In 2018 the Hasta Muerte coffee shop in East Oakland made national headlines when they asked Oakland police officers to leave their cafe.
Matt Gereghty, part-owner of the cooperative cafe, was the first person to tell an officer the cafe's policy of asking cops to leave. He read from a collectively written script the staff had composed before opening the shop.
Gereghty tells me it wasn't meant to be a major thing, just the cafe's attempts to ensure peace of mind for their customers. They serve a community where people have had traumatic experiences with police officers, or live in fear due to their documentation status.
Keep in mind it was 2018, and President Donald Trump's pro-police and anti-immigration rhetoric was flooding media.
When people found out about the policy, it led to pro-Trump, right wing protestors waving American flags with thin blue lines in front of the cafe. Hasta Muerte also received a letter from the president of the Oakland Police Association saying the policy was “a matter of concern for all Oakland Police Officers.”
The story was covered locally and nationally; it grew to the point that they even mentioned it on The View. But Hasta Muerte hasn't officially talked to any publications about what happened until now.
This week on Rightnowish, we discuss this East Oakland cafe's community-based approach to safety, cops and the media.
Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Matt Gereghty.
Matt: We certainly didn't think that it would go from local nightly news, which is where it started, to Fox & Friends and making national news.... We were just like, this is blown out of proportion, this happens in cities everywhere all the time.
Matt: There's plenty of people doing work around this. We're just doing what we do from where we're at. And so we agreed we're not going to talk to media at all about this, ‘cuz we know that there's a whole PR machine that's mostly built for these institutions and promotes the work of the police.
Pen: How did it feel when it hit the news?
Matt: It was definitely a mix of feelings because we had already begun to receive some flack. We had started to receive Facebook messages saying, '...this is a shameful thing' and like, 'This is a Latino officer. You should have respect for Latino officers.' And we're just like, no, that's not how it really works, though…
Matt: We were a new business - Latinx, POC, co-op kind of a ragtag crew - we just wanted to maintain our business and keep pushing… We had some fun with it too...
Matt: Our phone started blowing up with reporters calling and we decided we weren't going to talk to them. We wore bandanas in the shop so they couldn't take our photos. We kept the blinds drawn. And I remember the first reporter, I think, from NBC, she was waiting at the door before we opened and she came in and I had put on Zenyatta Mondatta, The Police album, my favorite one, so that when she asked me about the police, I could say we love The Police, we have all their albums.
Pen: What's happened since then?
Matt: We like to say that for every customer lost, which maybe was a handful, three times that number came in as supporters. So we've been able to hone in on who our community is because they can see what we're about... It wasn't our intention to grandstand. It was more natural… It came from who we are as people.
Pen: Understood, why talk to me now?
Matt: Now, 3 years later, the escalations of last summer, both in terms of police killings and violence, white supremacism coming to the surface, people are like, 'well, if you're not going to call the police, who you're going to call?' ....That's a fine question. Let's talk about it.
Pen: So Matt, what are some of the strategies that you and the cafe have taken in order to ward off potential issues of violence or danger?
Matt: So we had a de-escalation and self-defense training. That was a first step to make sure that [we could handle] neighborhood stuff, issues on the corner in a way that we feel safe about putting our bodies in the way or just clocking the situation and going from there.
Pen: And safety at the cafe was put to the test… bring us into what happened.
Matt: There was a run of laptop robberies across the Bay. I mean, there was rings that were doing this. Of course, it popped up at our shop. So we're like, we have to do something. We built a little screen door to make a barrier for folks running out. That definitely helped, and a few times they got caught up on that. On the daily, It was good for people with small children so they wouldn't run out to the street.
Matt: And then we just talked to our neighbors... Honestly, I rolled up some joints and passed them out and chilled and just talked [with people outside] like, 'look, you've been seeing this happen, right? Like, I wonder what we can do? If you guys can give us a heads up, if you see them....' And they answered the call. They didn't come tell us, they just stepped to those young people and we're like, 'hey, take it somewhere else.' And that's and that ended up being how it tapered off.
Pen: Do you think this is an example that can be replicated in other places?
Matt: I think with certain care. We're talking about it now with a core group of other specifically POC and Black owned co-ops and small businesses... a little alliance so we can share ideas, stories, resources. [For example] how do you have safety without police? How do you make a living without exploiting people and also being affordable enough for your people to afford in capitalism? They're all connected.
Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.