Mercury Staff

A happy hour event for people of color has left a North Portland restaurant drowning in hateful, threatening messages from across the country—and now the local business community is hesitant to support the monthly meetup.

Since December 2017, Backyard Social, a restaurant on North Killingsworth, has dedicated one Monday a month to spotlighting a local nonprofit, donating 10 percent of that day’s profits to featured organizations, which have included the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. In May, that nonprofit was Brown Hope, a newly founded racial justice group overseen by Portland activist Cameron Whitten.

Whitten used the opportunity to host Brown Hope’s first “Reparations Happy Hour,” where people of color were invited to meet at Backyard Social to discuss how local politics and policy are impacting their communities. Thanks to donations raised by Brown Hope’s online fundraising, every attendee would be given $10 just for showing up.

In a majority white city, it’s a small step toward reparations—the idea that Americans descended from enslaved people are owed financial compensation from white America for centuries of injustices against them. Whitten’s goal is to have predominantly white donors contribute to the monthly event; on the day of the inaugural happy hour, a number of neighbors intentionally dined at Backyard Social to contribute. The event was split into two parts: One was a private meeting for the nearly 40 people of color who showed up, and the other was an open discussion with diners about Brown Hope’s goals.

“It went so smoothly,” Whitten says. “Which makes this all so surreal.”

He’s referring to the media firestorm that followed. A few days after the happy hour took place, national outlets caught wind of the event and published stories about the free money Whitten was doling out to people of color. Right-wing pundits began spinning it as “reverse racism,” claiming that Brown Hope discriminated against white people. Whitten was interviewed by the New York Times and appeared on Fox News to defend the event. Online, alt-right groups immediately targeted Backyard Social, falsely accusing the restaurant of refusing to serve white people.

"White-owned businesses are now experiencing the kind of harassment that people of color have to face regularly.”

Soon, people from across the US were showering the restaurant’s Yelp, Facebook, and Google pages with bad reviews, claiming they had been turned away for being white or criticizing the restaurant’s food, service, and cleanliness—anything to negatively impact the business. Then the calls started rolling in.

“What’s your name?” Latima Chambers, a co-owner of Backyard Social, recalls one caller asking her. When she didn’t give it, they responded, “That doesn’t matter. I will Google your business and I will find you.” The restaurant received so many threatening and hateful calls that Chambers filed a police report—then she unplugged the phone.

“We didn’t see this coming at all. It’s been very stressful and very scary,” says Chambers. While the attacks haven’t escalated into any physical encounters, over the weekend the restaurant received a few pieces of threatening mail. One came with a penny taped to it, reading, “A diverse coin for your blackyard social.” The return address? “The Great Southern States.”

Despite the hate mail, Chambers and her co-owners maintain their support of Brown Hope.

“In this political climate, we need to have these conversations,” she says. “The worst thing to do is back down and hide.”

Last week, Chambers met with John Blomgren, a co-owner of Back to Eden Bakery, the café that was planning to host Reparations Happy Hour in June. Chambers encouraged him to host the event despite potential pushback. Back to Eden had already been receiving criticism, but not just for its connection to Brown Hope: Just a few weeks earlier, Back to Eden fired two white staff members for turning away a Black customer who entered the shop as it was closing. Blomgren has been criticized for the decision by both conservative groups and liberal racial justice advocates.

"The worst thing to do is back down and hide.”

After getting new hate mail for planning to host Brown Hope’s happy hour, Blomgren allegedly shared his concerns with Whitten. Whitten, who said he felt pressured by Blomgren’s anxiety surrounding the event, decided to cancel the pending June meetup at Back to Eden. The bakery has since changed management, and neither Blomgren nor the café’s new CEO responded to the Mercury’s requests for comment.

Whitten is sympathetic to these businesses’ fears triggered by mysterious threats and hate mail, especially since it’s familiar territory for him. Whitten is a longtime activist in the Portland community—in 2012, he waged a 55-day hunger strike in front of City Hall to protest housing inequities—making him a regular target of vicious threats, both online and in person.

“I take harassment with a grain of salt,” Whitten says. “I think the alt-right sees they can’t get to me, and so they focus on other areas.”

But Whitten also believes the harassment of white-owned businesses like Backyard Social and Back to Eden may help white Portlanders truly understand the emotional and financial impacts that racism has on communities of color.

“It’s imperative to recognize that this is what racial justice work looks like,” Whitten says. “This is the reality. White-owned businesses are now experiencing the kind of harassment that people of color have to face regularly.”

But it may make finding a business to host future Reparations Happy Hours more challenging. After dropping Back to Eden as a June venue, Whitten’s unsure what venues will host his polarizing event.

“I’m concerned about getting other businesses to sign on to work with us,” Whitten says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next. But we’re not quitting.”