This month, Austinites have been taking to the streets to protest police brutality and anti-black violence throughout the country, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Austin’s Mike Ramos, and others at the hands of police officers. Eater checked in with several local restaurant industry people, who shared why they participated in the protests, their experiences on the ground, and what they hope their actions inspire others in their fields to do going forward. The following answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Raf Robinson, managing partner of Slab BBQ:
As a black man, I’ve seen and experienced racism my whole life. I struggled for many days while processing how I wanted to respond. How do I honor my struggle, the struggle of those who suffer injustice, my family who fought for the opportunities that I’ve had, as well as my business partners and staff? What was the message that I wanted to convey? How do I model the heart of God?
There was stress from a business operations standpoint with new COVID-19 processes for dine-in customers. There was emotional turmoil from the heartbreaking videos being circulated. It was a lot to process, and I broke down while at the restaurant on Tuesday. I heard about a multi-church prayerful protest called “praytest” being held on Saturday downtown. I really wanted to participate, but I also needed to help at the restaurant, because we have been short-staffed and having a hard time restaffing. My business partner Mark Avalos encouraged me to go: “We got this, bro. You go do what your heart is telling you to do.”
My mom and sister were already downtown, so I met up with them along with the other prayer protesters. I prayed for our city, our country, our leaders, those hurting and for healing of hearts. When we arrived at the Capitol to join other protestors, we knelt as a group and observed silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds to remember the struggle for breath and life that George Floyd experienced. It was pretty amazing as the entire crowd went silent. I had to release the parts of my rage that were not righteous. I asked for guidance to direct my anger toward fighting for justice. I’ve always considered myself a peacemaker, but also a defender of those who cannot fight for themselves. The night before the protest, I read a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity.” I am committed to be this kind of leader.
Justine Gilcrease, co-owner of Justine’s Brasserie
As concerned as I am about COVID-19, the pandemic that is systemic racism is far more terrifying. The only way it’s going to end is by standing in solidarity with like-minded activists and speaking out on behalf of the men and women who, because of the color of their skin, were robbed of their lives and no longer have a voice. My heart breaks for George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, and Ahmaud Arbery. My heart breaks for their families. By protesting, I hope to set an example for my two boys. While I also hope the world they age into is better and kinder than the world today, they need to understand the importance of speaking out against social injustice. Silence is not an option.
The experience itself was complicated and beautiful. Beautiful because I’m a huge believer in peaceful protest and non-violent resistance as a powerful tool to affect change. And the turnout, alone, was affirmation that I live in and am emotionally invested in a community that’s largely informed, eager for change, and willing to do the hard work. It was complicated because of COVID-19.
I don’t think restaurants are different from other businesses. Justine’s has always had a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination. That includes intervening when customers exhibit racial intolerance. I hope all businesses — restaurants and non-restaurants — do the same, stand up and say, “Enough. This ends now.”
CK Chin, partner of Swift’s Attic and Wu Chow
The main thing about this was that this is not my story, this is not my voice, I’m here to amplify.
It was a powerful moment talked to and listening to people tell their stories and speak their truth and people leading people in prayer. But the antithesis to that situation was quite literally five blocks down on I-35, where there was a barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets and people getting fired upon. It was very different, what was happening at different parts of the city at any given time.
It’s about trying to find ways that you can help, find ways that speak to you, and find people that speak to you. You’ve got to realize this is you, this is your community, this is your people. Are you going to be on the right side of history or the wrong side? It is their story. Amplify it, let their voices be heard. But realize that you’re a supporting actor in this story.
One hundred years ago, when you look at a restaurant that was segregated, that was normal. Then, all of a sudden, someone has to go, “That’s not normal. That’s not right.” We are in the business of service, we are here to serve. And in this particular case, who are we serving? Who are we trying to feed? Who are we trying to take care of, at the end of the day? I think the stance is for us to use those to back up your view.
Andres Chopite-Parra, managing partner of Fourth & Co.
I was raised to stand up for what I believed in, even if it comes at a high cost, and to protest to spark the changes I want to see. I am an immigrant Latino from Venezuela and even still, I cannot begin to comprehend the injustices my black brothers and sisters deal with on a daily basis. So I have to listen. And what I have not only heard and learned, but have also witnessed and wholly believe to be true, is that systematic and institutional racism runs deeply in America, and it has to end. We cannot progress as a society if we don’t address these issues.
Standing alongside so many of my friends and people of all ages and races was very encouraging. It gives one hope. Sadly, at times we were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and mace from the police. I understand that taking over the streets and the highway is at most an inconvenience for many, but an inconvenience doesn’t compare to the senseless loss of life due to police brutality and the rampant injustices experienced by people of color every single day.
Kati Grant-Luedecke, owner and chef of Killa Wasi
I woke up sad and tired and very, very angry. Just giving money wasn’t enough for us this time. We needed to physically show up and make the police realize that those in the Austin community care enough about each other that we’re going to be there for one another. We have to stop them from hurting our friends. When we went on Saturday, people were gathering in front of the police station. People spoke, screamed, chanted, and there was limited police presence. We went up the side of I-35 and marched across the bridge. Then, the cops started shooting their pepper bullets and spraying their pepper spray. By 2 p.m., the police were showing up en masse with their horses, guns, vans, and their sense that overwhelming force was, again, the answer to all this pain. Things felt so incredibly tense and so incredibly scary. We helped each other wipe pepper spray from our eyes, we shouted more, and we ran away when we needed to, and we came back for more when we could. I’m grateful we were able to show up and support. It was inspiring. But it was also tiring, scary, and very, very sad.
I really encourage people to listen to what black people are saying they need from you during this time — better yet, ask. Reach out to the Austin Justice Coalition, the NAACP, or another organization that works on racial justice whether civil, educational, or economic. Support your black colleagues by helping promote their food-based businesses. Ask what their needs are, reach out, connect, listen.