DHS, has been instrumental to what can be described, without hyperbole, as ICE’s reign of terror — recognize that immigrants are humans? The idea that the right platter of queso fundido, served with a smile, could convince Nielsen to stop enforcing the administration’s inhumane policies feels naive at best.
It’s not a little curious to argue that an administration that has completely shattered countless norms surrounding political discourse and basic decency, or that people who dehumanize others, are owed civility, to say nothing of the right to hospitality — the very thing they are so committed to denying to other people. The prevailing, Danny Meyer-style approach to hospitality in the restaurant industry— “enlightened hospitality” — makes room for not serving people who are actively engaged in harming others; it encourages restaurateurs to consider how their overall product makes a customer feel, and to build a culture that empowers their employees. What kind of hospitality is owed to a fascist in your restaurant? On the other hand, is it hospitable for a restaurant owner to subject her immigrant employees to a person who refers to immigrants as an “infestation,” as Trump has?
Any notion of hospitality that prioritizes the hurt feelings of officials who wield enormous instruments of cruelty over workers, patrons, and the community at large is not a hospitality worth defending. “The customer is not always right. While the customer is not always right, he/she must always feel heard,” Meyer said in an interview with Serious Eats. And everyone hears this administration loud and clear. If the Trump administration’s policies are inhumane, why should we offer its agents comfort in spaces that are designed to explicitly showcase the cultures they despise?
For most restaurant owners, to kick someone out of their place of business is a deeply considered decision; as hospitality experts, many profoundly believe that their restaurant is a place for all to gather and break bread. But how can a space be open and welcoming to all if it invites people who are the antithesis of those values? And for people who worry that these decisions are made hastily or without care, there’s little incentive for restaurateurs to do that — thanks in no small part to the flood of death threats and conspiracy theories that they’ll receive.
There is a fundamental difference in refusing to serve someone who is actively involved in the creation of mass suffering and declining to bake a cake for someone because of their sexuality. There are no anti-discrimination laws that protect bigots, and there is no constitutionally protected right to discriminate against an entire category of people. This is fundamentally an issue of our morals — there is nothing morally wrong with shouting “SHAME” at a woman like Nielsen. Why should she be allowed to dine peacefully while ICE agents and Border Patrol officials terrorize people seeking asylum at our borders?
Restaurants are inherently political places, so it makes sense that an intensely political issue like immigration would also end up at the feet of line cooks and servers. The industry would completely collapse without the labor of immigrants, who pick the produce, cook the food, wash the dishes, serve the meals, and own many of the restaurants that make neighborhoods across the country vibrant. Every single layer of this industry — from the purveyors to the linens companies to the cooks in the kitchen — is reliant on immigrants and their work. And the immigrants who almost assuredly work in restaurants like Espita Mezcaleria certainly should not be required to politely serve a man like Stephen Miller, who has worked for years on plans like family separation to serve as a “deterrent” against families who need to seek asylum in the United States.
From the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s to current-day vegan groups that stage elaborate demonstrations in protest of the consumption of meat, restaurants have long been a site of resistance, and public shaming is a powerful motivator, one with a deep history in this country. Union organizers have long used public shaming, or corporate campaigns, to force better deals for the workers they represent and encourage companies to do right by their employees. Environmentalists and anti-globalists also have an extensive history of successfully employing these tactics, used in campaigns to fight social ills like deforestation and child labor.
The fraught politics of the American restaurant make it a reasonable place to address how we respond to the presence of people who pursue the dehumanization of others. Without picking up a sign or marching in the streets, restaurant owners who feel strongly about this administration’s policies should be free to make a statement in support of their employees, their patrons, and basic human decency by saying, “No, we will not serve you.”
Let them eat cake, but only if they bake it at home.