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When Restaurants Become the First Line of Support

These restaurants set up food stations and medic tents to support protesters over the weekend

Snacks and cardboard signs photographed on the street before a protest. Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This weekend, a protester holding a sign that read “All Lives Can’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter” paused to rehydrate outside of Luv2eat, a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. The restaurant’s co-owners stood on the corner handing out red Solo cups of a sweet strawberry drink to anyone walking past. “Free drinks for peaceful protesters on Sunset,” they wrote on their Instagram page with a heart emoji, letting protesters know they’d be providing fuel.

Luv2eat was just one of many restaurants that showed solidarity this weekend by transforming sidewalk space into recharging stations and medic tents — providing food, water, masks, and other protective gear — as crowds gathered across the country in continued protest of police brutality and anti-Black violence. On Sunday, a table outside of Everyman Espresso in New York’s East Village housed a cardboard dispenser of free iced coffee, marked in sharpie with the words: “BLACK COFFEE IS BLACK HISTORY.” Next to a bottle of oat milk were containers of hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks. On Instagram, the coffee shop wrote that in addition to the free water and protective equipment, their restrooms were open to protesters. In Portland, the Rose City Book Pub replied to protest organizers on Nextdoor, offering up its bathrooms to protesters.

The possibility of police violence or arrest is a threat during even the most peaceful of protests, and the concern of contracting coronavirus adds yet another layer of anxiety and complication as people take to the streets. During the pandemic, many previously accessible spaces closed their doors, but some restaurants are providing needed — and otherwise unavailable — shelter and support. Many have decided that the risk of remaining silent and closed now is greater than that of any virus.

This show of support comes at a time when small restaurants are struggling to make ends meet, and have in some cases been directly impacted both by the constraints of newly imposed curfews, and by damage some vandals have caused to their buildings. Instead of pitting themselves against protesters, many restaurant owners acknowledge that property damage pales in comparison to the threat of violence or murder that Black Americans face on a daily basis.

E Stretto, a Los Angeles sandwich shop boarded up all of their windows to prevent damage during the first weekend of protests in late May, but looters still broke into the restaurant through a back entrance, making off with equipment and alcohol. “I don’t know what to do anymore,” Joel David Miller, the restaurant’s co-owner, told Eater at the time. Nevertheless, the restaurant provided free sandwiches to protesters this past weekend, telling their followers on Instagram in all caps to “DM us for a free sandwich if you’re on the vanguard of the right side of history.”

Outside of North, a restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, a tent went up this weekend, too. In front of it, a cardboard sign much like the ones protesters walked by carrying read MEDIC, with a red cross drawn below. “I was blessed to be able to host a group of independent medics and community support volunteers last night,” wrote James Mark, the restaurant’s owner, on North’s Instagram page. Mark said in his post that he suspects the free water offered to protesters saved them trips to the hospital. He noted that businesses forced by their landlords to board up their windows in advance of the protests still set up tables on the sidewalk, giving out free supplies. “I saw the most dedicated march through our city, through our neighborhoods, showing that the streets are the people’s streets,” he wrote. “That this city is the people’s city.”

As chef and writer Amethyst Ganaway wrote for Eater, showing support for protesters should manifest in exactly these kinds of snack tables and medic tents in the short term, in addition to longer-term structural change. “Restaurants that fail to see themselves as third spaces, and that don’t go out of their way to ensure their spaces truly function as such,” she writes, “will be on the wrong side of history.”