Black Denver restaurant owners are standing firmly with protesters, even as windows are broken

“Right now, we feel we are as close as we have ever been to getting understanding and possibly eliminating this out of our life.”

The Rossonian Hotel, Five Points Jazz Festival, May 18, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Rossonian Hotel, Five Points Jazz Festival, May 18, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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By Paul Albani-Burgio

When people began gathering at the State Capitol last week to protest the death of George Floyd, racism and police brutality, Zac Gabani saw himself clearly in their cause.

“I understand what these people are going through,” said Gabani, whose father was from Sudan. “I myself have had an injustice done against me by the Denver Police Department.”

But while Gabani has been proud to support the protests and the movement that has powered them, he said the events of the last few days have also presented him with “a double-edged sword” that has provoked a whole mixture of feelings.

Gabani is the owner of Buffalo Bill’s Wings & Things, a chicken wing spot located along the stretch of Colfax that has become a focal point of much of the protesting and unrest that has surrounded the State Capitol.

The restaurant’s location has provided Gabani and his staff a front-row view from which to experience the protests he calls “genuinely empowering” and that he has supported by giving out free chicken wings to protesters as they go by his shop every night. But it also means he has been forced to intervene to stop a break-in at a convenience store down the block and found himself faced with picking up the pieces — literally — after someone broke one of his restaurant’s own windows.

Gabani said that although he doesn’t know who broke the window or what their intentions were, he is certain that whoever broke it “isn’t somebody that is protesting peacefully and really cares about the cause.”

But while he sees a clear distinction between the protesters and those who have committed the vandalism and break-ins along Colfax, the restaurant owner said it has been difficult to be the owner of a small business with a staff that is made up entirely of racial minorities and yet having to deal with the impact of that act — all at a time when his business has already been reeling from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One window can be anywhere from $500 to $2,000 depending on which one breaks,” he said. “And that doesn’t just hurt us, it hurts our employees. As a family-owned business, we are all kind of in it together.”

Wanting to both shield his restaurant from harm and show that he is part of the Black community, Gabani put up a “minority-owned business” sign outside the restaurant and feels it likely helped spare it from further vandalism.

But it’s still frustrating to have been targeted at all, he said, given his support of the cause and the fact that he has been a victim of racial profiling and injustice several times in the past, including when he was sentenced to jail for what he said were actions he took to defend himself after a man struck him at the restaurant.

“When we have gone through similar things to a lot of people that are protesting but we are getting hit ourselves, it’s like beating on a horse that’s already dead,” he said.

Despite that challenge, the Buffalo Bill’s owner said he continues to strongly supports the movement and hopes it will bring about positive change for Black people, although he also thinks there is a chance it could lead to more suffering for the black community if it is taken the wrong way.

“But to get our voice out there that is something I am willing to suffer through,” he said. “Because this has been going on too long.”

Owners say they have faced profiling and worse.

That’s something Daniel Young also knows all too well. The black Denver chef, who helped launch Jive Kitchen & Bar in the Golden Triangle earlier this year, said he has frequently experienced racial profiling in his life and even been called the n-word by a cop.

After a lifetime of such treatment, seeing so many people, including many non-Blacks, participating in the protests has been highly emotional for him.

“From what I’ve seen down at Civic Center Park, I really feel that people are starting to understand what we’ve been going through and are thinking ‘enough is enough,'” he said. “And I’m really excited about that.”

Ryan Cobbins, the Black owner of Coffee at the Point in Five Points, has also been heartened by much of the protest activity he has seen around his shop in recent days.

“I think for there to be change you have to have a group of Black, brown and white folks that will move the baton and progress things forward,” he said.

However, Cobbins said he has also seen some groups around Five Points that are not there to advocate change but rather to be “agitators” and has found it unfortunate that some people think those people are representative of the legitimate protesters and their aims.

“I’m hoping that element has died down and what the true protesters is doing starts to shine brighter than these other fools that are destroying the city,” he said. “We have been fortunate not to have to board up our windows.”

Cobbins said he is also thankful to live in Denver, where he feels like the community and figures like the mayor and police chief are actually listening to the protests, which he said has not been true everywhere.

Gabani, however, sees things different. He said he feels much of the racial unrest in Denver is rooted in the failure of city and police leaders to communicate with and listen to Black residents about their experiences.

That’s an issue Gabani said he’s personally experienced time and again as he’s dealt with police officers refusing to respond to crime at the first Buffalo Bill’s location at Colfax and Uinta as well as an incident in which he said officers used excessive force against his father. That situation led his father to file a lawsuit, which Gabani said was ultimately dropped because his father feared retaliation by the police.

“I think the governor and mayor just miss a lot of issues that do need to be heard and brought to attention,” he said. “I think some people are just brushed aside and especially as a minority-owned business, I feel that we have been brushed aside.”

Young is hoping a new Five Points restaurants can be a place for conversation.

Young, who has spent over 20 years working as a chef in Denver, said he has spent much of that time feeling like he was “kind of on an island” as one of the few African-American chefs in town.

However, he’s now hoping the initial success of the protests show that the time might be right to start to change that dynamic in a significant way — and that a new business venture he is part of that is set to launch in the next few weeks could help to do just that.

That venture is an effort led by black Denver businessman Matthew Burkett and built around an in-progress renovation of the historic Rossonian Hotel in Five Points that is aiming to make the neighborhood a center for Black-owned businesses once again.

Among the new businesses the venture will bring to the neighborhood are two new restaurants Young is about to open that he says will aim to bring an ethnic flair to the neighborhood. The first is a breakfast place called Mimosa that will be located at 2752 Welton Street. The second is a dinner spot called MBP that is taking over the former Dunbar Kitchen & Taphouse space at 2844 Welton Street.

Young, who is planning to open both restaurants sometime in the next two to three weeks, said he thinks the timing could not be better to launch restaurants focused on celebrating the African-American community and culture.

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity because I think there is a genuine passion and concern from people to see these injustices gone and who are ready to support African-American businesses and say you deserve a fair opportunity,” Young said. “And I am excited to do this in a community such as Five Points and to be able to draw people to the neighborhood to engage with African Americans and frequent African-American businesses. I think it provides an opportunity for us to engage and understand each other a little bit better.”

That last point is particularly important, Young said, because he wants those spaces to be for the entire community to enjoy Black culture.

“Hopefully people will be able to come and give me an opportunity to show I can run a good business and provide a quality product and make it available to everybody, not just blacks,” he said.

Ultimately, Young hopes his restaurants and Burkett’s venture can even help to further the progress he has seen during the protests, which he is optimistic could help bring an end to police brutality and injustice.

“For me and other African Americans that I know, to finally get that situation off our backs would be a life-changing experience that we never thought we would be able to see in our lifetimes,” said Young. “Right now, we feel we are as close as we have ever been to getting understanding and possibly eliminating this out of our life.”

 

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