Yendelela Neely Holston, an attorney and the chief diversity and inclusion officer for Kilpatrick Townsend, penned an open letter responding to OK Cafe Owner Susan DeRose’s stance on Black Lives Matter (BLM).
What Now Atlanta (WNA) last week published comments from DeRose in which the restauranteur explained her position on the movement and defended a banner at the long-standing Buckhead diner that stated, “Lives That Matter Are Made With Positive Purpose.”
DeRose hung the banner at OK Cafe as BLM organizers were leading protests worldwide to shed light on police brutality and systemic racism.
“[DeRose’s] comments were troubling, and thus far have gone unaddressed,” Holston Wednesday told WNA in an email.
“I would like to change that with an open letter response.”
Dear Susan DeRose,
I have read (and re-read) your June 9, 2020 justification for your “Lives that Matter are Made with Positive Purpose” banner and it is not OK.
Contrary to your assertion, your words are not “words of peace.” They are words of oppression. As you admit, your words were in direct response and intended to be a message to “a [Black Lives Matter] protest march that passed by the restaurant.” Your sign about lives of purpose posted in response to a peaceful march was intended to (and did) directly communicate that the lives of those protesting were not lives of purpose. Your banner further communicated that Blacks lives—in and of themselves—are not lives of purpose, but that they must earn validation. Having read your statements, it’s clear that you have tried to clean up those assertions by maintaining that your sign and “tea party” were about protecting and defending small businesses, but if you really wanted to communicate a plea to save all small businesses, a sign that read the following would have been appropriate: “Dismantle racist systems, not small businesses.” You communicated exactly what you meant to communicate.
OK Café is not a mere restaurant in Atlanta, but an established institution. Every day, students—our most impressionable minds—eat there. Countless business breakfast and brunch meetings occur there and its sister restaurants: Bones and Blue Ridge Grill. In fact, I have had multiple business meetings at these restaurants myself. When local institutions such as OK Café vehemently oppose the current effort to finally provide long-sought racial equality, it moves us further away from a country that provides “liberty and justice for all.” To paraphrase, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., peace is not the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice. To intentionally try to antagonize a peaceful march—the purpose of which was to seek justice—shows that you do not want peace, you want the status quo. And that Ms. DeRose, is simply not acceptable.
Furthermore, you deride anyone who was offended by your sign, stating that they need “an education in this country.” It is not those offended by your sign that need an education, it is you who needs the education. So here you go from an educated (Furman University magna cum laude graduate and Duke University School of Law cum laude graduate) Black woman: A MAN WAS KILLED! George Floyd was killed by the very institution and people whose job it is to protect and serve us. Mr. Floyd was killed in broad daylight. He was killed on camera! And he was not the first Black person to be killed in this manner, and, unfortunately, he isn’t the last. Police departments are just one of the many systems in this country designed to work for you and oppress me. The protests, with which you take so much issue, are in response to the repeated messages in this country that Black lives are meaningless. That Black people do not inherently matter; so much so that police officers and vigilante citizens execute them in broad daylight, on camera because they have no fear of consequence and no belief that their actions are wrong.
The murder of George Floyd was the last straw of a series of inexcusable and excessive uses of deadly force against Black people. It was the tipping point in a deep-rooted history of injustice to which you have been witness, yet to which you have chosen to be silent. Yes, looting is wrong, but you did not hang your sign in response to looting. Admittedly, you erected it so that “it would be on display” for a peaceful march that was passing by.
Moreover, looting is a symptom of the problem. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly observed, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” We are tired of people not hearing (or in your case completely disregarding) our cries of humanity. You and others like you (and by this I do not mean all white people, I mean people who continue to defend and reinforce the systemic racism plaguing our country) are clear that property—buildings that can be rebuilt—is more valuable than a Black life—that can never be replaced. That is why we must continuously remind you that we are people, too! Our lives matter, too. If our country treated everyone as if their lives as mattered, Ms. DeRose, there would be no need for the constant reminders that the lives of Black people have value too.
But not only are you “offended” by our reminders that our “Black Lives Matter,” you query why we are not “grateful.” The crux of your letter is that Black people should be thankful and should give a “shoutout to America” for the crumbs that we have received while white society, as a collective, continues to eat cake. This is so asinine at its core that to respond to you would only make me look foolish. So rather than respond to this or the numerous other tangents, red herrings, and rabbit holes (1) in your often incoherent ramblings, I will end where I started: Your words are not OK. Your words are not “words of peace.” Your words perpetuate oppression, division and inequality.
The only thing in your article that was remotely worthwhile was the following statement: “So, I don’t believe what they believe, and if they don’t like that, don’t come into my restaurant. That’s what capitalism is all about.” You are right; that is exactly what capitalism is about. And to that end, you will never see another penny from me. I hope that anyone reading this letter—who has asked themselves what they can do, how they can transform outrage to action, how they can move from emotion to progress—will join me in refusing to patronize OK Café, Blue Ridge Grill, and Bones. Because what everyday people can do to effect change is to refuse to spend money with or otherwise show support for the systems, institutions and, yes, even people that perpetuate racial inequality. Ms. DeRose, thank you for the invitation to start with you and the Liberty Restaurant Group.
(1) The primary rabbit hole down which you lead us pertains to a t-shirt worn by Killer Mike. As they say in South Carolina, where I was raised: “a hit dog will holler.” Meaning you do not take offense to things that you do not feel are directed to you. Your extreme offense at the words on Killer Mike’s shirt show that you are well aware of your place of social superiority in America’s race caste system and that you understand it was designed to keep you there as a metaphorical “master.” Your “outrage” at Killer Mike’s shirt is concerning, but what is even more troubling is your complete lack of outrage at the systemic racism in this Country.