Brett Kavanaugh is the latest target of protests at D.C. restaurants

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After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, eliminating the fundamental right to abortion, comedian Samantha Bee floated a plan for targeting the conservatives on the court who made up the majority opinion: “We have to raise hell — in our cities, in Washington, in every restaurant Justice Alito eats at for the rest of his life,” she implored viewers of her late-night show, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” “Because if Republicans have made our lives hell, it’s time to return the favor.”

It seems some abortion rights activists are taking a page out of that playbook — although the first justice to have his dinner publicly disrupted wasn’t Samuel A. Alito Jr., but Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who left Morton’s the Steakhouse in Washington on Thursday night through a back entrance to avoid the crowd gathered out front, according to Politico.

In a city that draws sign-wielding activists from across the country on a regular basis, Washington restaurants — and even those far outside the Beltway — have long contended with protests, some even centered on individual diners. But many are bracing for more such incidents, as protesters angered by the Roe decision — and enabled by rapid-fire social media organizing — look to confront conservative justices at their homes and at the restaurants where they dine.

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“The idea that business — any business — is somehow immune to what’s happening politically in the country has always struck me as ridiculous,” emailed Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, Va., a Democratic stronghold in the middle of Trump country. Four years ago, Wilkinson had her own run-in with a polarizing public figure when Sarah Sanders, then press secretary to President Donald Trump, was dining with her husband and others at Red Hen. Wilkinson politely asked Sanders to leave, an ejection that made the owner a hero among liberals and a villain among conservatives.

“When it comes to dire events that will affect millions, nobody should expect that a restaurant exists in some magic bubble,” Wilkinson wrote Friday from England, where her husband is leading a study-aboard program.

“Everyone who works in or runs a restaurant knows that a lot of Americans are scared and angry about recent events and are feeling compelled to stand up and shout about it in the streets,” Wilkinson continued. “If that street happens to be the sidewalk in front of your restaurant where one of the architects of the looming wave of rollback of rights is dining, well, what can I tell you? It’s still America, and the right to assemble and the right to speak still exist.”

A scenario similar to the one at Morton’s played out in 2018 (coincidentally, during Kavanaugh’s nomination hearings) when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his wife, Heidi, took a side exit at the elegant downtown restaurant Fiola to escape protesters chanting, “We believe survivors,” a reference to Christine Blasey Ford, who testified that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her.

Then-Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled in 2018 at upscale Mexican restaurant MXDC Cocina Mexicana over family separations at the border. Days earlier, a fellow diner at Shaw’s Espita Mezcaleria reportedly shouted at White House aide Stephen Miller, calling him a fascist.

The fallout from such public displays can be hard on restaurants. After the Cruz story made news, Fiola’s social media accounts were attacked, its phone lines tied up, and people posted one-star reviews to its Yelp page. Owners Fabio and Maria Trabocchi said they and their employees were threatened, both for not protecting the Cruzes and for allegedly tipping off protesters to the couple’s reservation. MXDC’s Yelp page, too was flooded after Nielsen’s visit, with people leaving politically motivated reviews, which the online service deleted.

The fallout for the Red Hen, a 26-seat restaurant, was perhaps worst: Its phone line was hacked, its Yelp page flooded with negative reviews, its owner and staff doxed and threatened, its booking system overloaded with reservations that diners had no intention of honoring.

“The fallout can last for years,” Wilkinson acknowledged in an email. “We are still feeling it, just over four years later. But here’s the thing: Fallout falls on both sides. Yes, we still have to put up with people mailing us nasty letters and leaving bad Yelp reviews. At the same time, we are still greeting guests who tell us they’ve been waiting for years for the opportunity to come to our restaurant and eat with us. … And in many ways, the support we received in the wake of the event four years ago is what has seen us through the most recent challenges of covid, inflation, etc.”

Morton’s was already being mocked online Friday for its response to the Kavanaugh protesters. The steakhouse released a statement to Politico condemning the protesters. “Honorable Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh and all of our other patrons at the restaurant were unduly harassed by unruly protesters while eating dinner at our Morton’s restaurant,” it said. “Politics, regardless of your side or views, should not trample the freedom at play of the right to congregate and eat dinner.”

Many commenters seized on the restaurant’s claims about diner’s “rights,” with some jokingly pointing out that the Constitution doesn’t mention anything about dinners or Morton’s, apparently mocking conservative originalists. Some noted that the Supreme Court has upheld the right to sidewalk protests, including those by people harassing women on their way into abortion clinics. The company’s Twitter account appeared to have turned off comments on Friday morning and its Yelp page displayed a “Unusual Activity Alert.”

“This business recently received increased public attention, which often means people come to this page to post their views on the news,” the Yelp notice read. “While we don’t take a stand one way or the other when it comes to this incident, we’ve temporarily disabled the posting of content to this page as we work to investigate whether the content you see here reflects actual consumer experiences rather than the recent events.”

Representatives of the chain, whose parent company is Landry’s, did not respond to a request for comment. Landry’s chief executive is billionaire Tilman Fertitta, who stars on CNBC’s “Billion Dollar Buyer” and whom Trump has called a “friend.” The Supreme Court’s media office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In D.C., political affiliation is one of 21 protected traits for those who live, visit or work in the city. As such, a business, such as a restaurant, cannot refuse service to someone based on party affiliation. Supreme Court justices have long insisted they are nonpartisan, even if they are appointed and confirmed under Democratic or Republican presidents. But the public and pundits alike increasingly view the Supreme Court as a political branch of government.

Even though the Red Hen isn’t bound by D.C. law, Wilkinson said her decision to boot Sanders was not based on party affiliation. She booted Sanders because of a Trump administration decision that the spokeswoman defended: to separate families who try to cross the U.S. border with Mexico.

“The Red Hen issue is often misconstrued as an act against a person because she was a Republican. It was not. It was a refusal of a specific person for a specific action or set of actions on her part. It’s quite a different rationale,” Wilkinson wrote.





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