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AJ Johnson: Black Lives Are More Important Than Business

Facing up to the divides in the food industry while reinforcing what's really important in a time of protest.

Andra “AJ” Johnson is a partner and bar director at Serenata inside La Cosecha in Washington DC’s Union Market, and a co-founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week. See previous interview.

In DC, for the most part, citizens of the DMV have been a part of peaceful protests. We can’t account for people that come into the city and break up concrete or bust out windows. The actual violence of what is happening is 100 percent distracting to the message. But at the same time, that’s what happens when the government doesn’t do what it needs to do for hundreds of years.

It’s definitely dividing the food industry for sure, because the first big acts of looting were last Friday, and Friday was the first actual day we were supposed to reopen in phase one—which was to have people on the patio. What does that mean, reopen on the patio? Reopen on the patio six feet apart plus 50 percent capacity. Essentially for us at Serenata, we were operating exactly the same way.

Tomorrow we’re going to take down our liquor bottles and things like that. A neighborhood in very close proximity to our business just got hit. Upper Northwest DC is actually getting hit as well—it’s not just downtown DC. I think right now we operate as necessary, we operate as usual. It’s good to see that people want to be out, but at the end of the day, buildings, businesses, inventories—they can all be replaced.

We respect the cause. If things are going to happen, things are going to happen. We’ll protect ourselves as much as possible. But the message still stands: Black lives matter, no matter what.

I’ve been in touch with a lot of my friends and a couple of ex-employees who actually were down on the front lines. I’m keeping in constant communication with them and letting them know—if you need anything, I got you.

Black people are not monolithic. Black people are going to feel different ways about this. Everybody’s going to feel different about it. If your business gets hit, you may or may not feel the same way as somebody else. What I can say is that for me personally, as a Black person, the business that I work at and the business that I am a part of has decided to stand with me. And so I understand that my life is more important than the things at the business.

There are other businesses who have reacted in a similar way. But it’s very clear that other businesses in Washington DC—namely old-guard restaurants that don’t understand—are tone-deaf to what is actually happening. At this point in time, brunch doesn’t matter. Getting your patio season in doesn’t matter. You’re not hitting the numbers you would hit anyway, right? It’s 50 percent capacity. You’re not hitting those numbers. Those things don’t matter.

From COVID to this entire situation, just in DC, you have thousands of people unemployed. We’re talking about food in a global pandemic. We’re talking about food that is a necessity. It is not about an “experience” at this point. There are people without jobs. There are people who don’t have anything. But we still have people making money writing about food. It’s been a really weird and very interesting sort of situation where your PR person still has a job. Your food writer still has a job. But servers don’t have a job, and probably won’t for years to come.

Erik Bruner-Yang put out an amazing statement about how his complicity and his silence has perpetuated racism in this business, and how now, at this point, he understands who he is and what he needs to do. For people like that to step out and say something, that means a lot. That means a lot. Black people would rather be alive. Obviously, we want our businesses to be safe. But we’d rather be alive.

There are some people who are doing it right and acknowledging this and understanding. And then there are people who just don’t get it, and that’s okay. That is totally okay. But I think at this point, especially with DC, everybody draws that line in the sand of where you go and where you don’t go. And those lines are being drawn very hard right now. Nobody’s surprised about who’s saying what. Nobody.