Brunch emerges as locus of police brutality protests

Twitter/ Blake Simons

Anti-brunch sentiment hasn't exactly seized downtown Charleston, where bleary-eyed diners every Sunday wait patiently for crab cakes benedict and bread pudding. But the national brunch backlash last year climaxed with the New York Times' publication of an essay titled "Brunch is for Jerks," in which author David Shaftel complained the meal is impractical, juvenile and enjoyed almost exclusively by white people.

It's the final attribute that inspired Black Brunch, a new civil rights protest strategy that reached New York City this weekend. The tactic, which originated last month in Oakland, Calif., calls for protestors to enter swanky restaurants serving brunch and read the names of black people killed by police.

"Basically, it's about going into predominantly white spaces and letting them know we exist," says Blake Simons, a University of California Berkeley student who organized a Black Brunch action along an upscale street near campus. "We're letting people know our pain."

According to Simons, the grassroots movement was partially modeled after the 1960s lunch counter sit-ins that were a cornerstone of the struggle to desegregate Southern businesses (In Charleston, Burke High School students in 1960 staged a one-day sit-in at the S. H. Kress & Co., galvanizing older black leaders in the community.) In this instance, though, the restaurants are backdrops, not antagonists.

"Some people are saying 'hey, why don't you take it to the police station?,'" Simons allows. But he says protestors are trying through disruption to reach people who might otherwise have the luxury of ignoring police brutality.

"It's a small inconvenience," Simons says of the four-and-one-half-minute ritual, timed to reflect the four-and-one-half hours Michael Brown's body was left on a Ferguson, Mo. street. "We're inconvenienced every day as black people."

Simons says the Black Brunch demonstration was well-received in Berkeley, a famously progressive city.

"We told people, 'if you stand up for black people, stand up now'," Simons says. "What was beautiful is we saw people stand up."

He adds that support wasn't unanimous: Even at the same table, eaters made different decisions about how to respond to the protest.

More hostile reactions surfaced on social media, but protestors say the tactic - which has been used in Boston and Baltimore - has already gone viral.

Jay-Marie Hill, a member of the Oakland collective that came up with Black Brunch, reports the tactic has evolved since it was first developed as a peaceful alternative to marches, which sometimes turn ugly. "We knew pouring out mimosas was not going to get the message out," Hill says. "We didn't want to be part of that. Black Brunch was a healing space."

What has remained constant in the development of the protest is the post-action debriefing, which always takes place over a meal - a brunch, really -- at one of the participant's homes or a black-owned restaurant.

"There's nothing wrong with eating," Hill says. "We always break bread together and have a meal. It's one of the most important parts of it."