Opinion: Whatever the reason it closed, the Elmwood Café missed a real opportunity to be a force for change in Berkeley

Racism isn’t just a coffee shop problem. It is an America problem. And, as much as many people don’t want to admit it, Berkeley is in America.

Anybody who knows Berkeley’s Elmwood District, where the Elmwood Café is located, knows that businesses open and close on that stretch of College Avenue all the time. Jeremy’s was there for years and is now closed. Lululemon is gone. There was a frozen yogurt shop open for what seemed like two seconds. The Beanery, a different coffee shop, closed. Restaurants come and go.

Every time my wife and I drive down College Avenue we notice new businesses, closed businesses, and empty storefronts. So it is extremely unlikely the Elmwood Cafe’s end was brought about by a few days of inconvenient press and some social media comments that referenced the racism I experienced there; and/or because I challenged the Elmwood Café on its claim of being “community centered” or whatever it read on its now private Instagram page.

But even if it did close because of what happened over the last few days — and again, I do not believe that’s the case — so be it. The Elmwood Café had more than three years — since Jan. 26, 2015 to be exact — to productively respond after they told me to “Scram!” for the crime of “harassing” my wife, our baby, and my wife’s friends.

Owner Michael Pearce quickly admitted that what the café had done was racist (although he preferred to frame it as “implicit bias”). Pearce admitted this several times. He admitted it in local TV news stories and at the community forum at Willard Middle School that we both attended. Most damningly, he admitted it to me and my wife when we invited him into our home only days after it happened. It was there in our kitchen that Pearce promised to start the program to train businesses on how not to racially profile their customers. At the community forum later, Pearce went so far as to falsely claim that I was creating the program with him. You can read all about it in the article covering the event that was posted on Berkeleyside back then.

So, I categorically reject the assertion that is in today’s Berkeleyside article, and in numerous media outlets that covered the closing of the Elmwood Café, that the racism that my wife, my baby daughter, and I experienced at the Elmwood Café is just something that I am “claiming” occurred. The racism has been admitted to, proven, discussed, and finally — and most troublingly — ignored by the Elmwood Café. For more than three years.

I find it sad, because the Elmwood Café had a real opportunity to be a force for change in Berkeley and an example to the entire country. Many of the citizens of Berkeley are eager for these sorts of changes. And all the Elmwood Café had to do was dig in and follow through — to attempt to live up to the ideals that they claimed they championed on their website, just one click away from all the photos of their social justice work. I did offer to work with the Elmwood Café. But, as reported in this week’s San Francisco Chronicle, Pearce stopped answering my emails in June 2016.

Over the last three years, it became clear to me that the Elmwood Café thought it had made it through the storm. Soon after it happened, the lines at the Elmwood were regularly out the door again, while not a month goes by without people asking me, “Whatever happened with that coffee shop thing?” For the Elmwood Café, it was back to business as usual.

And then two Black men were arrested for no good reason at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, and I had finally had enough of giving Pearce and the Elmwood Café the benefit of the doubt. That’s why I spoke up again. All of America’s racism is connected. Racism isn’t just a coffee shop problem. It is an America problem. And as much as many people don’t want to admit it, Berkeley is in America.

So I shed no tears — nor do I hold a celebration — at the closing of the Elmwood Café. I’m more bummed about Jeremy’s and the frozen yogurt shop. Jeremy’s had some good clothing deals. And my kids love frozen yogurt. If anything, I hope Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore, which shares a wall with the old Elmwood Café, can expand into it. Because while I don’t know if the world needs another coffee shop, I’m always happy to see big independent bookstores.

And by the way, now that the Elmwood Café is closed, Michael and his partners can go get another business name and open under a new name and dodge this stench for the rest of their lives, but I will always be connected to this story. I can’t close up shop and reopen as Kevin Hart Jr. That’s how racism works, folks! Yay?

If there are any of the groups that the Elmwood Café supported who would like me to meet with them to see what I can do to help support their messages and causes, I invite them to reach out to me through Twitter or Facebook. And if any of the former employees who are now jobless need help finding new work, please do the same. I will do what I can to spread the word. I know some people.

W. Kamau Bell, who lives in Berkeley, is a sociopolitical comedian and the host and executive producer of the Emmy Award winning docu-series "United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell," premiering Sunday April 29, 10:15 p.m. on CNN.