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Racist Incident Provokes Closure of Popular Cafe

Photograph by Trinity Graham

For the past few weeks, Berkeley residents, shocked by the closure of the Elmwood Cafe, a popular brunch spot, have used the cafe’s covered up windows to voice their messages of support, discontent, and anti-racist ideals. The cafe announced its closing on Friday, April 20, allegedly due to the reexamination of an incident in 2015 involving African American comedian, W. Kamau Bell. Bell was asked to leave the Elmwood cafe by an employee, thinking he was bothering a white woman who was actually his wife. Bell immediately wrote about and publicized the incident and the cafe received a large amount of backlash and criticism. Owner Michael Pearce had fired the employee and pledged to launch an “implicit bias training initiative,” which, according to Bell, he failed to fully follow through on, ignoring Bell’s emails and making no further progress than a forum last year.

Three years later, this incident has resurfaced in light of the national attention garnered by the incident at Starbucks last month. In a Philadelphia Starbucks, two black men were arrested while waiting to meet with a client at the cafe. The episode received mass media attention, spurring a reexamination of the Elmwood Cafe’s past actions.

Online, many, including Bell, have drawn parallels between what happened in the Starbucks in Philadelphia and what happened in Berkeley’s own Elmwood Cafe. As Bell wrote in an op-ed for CNN on April 13, “the playbook that Starbucks is running is eerily similar to the one The Elmwood Cafe ran: 1. Initial hastily thrown together, ham-fisted, and unsatisfying apology; 2. “Responsible parties” getting fired; 3. Initial apology is replaced with a better apology that promises change and a new day; 4. Wait for the media backlash to blow over and the return to business as usual while making but not measurably adhering to ANY OF THE CHANGES PROMISED.”

Exactly one week after Bell’s piece was published, the Elmwood Cafe announced its closure with a sign on its door reading, “Elmwood Cafe has closed. Our sincere gratitude to all in the community. Thank you for your support throughout the years.” The sign was soon surrounded by notes showing a range of community responses, from support for the cafe to anger.

The Elmwood area has had its share of abrupt business closings and openings in the past years, and some believe the closing of the cafe is simply related to financial troubles. Due to its timing, however, many suspect a correlation between the cafe’s closing and its past racism charges.

Isa Hoffman, an Academic Choice (AC) Junior who grew up near the cafe also suspects a link between the Kamau Bell incident and the cafe’s closing. Hoffman felt that many of the notes left were inconsiderate to black people in the community who were affected by the cafe’s decisions and actions. “I get that people miss the food and … restaurant but you can miss it while still understanding why they [allegedly] closed and not being completely oblivious to your insane amount of privilege,” Hoffman said.

Because of Berkeley’s status as progressive and accepting, many are shocked when incidents such as the one in 2015 occur.

Grace Schafer Perry, an AC Junior, who was “incredibly disgusted” when she first heard about what had happened in 2015, recently went with her mother to put a sign up that read “Black is Beautiful,” when she was harassed by a white woman standing outside. “I was shocked and did not really know what to say so I finished hanging up the sign and walked away,” Schafer Perry said.

“At first I was kind of glad. I thought that it’s closing meant that the problem was solved somehow, but I quickly realized that instead of solving the problem, it was being ignored,” said Schafer Perry about her feelings on the closing. “It was easier for [the manager] to shut down the problem than to deal with it, and obviously that won’t make anything better.”

Future plans for the space have not been confirmed, though Pearce said that he hoped to “find a suitable entity to donate the cafe to or to work out a way to give the cafe to the employees and turn it into a worker owned cooperative.”