Cheri Smith (not her real name), 34, was having brunch with her friends at Agrodolce in Fremont on March 22 when their meal was interrupted by a small group of protesters belonging to #BlackBrunchSeattle. "Everyone in the restaurant seemed kind of taken aback and uncomfortable," she described, adding "the word privileged was being bandied about a lot."
The #BlackBrunchSeattle and #BlackBrunchTacoma protests you may have heard about in the last few months are part of a nationwide movement that officially began a year ago in Oakland. The protests consist of a dozen or half-dozen group of young Americans interrupting brunch (which has come to more broadly symbolize affluence in America) at Seattle and Tacoma-area restaurants on Sundays to educate diners about the well-documented social injustices perpetrated systematically against black people in America. There are currently similar brunch protests happening in other large cities around the nation, including Portland, Atlanta and New York City.
These five-minute presentations generally include a brief description of Black Brunch, an explanation of its purpose, and a reading of the names of black victims of police and vigilante violence. Sometimes the protesters chant slogans like "Black lives matter!" (a reference to a broader movement by that name, which aims to raise the visibility of racism against blacks in America).
Individual conversations are temporarily suspended by the protesters' speech, and the reaction by the (mostly white) diners varies.
#blackbrunchseattle just visited my coffee shop and I'm really disappointed in the level of discomfort I saw here. Come on, guys.
— Lauren Wilford (@lauren_wilford) March 22, 2015
#BlackBrunchSeattle activists did not respond to our requests for a comment, but Tacoma resident Jamika Scott, 27, provided us with her perspective on the Black Brunch movement and her role in #BlackBrunchTacoma.
"I was motivated to do it in Tacoma once I saw it happening on Twitter for a few weeks," Scott explains. "I liked the spontaneity of the action, but that there's a strict script and purpose. There are a lot of spaces in Tacoma where people of color don't necessarily feel comfortable — whether that's a cafe or restaurant — and I thought this was a creative and important way to utilize these places people of color often avoid. We're in and out, but it's powerful each time."
Like, when we do #blackbrunchseattle, part of it is forcing white people to quit avoiding race and actually talk about and realize it
— MaxWelp (@local_maxima) March 17, 2015
But many diners find the protests ineffective at best, and counter-productive at worst.
"I get a little put off when someone's yelling at me," Smith says. "I get the movement and consider myself an ally, but I think this isn't the time or the place. It dilutes the message." After the protesters left Agrodolce, she says, everyone just seemed to go right back to what they were doing.
Owners at Cafe Pettirosso complaining that 6 tables asked for their check & wanted to leave bc of #BlackBrunchSeattle
— tev'n jerome powers (@tevnpowers) February 22, 2015
— Bill (@DefendWallSt) February 15, 2015
— Jalen (@GOPMommy) March 29, 2015
Occasional sarcastic responses on Twitter aside, negative reactions to the protests online tend to be more vitriolic, especially when they're anonymous — as seen in the comments on this recent Reddit thread about Black Brunch Seattle, a West Seattle Blog post about protests in Alki, and a recent piece by Kiro's Jason Rantz — and most seem to fit in one of two equally specious straw-man arguments: "What about black-on-black crime?" and "ALL lives matter."
This is not too surprising, however, given how differently white and black Americans view racism, especially the fact that only 16% of white Americans believe there's a lot of racial discrimination in America, while study after study after study — and recurring incidents like the Walter Scott murder — show otherwise.
"Negative reactions are never wanted," Scott says, "but they're always informative; they help widen the lens for everyone because people start to see the unfortunate reactions others in their community have toward race."
There are also many diners who respond positively to the protests. "Each time there are people who thank us, ask questions, seek us out on social media to say positive things, and, on occasion, we have people who stand with us, fist in the air and everything," Scott explains. "I've witnessed curiosity and gratitude grow on peoples' faces over and over again."
Hey #BlackBrunchSeattle: You guys are awesome. You've got my support.
— Ian Brown (@hummingrain) March 22, 2015
— Marlee Liana (@lamuertexx) March 8, 2015
Scott's group has received a variety of responses to their protests. "Sometimes everyone, patrons and staff, watch or quietly continue what they're doing," says Scott. "There are other times when the patrons are fine, but the management gets upset, or vice versa. We've had patrons yell, taunt, and swear at us, and managers who have called the police. I only witnessed one patron ever get so upset they got physical in any way, most who are upset by us focus on their food or coffee, or they simply leave the area — whether that means going to the bathroom or leaving the establishment."
— tev'n jerome powers (@tevnpowers) March 22, 2015
Man left coffee shop we blackbrunched and said "I'm sorry what you do is necessary" #blackbrunchseattle
— baq (@hbeeeeezy) March 1, 2015
Scott acknowledges that there are other ways to raise awareness and spark discussion, "and we definitely use various tactics, but this was the action we felt fit with the racial climate of Tacoma."
For those who believe in the message but not the delivery method, the obvious question is: what would get the message across, given the extent of the denial among the majority of white Americans?
If protests like these aren't the solution, what is?
"I don't know," Smith admits when I posed that question to her — and few other critics seem to have an answer, either. Until someone does, the Black Brunch activists will continue to fight to get their message across, one interrupted meal at a time.