(Originally published in Youngist on Jan 6, 2015)
By Muna Mire
Black Brunch, the collectively led series of direct actions designed to afflict the comfortable has officially hit New York. This past Sunday, I joined organizers from Oakland who took the protests from their city to commercial brunch spots nationwide, including to the affluent Flatiron and Gramercy Park neighborhoods in Manhattan.
In case you missed it blow up on Twitter and the right-wing blog circuit, Black Brunch is a direct action tactic that was born from a West Coast collective of community members, students, organizers, and artists. The tactic involves a group of people interrupting business as usual at upscale restaurants during brunch (for no more than 5 minutes) to announce that every 28 hours — according to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement — a Black life is taken by police or extrajudicial killing. Activists call out the names of fallen Black comrades, chanting ashe in affirmation with each name. Brunchgoers are then asked to stand in solidarity with the movement to end the war on Black life.
The idea behind Black Brunch is to target those who can afford to avert their gaze, bringing the struggle for racial justice to the table, literally, so that it’s impossible to ignore. Brunch is the hallowed tradition of the affluent, the comfortable, and often those with enough white privilege to insulate them from the struggle to end the war of on Black life in America. This is true on both the right and the left. In typical fashion, pundits with no credible connection to the movement or interest in racial justice have decried the label of “whiteness” being applied to high end commercial brunch establishments. It’s divisive, it’s rude, these people didn’t do anything to you. Why are you interrupting the Sunday meals of people who might, just might, be on your side? It’s racist.
What’s been racist is the backlash. From former law enforcement posing with guns and threatening protesters with violence over Twitter, to the slew of racial slurs and hate speech targeting activists and allies online, the reaction to Black Brunch from the right has been scarily informative. We hit a nerve. The reaction from the Left has been largely one of silent discomfort, with politicians like Mayor DeBlasio and Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams outright condemning the tactic.
Black Brunch is intentionally leaderless and according to collective members, part of a decentralized, grassroots effort. Several key members of the New York organizing collective are based in Oakland and imported tactics directly from the West Coast model. The original impetus for Oakland organizers? Bluntly, too many white men on megaphones attempting to control messaging in the movement to resist police brutality and extrajudicial killings of Black people; the silencing of Black women and queer and trans folk in activist spaces.
To combat this, organizers decided to orchestrate an intentionally nonhierarchical series of direct actions which prioritized holding space for Black women and trans people. As we stood in each restaurant, calling out the names of our fallen Black comrades — we remembered and honored Black women and trans people murdered by police or in extrajudicial killings. Too often, in spaces designed to combat white supremacy and nurture the fight for racial justice we forget these names: Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Islan Nettles, and Rekia Boyd.
As activists and Black people, we took space on Park Avenue, Madison Avenue and generally places in Manhattan where we are excluded, often by means of economic segregation and policing. We do the work of reconstituting places that are typically hostile to us, remaking them as spaces to both honor our dead and bring allies into the struggle. The Black Brunch tactic wasn’t an attack, as many have perceived it to be. That’s divisive.To me, it was an attempt at honesty. It was an attempt to bring two worlds together and acknowledge a reality that is being actively swept under the rug.
We hit Maialino, Resto, Lalisse, Penelope, the Barking Dog, and Pershing Square with varying reactions from each establishment. Some turned the music up on us, attempting to drown us out as we called out the names of our dead. Some physically attempted to restrain nonviolent protesters (which is assault). Others cursed at us, yelled at us, management at one establishment even attempted to lock us in the restaurant, presumably to call the police on us. Many brunchgoers were nonplussed, some talked through our action, others put on coats to leave. Still others looked on stony faced.
But for every patron who cursed at us, every manager who shoved us, there was at least one brunchgoer who stood up when asked to stand in solidarity with Black life. An older woman at one restaurant was moved to tears. A young white couple stood with fists raised. People applauded; people looked up from their plates surprised but pleased to hear us speak. A key departure from the West Coast model’s implementation in New York was in the use of allies. Both white and non-Black people of color allies were invited to participate in the New York City actions. Activist members of the collective organizing the actions pre-printed information sheets on effective allyship for brunchgoers which were distributed as part of the action. As we passed out information sheets to potential allies, I noticed that some were discarded hastily but others were tucked carefully away into pockets and purses.
As far as next steps, organizers are satisfied with the impact of the Black Brunch tactic. The model is out there and being deployed not just in New York and Oakland but also in places like Baltimore. The nascent struggle for racial justice amongst millennials — the new civil rights movement — is dynamic, leaderless, and constantly shifting in strategy and tactics. Activists will remain unpredictable yet intentional in their tactical actions. Black Brunch is just the beginning.
Brunch as a target for direct action became a locus for spectacle and in creating that spectacle, breeding and nurturing a growing, nonviolent resistance. This isn’t unlike the sit ins at lunch counters of the Jim Crow South. We are where we’re not meant to be, holding space for people who were taken from us unjustly. We are singing, chanting, asking that you stand with us. That you help us fight this. Police brutality is but one arm of the New Jim Crow. While elites brunch, we are being killed everyday. To honor this truth, we are disrupting business as usual — at the risk of alienating potential allies. If it’s a step too far to interrupt brunch for five minutes while the war on Black life continues unabated, we don’t accept that.
We won’t let people look away. It is uncomfortable. The war on Black life is uncomfortable. We just won’t be quiet about it anymore.
Photo Credit: ZUMA24.com