Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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An employee at a D.C. coffee shop located on the grounds of the National Cathedral says she was fired after telling a customer that the Trump 2020 pin she was wearing made her feel uncomfortable. But the company behind the café says they terminated the employee for other reasons, and their investigation into the pin incident had been in response to the subsequent negative social media attention. They, like other local establishments, are navigating divisive politics in their spaces following the 2016 election.

The 22-year-old employee asked to be identified only by her first name, Hannah, out of a fear that future employment opportunities could be jeopardized. She says she was working behind the register of Open City at the National Cathedral on Friday, July 26 when two women came up to order.

“I was very friendly,” Hannah says, even recommending menu items. The two women were paying when Hannah noticed one of them had a Trump 2020 pin on her backpack. “I cooled down,” Hannah says, adding that the woman noticed and asked her what was wrong. 

“I said, ‘I don’t appreciate you wearing that pin,’” Hannah recounts. The two women then requested a refund from Hannah’s manager, which was granted, before leaving.

On their way out, Hannah says one woman approached her again and told her she was discriminating against them. “As a queer, low-income woman, I think it’s funny you think it’s discrimination,” Hannah says she responded.

Tryst Trading Co., which owns the café, and the National Cathedral both confirm that the women then went to the National Cathedral to speak with someone before learning that the Cathedral is unaffiliated with the café. They then took to Facebook Live, sharing their story. Their version is similar to Hannah’s. 

“I believe everyone is entitled to have their views but it should never cross over the counter,” Jacqueline Johanning, the woman who had the pin, says in the video that has been viewed more than 700 times. “This type of discrimination I’ve never experienced before because of my political views. I do have very strong political views. I also am an extremely tolerant person and love every person. I think every person should have their right to feel how they feel, but those feelings should never impact anybody else’s experience.”

When reached by phone, Johanning said wasn’t aware of Hannah’s termination. “That doesn’t bring me any joy,” she told City Paper, and reiterated what she said in her Facebook Live about the situation. “I think it could’ve been a teachable moment,” she said. Johanning instead would’ve wanted the manager to de-escalate the situation and speak with the employee involved. “You can feel however you want,” she says, “but those feelings should never come across the counter.” 

The Facebook Live video prompted Open City to post on their own Facebook account on Friday that it was investigating the incident, explains Shannon Trexler, chief operating officer of Tryst Trading Co.

“We value and respect both of our hard-working employees and our loyal customers, and we never want Open City at the National Cathedral to be a place where political disagreements get in the way of having a good time, or a good meal,” Open City posted. (Read the full statement below).

Hannah says she was then taken off the schedule for the weekend before being brought into a meeting on Monday with the general manager of the café where she was terminated for violating two core principles of the company: all for one and one for all, and mindfulness in every moment.

While Trexler confirmed Hannah’s termination was due to violating these principles, she says it wasn’t in response to the July 26 incident, but another incident in March that was perceived as unprofessional, but not political in nature. “This being the second type of similar interaction became the decision to terminate with her,” Trexler says, adding, “We’re not taking a political side.”

Hannah confirmed that another incident took place in March concerning a customer that her manager spoke to her about, but says she wasn’t formally disciplined at the time of that incident. Additionally, when Hannah was brought in to meet the general manager on Monday, she says the March incident was never brought up as the reason behind her termination nor was it named as a contributing factor. 

Kevin Eckstrom, chief communications officer at the National Cathedral, says the Cathedral told Tryst Trading Co. immediately that it was aware of the incident. He says the Cathedral conveyed a message to the company that “anyone that comes on the Cathedral property should be welcomed,” but was not involved in any disciplinary decisions. Tryst Trading Co. has rented Cathedral-owned space for Open City since 2014.

Friday’s incident comes at a time when D.C. establishments are grappling with how to respond to politicized incidents in their spaces that often make their way to social media.

In July, the Washington Post reported on a man who tweeted that he was kicked out of Hill Country Barbecue Market for confronting someone wearing a Make America Great Again hat. Social media users largely took the side of the restaurant, the Post reported.

Just last June, when D.C.’s The Red Hen was mistaken for another restaurant, which had kicked out then-White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, social media users angrily attacked the establishment.

There are other examples, such as the time a crowd gathered around Senator Ted Cruz and his wife and shouted at them while dining atFiola, and the time that a group of people confronted former secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen about immigration policy while she was dining at MXDC Cocina Mexicana.

Trexler says going forward, the company plans on offering training for its employees on how to handle politics. “We always encourage employees to engage their managers as soon as possible if they’re uncomfortable,” Trexler says. 

A day after Hannah’s employment was terminated, the National Cathedral admonished a slew of social media attacks by President Donald Trump on lawmakers of color in a July 30 statement.

“We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation,” the Cathedral’s statement reads.

For her part, Hannah says she hopes that restaurants and other establishments in the District will give employees the “freedom to feel like people and not like cogs.” Employees should be able to discuss politics with customers, regardless of whether they agree with the customer or not, she explains. “I’m not saying ban all Trump supporters,” she adds.

In a post on her personal Facebook page about the incident, Hannah cites a part of the Cathedral’s statement to the president, which asks, “When does silence become complicity?”

“I only hope everyone,” Hannah writes, “including those serving coffee on the other side of the Cathedral grounds, is empowered to act on this statement.” 

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