Idris Shareef is standing with his son Maazi (4) in the Whittier Cafe on Wednesday 3rd June, waiting for Idris’ wife Ashley and daughter Romi (2). Shareef, who grew up in Park Hill and Whitter, traveled the world speaking about racial relations in the United States following the police murder of Minneapolis black man George Floyd. (AAron Ontiveroz, Denver Post)

Five years ago, when 17-year-old Jessica Hernandez was shot dead by Denver police, Millete Birhanemaskel opened the doors of her Whittier Cafe for members of the community to come in, gather, and mourn.

“Dozens and dozen” of people showed up that day, Birhanemaskel said. They passed a microphone to pay tribute. Some who had the floor just stood there and cried.

“The fact that we can’t even tell people: ‘Come home, let’s have a family reunion, just get everything out …” said Birhanemaskel on Tuesday. “We can’t even do that now, so they mourn People alone and isolated, and I feel like that was taken from us in the middle of it all. “

Millete Birhanemaskel speaks about the Black Lives Matter movement taking place across the country after Minneapolis man George Floyd was killed by police at the Whittier Cafe weeks ago on Wednesday June 3rd. Birhanemaskel, who opened the cafe six years ago, said this is a community space where people of color and other underrepresented groups can gather and feel supported. (AAron Ontiveroz, Denver Post)

By “all of this,” she means the coronavirus pandemic, the month-long closure of her neighborhood coffee shop and the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, which sparked outrage and weeklong protests that simmer and boil across the country.

“We’re a social justice café, we’ve always been a meeting place for the community, a place to come because you don’t know where else to go,” she added. “It was really frustrating because we can’t even gather and grieve. So how can we still have a voice without having a loud voice? “

When Birhanemaskel reopened the Whittier Cafe terrace for the first time in 10 weeks on Memorial Day weekend, she placed garden signs outside. They carried messages like, “Two Deadly Viruses Are Killing Americans: COVID-19 + Racism” and “I Can’t Breathe,” which were some of Floyd’s last words when he pleaded for his life.

“We’re in a well-equipped neighborhood, so it was strange,” said Birhanemaskel. “At least we can still ask people to pay attention even as they walk by. … At least you think about it. “

There are two Americas: one fights for black lives and the other for brunch pic.twitter.com/TFNsKghfmR

– zi (@ziwe), May 31, 2020

Starting Friday and throughout the weekend, the Whittier Cafe will house three food trucks owned by black women. In the Denver area, other food business owners are supporting the city’s protests, Black Lives Matter, and many more organizational efforts while they have this dynamic.

“One thing is to catch the gravity of the moment and first figure out how to get the attention to the core issues,” said Adrian Miller, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches and well-known food historian as a soul food scholar.

“Specifically,” Miller said, “we are talking about police brutality. And the bigger problem is the (experience) of African Americans in this country. Some of the basic pleasures and freedoms in life are things we need to think about in order to be potentially dangerous.” be. “

Early Monday morning, amid protests in Louisville, Kentucky, barbecue entrepreneur David McAtee was shot dead by law enforcement in an incident currently under investigation by the federal government. And Miller pays attention to stories and other narratives that emerge at the intersection of food and social justice.

“Black businesses are being destroyed in other cities, and that’s just the greatest irony,” he said. “One of the reasons you don’t let black companies looted (in Denver) is because there aren’t a lot of black companies in this downtown area.”

MORE: Where’s Denver’s Soul Food? The last restaurant of its kind will be 20 years old in a historically black neighborhood

But black-owned food companies are taking on new shapes in 2020 and are even born from the need for protests and the pandemic.

The caterers and partners Kamiya Willoughby and Tess Hurlburt transformed their vegetarian SoulNia soul food business into a lunch service for the community and health workers in just a few weeks. Every week they took pre-orders and donated lunch boxes for delivery in Denver.

Now the women are taking orders for groceries and donating half of their proceeds to the local chapter of Black Lives Matter.

“There is something tangible about black pain that I’ve experienced all of my life,” said Willoughby. “I don’t feel like I can go to the protests without feeling that there is all this weight of responsibility to change it, to solve it.”

Instead of trying to solve it, she and Hurlburt share their experiences through soul food, its traditions, history and the people who serve it.

“I think very much that we are only driven by it to continue this mission,” said Hurlburt. “We’re really invested in reinvesting in the black community here.”

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The Denver publications also seized the moment to reinvest in black company coverage. This week, 5280 Magazine published a story on its website about black chefs leading the front-range culinary scene, and 303 Magazine was added to a growing list of more than 200 Denver black companies.

Non-BIPOC restaurant owners (black, local, people of color) are also showing solidarity with the movement by silencing their social media accounts and replacing common food posts with information about campaigns, organizations and funds run by Black that should follow.

Lauren Roberts is the co-owner of City O’City and Make Believe Bakery, one block from the Capitol on Colfax Avenue. “For us, we don’t often take direct political positions within the business,” she said. “But we would like to take this opportunity to at least say that this is a fundamental problem that needs to change.”

The prominent corner restaurant was damaged by demonstrators over the weekend – windows were broken, the building was destroyed and some trash cans were set on fire. But Roberts says the damage isn’t important.

“We hope that everything that has happened is for a greater good,” she said. “Our goal now is to provide a service that the community needs, whether it is donating food and water to people who protest, or providing shelter.”

She and her team stepped into the windows of the restaurant and placed messages of support for the protesters on them. Of course, she’s worried about her business after months of fighting during the shutdown, she said, then opened up again when protests broke out. But “all of this is taking a back seat to the bigger conversation, and that’s really our priority right now.”

Birhanemaskel was working at the Whittier Cafe on Tuesday morning when two women came in to buy coffee. They said they were from Tennessee and didn’t know where to go in Denver, but wanted to support a black-owned company. They also took signs with them as they went downtown to march.

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“I’m just grateful that we’re still here and that people can still come in,” said Birhanemaskel.

Miller hopes the support and survival of companies like Birhanemaskel go beyond the current upheaval.

“I just want it to be built into something that reforms the institutions we have in a meaningful way,” he said. “Lots of people are good at showing up in the moment, but it’s really the long-term work … that fewer people are interested in.”

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