The Whittier Cafe, a cultural hub in Denver owned by Millete Birhanemaskel, was vandalized by someone with a racist message sometime between closing Tuesday night and opening Wednesday morning, according to a cafe employee. He said that the words “F—ing N—–s” were discovered scrawled on a railing near the front door in the morning.
The cafe at 1710 E. 25th Ave. hosts Sunday Ethiopian coffee ceremonies; Africanda, a conversation group about the relationship between Africans and African Americans; a black mothers’ breastfeeding group and other events for and by Denver’s black community.
“Whittier Cafe is an example of what works in community,” said Jeff Fard, who is married to Birhanemaskel. He is also founder and director of Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center in Five Points. “You have a neighborhood that has embraced diversity, you have neighbors that do not tolerate any forms of racism. This is not an issue of just black people being upset. This has upset the entire community.”
A city employee had arrived by noon Wednesday to photograph and begin the process of removing the graffiti.
Birhanemaskel first heard the news via a text message from a patron that was shaken up by the words scribbled on the railing.
“I just start crying, I’m like, ‘Really?,’ which was stupid because you are what you answer to, and I don’t answer to that, but it was too close to home, you know what I mean,” said Birhanemaskel.
She said she’s uncomfortable with what displays of hatred like this can mean on a physical level, especially for her employees, many of whom are young women.
For the last several months, she said, there had been a man harassing the shop and making disparaging remarks about the cafe being owned by a minority woman. He also showed up at the scene of the vandalism on Wednesday and made jokes like, “Do you think you’ll get the publicity you want now?” and “Maybe Al Sharpton will come down.”Birhanemaskel said she then saw him circle the block several times making her more wary of his mental state.
“It still is a little nerve-wracking. We have young women who open the shop at six in the morning and leave at eight at night, and if somebody’s got that kind of watch on our place, that’s really uncomfortable,” she said.
She thinks that the current tense racial and political environment — and changes in the Whittier neighborhood — may have emboldened the vandal, saying that people may have been thinking these things for years.
“This used to be a black neighborhood, the only place African Americans could buy property at one point, and that’s obviously changing now as the neighborhood becomes more and more gentrified,” she said. “Even though we have a diverse clientele, we all share a common theme of justice so yeah, maybe 60 percent of our clients are not people of color, but we all share that theme so it’s a peaceful, activist-oriented social justice oriented place.”
She doesn’t feel like this incident will change anything about how the shop operates.
“Being a business, being people of color in a neighborhood where we’re losing ground, it’s nice, it feels like an anchor, kind of a safe space for people and we’re going to continue that, we’re not going anywhere.”
Thursday evening at 6 p.m. community members will be gathering at Whittier Cafe to show support for the shop.
This is a developing story and will be updated. Kevin J. Beaty and Dave Burdick contributed to this report.