Kamau Bell. Photo by Matthias Clamer Courtesy of FX
W. Kamau Bell, who wrote a blog post about being the victim of racial prejudice at the Elmwood Café in Berkeley. Photo: Matthias Clamer/FX
W. Kamau Bell, who wrote a blog post about being the victim of racial prejudice at the Elmwood Café in Berkeley. Photo: Matthias Clamer/FX

UPDATE, 7.07 p.m. W. Kamau Bell says he is committed to attending the open meeting on race, and happy that BUSD stepped up to organize it. “I will be there. And my wife and kids will be there. This is about our families,” he said. Bell, who was out of town working when he spoke to Berkeleyside, said that as “a black comedian who talks about race,” his schedule is very busy this month, but that he is determined to be present at the forum. He added: “We never called for anyone to be fired.” He said he was aware of many of the new details reported by Berkeleyside today, and had talked to Elmwood Café owner Michael Pearce today to stress that he would be at the forum.

ORIGINAL STORY: The Elmwood Café employee who was fired after making a remark that was construed as racist did not just tell the comedian W. Kamau Bell to “scram,” or words to that effect. A customer had approached her to report that a man outside was harassing customers, which prompted her to tap on the window and indicate to Bell to “stop selling.”

But even though her words, which were likely not heard by Bell, were less inflammatory than the comedian recounted on his website, the employee was fired because she did not try to solve the problem or report it to management, according to Michael Pearce, the owner of the café.

The new details of the Jan. 26 encounter between Bell and the Elmwood Café employee came to light just as Pearce was making arrangements for a community forum on race in response to the incident.

The Berkeley Unified School District has offered to host the open meeting, which will discuss race issues. BUSD reached out to Pearce and said they would be happy to organize the meeting that Pearce had suggested to Bell be held. They spoke after Bell wrote on his blog about his experience of being asked to leave the Berkeley coffee shop.

In his Jan. 29 post, which went viral, Bell described how an employee of the Elmwood Café at 2900 College Ave. told him to “scram,” or words to that effect while he was talking to his white wife and her friends at one of its outdoor tables.

W. Kamau Bell, a Berkeley resident who performs regularly in Bay Area comedy clubs, said he was shocked when the employee tapped on the window from inside the café and indicated that he should leave the area. The employee apparently thought Bell might be trying to sell something. Bell said he was holding a laptop and showing a newly purchased book to one of his wife’s friends at the time.

“It is the definition of prejudice,” Bell told Berkeleyside. “They looked at me, they judged me against other people, an idea they had in their head about what a person like me is going to do, and then they acted in stupidity and ignorance.”

Pearce, who first heard about the incident when he read Bell’s blog post, reached out to the comedian and they agreed a public forum to address issues of race would be an appropriate step.

At Bell’s suggestion, Pearce has also recently met with Race Forward, an organization devoted to advancing racial justice.

BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans, after hearing about what happened, and observing the significant online debate about the incident (which includes more than 670 comments on Berkeleyside’s story), saw the value of a discussion being held at a Berkeley school, according to BUSD spokesperson Mark Coplan.

“This is an important issue and we can provide a neutral place for a discussion which can be educational for our students,” said Coplan.

Elmwood Cafe at xxxx College Ave. in Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor
The Elmwood Cafe at 2900 College Ave. in Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor
The Elmwood Cafe at 2900 College Ave. in Berkeley. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Planning for the meeting is in the preliminary stages, but it will likely take place at Willard Middle School this month, Coplan said. It will be modeled on the BUSD-organized Black Lives Matter forum held on Dec. 17, 2014 which saw a panel of experts, including Pastor Michael McBride of The Way Christian Center, Berkeley Technology Academy principal Sheila Quintana, and Berkeley High Black Student Union President Kadijah Means discuss the local community response to the Ferguson and New York police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Pearce said he welcomed BUSD’s offer, and that the forum would be a great learning experience for him and the café, as well as the students and others who attend.

“As a small business owner we want to listen and learn,” he said. “I’m not an expert.”

Pearce said he expected Bell to participate.

On Wednesday, Pearce spoke more about what he understood happened on Monday Jan. 26 that triggered Bell’s blog post and the subsequent outcry.

Pearce was not at the café at the time. Neither was the restaurant’s manager, Kara Hammond, who was dealing with a family crisis. Both were made aware of the incident only after Bell wrote about it three days later.

A customer approached a cafe employee and told her somebody was harassing customers at the café’s outdoor tables, said Pearce. That led the employee to look through the window, see Bell, and tap on the window.

The employee then motioned to Bell through the window and said “no selling.” (Bell described this as being asked to “scram,” “git” or words to that effect.)

It was another employee who then went outside to deliver food to customers and, on seeing that the Bell group was upset, engaged with Bell and his wife. The employee said she didn’t believe the action of her colleague was race-related.

That employee was on a three-hour try-out, a customary practice for all potential new hires at the Elmwood Café, Pearce said. She was not hired.

Asked why he had fired the first employee who gestured at Bell, Pearce said there were several reasons.

“First, if a customer who comes to our café feels truly unwelcome, then that’s a problem,” he said. Secondly, he continued, the employee did not make any effort to solve the problem. The third reason, he said, was because it was her responsibility to report the incident and she did not do so.

Pearce decided the employee should not continue working at the Elmwood Café.

Berkeleyside will provide details of the BUSD-organized open meeting when they are available.

Comedian W. Kamau Bell reports being victim of racism at Berkeley’s Elmwood Café (01.29.15)
Berkeley Unified holds Black Lives Matter forum (12.22.14)

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...