After the peaceful demonstrations and protests gave way to destructive behavior Saturday night, and Teaism’s owners found out their Asian cafe in downtown D.C. had suffered shattered windows, a fire, and water damage from sprinklers, one of the owners and her daughter decided they had to get their message out quickly. After midnight, Michelle Brown and Lela Singh learned the Lafayette Park location was one of several restaurants near the White House that were battered by crowds gathered to decry the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Late that night, the pair worked together to post a tweet that would keep the focus on police brutality and institutional racism, not on the locally treasured teahouse.
“Before anyone puts a single word in our mouths. Black lives matter,” Teaism’s Twitter post read.
Before anyone puts a single word in our mouths. Black lives matter.
— Michelle (@TeaismATeaHouse) May 31, 2020
For three consecutive days, D.C. joined major cities across the country serving as a stage for tense confrontations between demonstrators and heavily armored police. Restaurants along H Street NW, in the post CityCenter DC development, and later in Mt. Vernon Triangle all took damage. With a fire inside and a response that quickly gained traction on social media, Teaism became the most visible example.
“We agreed we needed to put something out really really quickly that would just cut through all the crap and distill this and say that it isn’t about us,” Singh told Eater on Sunday.
Two white women, Brown and business partner Linda Neumann, own Teaism. Singh, whose father is Indian, typically manages the Penn Quarter location.
“We can’t say “I condone the tactics’ or ‘I don’t condone these tactics,’” Singh says. “It’s not our place.”
Kevin Lewis, a reporter for ABC affiliate WJLA, captured video of three people walking out of Teaism while a fire burned inside.
Last night I watched as these three individuals briskly walked out of a shattered window at the Teaism teahouse located at 800 Connecticut Avenue NW.
I peered inside the window and saw the dining room was on fire. I immediately called 911. pic.twitter.com/iatzRjD2g7
— Kevin Lewis (@ABC7Kevin) May 31, 2020
While Singh says she’s “sad and drained” over the damage at Teaism’s Lafayette Park cafe, particularly the loss of tea chests covered in decorative Japanese paper called washi, Singh says the unrest across the country provides a larger perspective. She’s wary of pointing fingers.
“People are dying in this country due to police brutality and a global pandemic,” she says. “It just feels pretty trite to be like, ‘Oh boo hoo, my washi boxes.’”
Singh said Sunday was too early for Teaism to assess the damage. The company would be consulting with its insurers this week. Before she received the news about the damaged cafe late Saturday night, she was busy preparing employee intake forms so she could screen workers for COVID-19 symptoms before putting them back to work at the company’s Dupont Circle location, which is set to reopen for takeout today. The 24-year-old local staple has kept its three cafes closed throughout the pandemic, only processing shipping orders for loose leaf teas.
“I’m grateful for the love and attention we’re getting, but then I also feel like if we’re saying, ‘It’s not about us,’ then it’s literally not about us,” Singh says.
Floyd’s death in the custody of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who pressed a knee into his neck for more than eight minutes on Monday, May 25, has set off chaotic scenes in cities from coast to coast ever since. On Saturday night in the District, the crowd reportedly grew to about 1,000 people, lobbing fireworks and bottles at police who tried to contain them with batons and pepper spray. Small groups of people set fires. D.C. police say they arrested 17 people.
On Sunday, nearby businesses braced for another long night by boarding up windows. CityCenter was ensconced in yellow police tape, and gelato chain Dolcezza’s store there had a gaping hole in its glass facade. Graffiti reading “Fuck Trump” and “Fuck 12” — an anti-police sentiment — could be seen on several buildings. “R.I.P. George Floyd” was tagged on the wall at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak, & Stone Crab.
The Decatur House, a landmark in Lafayette Square that once served as slave quarters by the White House, had a poignant message written outside: “Why do we have to keep telling you black lives matter?”
Just around the corner from Teaism, fine-dining spot the Oval Room also absorbed damage on Saturday night. The fine-dining restaurant has been closed throughout the pandemic, but it’s typically a place for power brokers to gather over foie gras tarts. On Sunday, graffiti on the windows read, “The Rich aren’t safe anymore!”
Owner Ashok Bajaj says he was watching the scene play out on CNN around midnight. After 1 a.m. early Sunday morning, he decided he couldn’t stay put and drove to the Oval Room. He says when he arrived, all 10 windows and the glass doors were smashed, and someone was attempting to start a fire on one of the tables before running out. He found out the next day that looters stole liquor from another one of his restaurants, Indian street food spot Bindaas in the West End.
Bajaj says inflicting this damage on local businesses is “unnecessary” and undermines the “good meaning” of the message protests are trying to deliver.
“All that goes away because everyone focuses on the damage,” Bajaj says.
Blocks away from the Oval Room, fine-dining institution Equinox had to close a day after reopening outdoor seating as part of D.C.’s first weekend of easing emergency restrictions meant to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Co-owner Ellen Kassoff told DCist it was important to heed the message of the people protesting racial injustice, saying, “this is a 400-year issue.”
On Saturday, tweets from European cafe Brasserie Beck drew criticism on social media because they called out protesters for yelling at customers enjoying the return of outdoor dining. The account wrote “Hate is not welcome here” in tweets it wrote on behalf of diners, then deleted.
Dan Simons, a co-owner of the group that oversees Founding Farmers restaurants, reported that people smashed windows at its Pennsylvania Avenue NW location, but he stood with the protesters.
Yes, we had some windows broken @FoundingFarmers on Penn Ave last night. Most important, none of our team was injured. Equally important, my team & I stand firmly with the message of the protest. If America’s leaders (and citizens) listened to @Kaepernick7 when he peacefully
— Dan Simons (@DanSimonsSays) May 31, 2020
By Sunday night, while D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser instituted an 11 p.m. curfew, looting and fires extended to a Shaw grocery store and retail shops in Georgetown and on H Street NE. City police arrested another 18 people. Photos posted to Twitter showed that Mt. Vernon Triangle restaurants including Alta Strada and Busboys & Poets — a progressive bookstore and hub for activism — suffered broken windows.
Earlier in the day Sunday, while small crowds peacefully protested outside of Lafayette Square, a man sold “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts for $20. Down the street at the former Woodward Table restaurant, which is set to become a Cheesecake Factory, a woman in a protective face mask and black gloves scrubbed at graffiti on the wall with rags covered in acetone and Goof Off. Written in black spray paint, George Floyd’s name was smudged.