“My heart is fucking broken right now in this country,” says Nigel Jones, the chef-owner of Kingston 11, a Jamaican restaurant in Uptown Oakland.
He’s talking about George Floyd, the black man whose death earlier this month at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was the impetus for massive protests around the country this past weekend, including in Oakland and elsewhere in the Bay Area.
Jones is one of many black chefs and restaurant owners in the Bay Area who say they stand in solidarity with those who have taken to the streets to protest police brutality against black people in this country — even as some of those protests took a destructive turn, with several Oakland bars and restaurants among the local businesses that were looted or had their windows smashed. Kingston 11 is located on a stretch of Telegraph Avenue that has long been one of the epicenters of political protest in Oakland. Jones says the restaurant was swarmed by protesters who were smashing buildings up and down the street on Saturday night — and was only spared, he says, because someone in the crowd reportedly shouted out, “Not Kingston 11. We know them!”
Part of why Kingston 11 got a different treatment might have to do with the restaurant’s role in the local black community, as one of the few upscale restaurants that hires young black workers even if they don’t come from a culinary background. Ultimately, though, Jones thinks all of the focus on property damage (and who is or isn’t responsible for it) is a distraction from the real issue of police violence. “I don’t want my shit to be torn down, but if it happens, it happens,” Jones says. “The conversation should not be on looters and whether we should be protesting.“
Jones says he’s watched the video of Floyd’s death — of the more than eight minutes that the policer officer held him down with a knee to his neck — four or five times at this point. “I have the same fear as Floyd or anyone else, if I don’t stop long enough at a stop sign,” he says. “I know I could be the next Floyd. It’s not separate. Those are my people.”
Jones grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, listening to James Brown and Aretha Franklin during a time when America represented a certain kind of possibility, especially for people who were living in countries with repressive governments. “That helped form our sense of black identity down in Jamaica — all that shit is gone,” Jones says. “That’s what I’m mourning for. My heart’s broken for all the shit that my people are going through, and have gone through, in this country.”
Meanwhile, Brown Sugar Kitchen chef-owner Tanya Holland believes the “Black Owned” sign that she put up in her window wound up protecting the restaurant from physical harm — “like bug repellant,” she says, describing the scene in Uptown Oakland on Friday night as a “sea of mayhem.” Though many of the other businesses on the same stretch of Broadway, including a Starbucks and a branch of the Mixt salad chain, were tagged with graffiti and had their windows smashed, Holland’s restaurant was entirely untouched.
“I think it shows how important ownership is,” Holland says. “And I’ve been telling people it’s really important that there are black-owned businesses in a predominantly black community.”
Further evidence of the local community’s desire to support black-owned businesses: The next day, despite headlines about looting and civil unrest in Oakland, turned out to be Brown Sugar Kitchen’s best day of sales since the beginning of the coronavirus shutdown. Holland says she’s proud of how diverse her restaurant’s clientele is and thankful for the support of non-black allies. But all the talk about looting has wound up taking attention away from the real core issue, which is the racial injustice that people were out in the streets protesting to begin with.
“Why are we still dealing with this? Why are black men profiled against constantly?” Holland says. “It affects us all because that could be our uncle or our cousin. That could be anyone.”
Across the border in Emeryville, Fernay McPherson temporarily suspended takeout service at her fried chicken restaurant Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement after the Public Market food hall where it’s located was broken into on Saturday night, even though the Minnie Bell’s kiosk itself sustained very little damage. But whatever business loss she might face as a result is besides the point, she says. In a statement she emailed to Eater SF, McPherson writes, “My business is the tool that I built, in my community, to make my way in this world. It has no value to me, or to anyone, if our world remains as deeply unfair and violent as it is.”
Ultimately, McPherson says, it’s the safety of her son — a student in Albany — that’s more important to her than any damage to her restaurant. “We will fix the broken pieces of my business,” she writes. “But until we have confidence that this city, county, and country will fix its own broken mess, the mess that keeps taking black lives with no remorse, I stand with the protestors and I, and my business, will do what we can to feed them, to sustain them, and to make sure their voices are not diminished.”