Sunyatta Amen
Sunyatta Amen Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

“This outcry across the country, I’m pretty sure I feel it in my bones,” says Calabash Tea & Tonic owner Sunyatta Amen. “What I see is a cresting. It’s not the first one, but there are firestorms across the country like I haven’t seen before in my lifetime.” She would know. Both of Amen’s parents were activists, and her mother was a member of the Black Panther Party. “I’ve been protesting and marching since I’ve been able to walk,” Amen says.

Protests against police brutality following the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have been occurring nightly in D.C. since last week. Peaceful demonstrations calling for racial justice have periodically been interrupted by agitators causing damage to storefronts and looting in several pockets of the District.

Restaurant owners are grappling with how to respond. Do they complain about broken glass, graffiti, and curfews or express their solidarity? Black business owners like Amen say they’re experiencing a full range of emotions. City Paper checked in with three of them. None of their enterprises suffered physical damage.

“It’s been emotionally exhausting,” Amen says. “Brown and black bodies that have been subject to government control and death is not new. What’s different about this from other movements I’ve witnessed as a child is that it’s happening nationally and social media is bringing awareness to it. You get to see things in real time and without commentary and biases. This is an opportunity and we should strike.”

She’s optimistic the demonstrations will have a lasting impact for the cynical reason that there are economic ramifications. Businesses have had to close and cleaning up costs money. “One of the only ways that protests and rebellion affect the higher-ups in society is when it hits them in the pocket,” she says. 

Amen hasn’t been going to Lafayette Park or anywhere else to protest. “My great grandmother was a healer,” she says. “Everyone has medicine to bring to a village. The secret is figuring out what your medicine is and delivering it to the people.” She sees her role in the current movement as two-fold: She wants to create a safe space for conversation and wellness while also mentoring young employees of color as they make their way through life. 

Calabash Tea & Tonic has the goods to cure what ails you whether you’re dealing with anxiety or allergies. Amen’s an advocate for what she calls “traditional medicine” and believes herbal remedies aren’t as readily available in inner cities. She’s worked to change that at her shops in Shaw and Brookland. 

“We see a disproportionate amount of people of color with diabetes, hypertension, and nervous systems that are shot,” Amen says. “There’s this forgone conclusion that people of color want to eat horrible things. Far from that. We lack the time and space for recreational activity. We’re just trying to stay alive and survive.”

Black D.C. residents are also dying from COVID-19 in large numbers. Amen is recommending remedies for immune support to both her regular customers and protestors who have been in close proximity with one another. “We want to support those who have been down marching,” she says. “We make sure they reset their physical system. We’re in the middle of a plague for fuck’s sake.” 

Amen supports the black community by who she employs and how. “One of our guys came to us as a sophomore at Howard University,” she explains. “Now he’s a graduate, a husband, and a father. We’re happy to see people through their journeys. We’re invested in watching them move forward.” 

Karin Sellers takes a similar nurturing approach at her ice scream shop near Howard University. Here’s The Scoop opened last August. “I decided to teach our young people that there are possibilities,” she says. “I’m trying to create an environment that allows them to discuss their frustrations and also help in any positive way I can through education, spirituality, being a big mamma. I want to provide a safe haven.” 

Sellers has two sons of her own. Earlier this week, Here’s The Scoop shared a message on Facebook saying its owner “recognizes and [sympathizes] with our community’s struggle with the inequalities and injustices faced by black America. As a mother herself of two young black men, she worries every sec, min, and hr for the welfare of her sons as they navigate this life.” 

When Capitals fans were celebrating the Stanley Cup win in 2018, Sellers and her teenage son were picking up food at District Taco downtown when they had a scare. They idled in a handicap spot, but intended to move if anyone needed the space. According to Sellers, just as her son was getting out of the car to get the food, a car full of white men with the windows rolled down yelled, ‘Fuck the police.’ Metro Transit Police officers across the street assumed Sellers’ son uttered the expletive. 

“All of the sudden two offers come toward my car,” she says. “One stayed back. Another came around and started banging on my passenger side window. He said, ‘You need to move this car and your son—I should lock him up for saying what he said.’ If I hadn’t been there, what would have happened?” 

Like Amen, Sellers hasn’t been participating in demonstrations. “But the subject matter is weighing heavily on my heart,” she says. “It’s awakening people who have never had to think about the things we think about. I’m not happy about the looting, but I’m happy [racial justice] has been pushed to the forefront.” 

She’s been touched by the support she’s received from customers. “Every race, every culture when they come in they express that they’re happy I’m still open,” she says. “They really like that the business is still in existence in this city.” 

Brandon Byrd’s phone has been buzzing with messages of support. He launched the Goodies Frozen Custard truck in 2012 and debuted a prosecco and cocktail van a year ago. He’s also gearing up to open a brick-and-mortar concept in the former Ice House in Old Town Alexandria. The past three months have been a struggle because his mobile businesses are closely tied to events. With COVID-19 making weddings and other parties impossible, Byrd had to reinvent his company as a delivery model. 

“A lot of my friends have been reaching out to me,” he says. “They started as customers and became friends. A lion’s share of them are white. They have genuine concern.” 

Byrd, who is from Alabama, talks about how systemic racism has been in America since day one. The difference now is it’s being caught on camera. “Sixty years ago there wasn’t Instagram capturing what’s going on,” he says. “Now that we have it, we’re showing what’s always been.” He’s supportive of the protests, but is disappointed that the critical opportunity to force change is “being ruined by a few bad characters” who are being destructive. 

“The conversation about a man being murdered shouldn’t be in the same conversation as looting,” he says. “There’s a disconnect. Now the focus isn’t about [George] Floyd. What happened to the original conversation?”

Byrd hopes, above all else, the protests spurs Americans to put work into creating better understanding and empathy. “It’s uncomfortable talking about race in America,” he says. “Key stakeholders must be willing to have that honest conversation. Being uncomfortable is short-lived once you realize there’s a lot of commonality.”