Elmwood Cafe to host community meeting after incident described by local comedian as racist

Jennifer Tanji/File
Jennifer Tanji/File
Jennifer Tanji/File

Berkeley’s Elmwood Cafe will hold a public conversation next week after a local comedian posted an open letter to the cafe on his blog Thursday about being the victim of racist treatment earlier that week.

On his blog, W. Kamau Bell, a black sociopolitical comedian and community activist from the Bay Area, and his wife recounted the incident. During a Monday visit to the cafe, an employee allegedly told Bell to “scram” as he was talking with his wife and her friends, who are white.

Bell wrote that after asking him to leave multiple times, the employee “realized that no one at the table was bothered by (his) presence” and told Bell she “thought (he) was selling something.”

The couple and their daughter left the restaurant soon after.

Although Bell stated in his post that he and his wife were “not calling for anyone to be fired” and “not asking for a boycott,” Elmwood Cafe dismissed the employee Friday, according to owner Michael Pearce.

“Our employee said it was a misunderstanding, but an understanding like this one is against who we are and what we do,” Pearce said. “Somebody came here and left feeling unwelcome and uncomfortable, and that’s just unacceptable.”

After seeing Bell’s post Thursday, Pearce said he was “appalled” by the incident and reached out to Bell and his wife to apologize and ask to meet in person to talk about the issue. After the conversation, Bell and Pearce agreed to hold an open discussion to address the matter in a group setting.

“We (were) currently standing in Berkeley, California, a city so allegedly liberal that even the most progress-y progressives make fun of it,” Bell wrote in his blog post. “And yet … I as a black man was being told to ‘git!’ like it was 1963, Selma, Alabama.”

The discussions come at a time when racial issues have been spotlighted in the city’s dialogue, following days of protests in December in response to two grand jury decisions on police killings of unarmed black men and youth.

Although Pearce said he and his staff are “horrified” about the occurrence, they hope to work with Bell to turn the incident into a “learning experience” by hosting a discussion about broader social issues, both in and outside the city of Berkeley.

“There’s no room in our community for what happened,” Pearce said. “But there’s plenty of room for us to see what steps we can take to jointly come up with a positive solution.”

The open forum is expected to be held at Elmwood Cafe sometime next week.

Check back for updates.

Chloee Weiner is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_chloeew .