Kiwi Café sits on the outskirts of Tbilisi, the capital city of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. It is the type of vegan bistro that serves veggie burgers and falafel, with posters on its walls advertising homemade lemonade and a variety of teas in a black marker scrawl. Pro-animal-rights slogans — “Meat’s not green” and “Animal testing breaks hearts” — dot the windows between its lime-colored facade. Neither the cafe nor its pierced and dreadlocked patrons would elicit a second glance in, say, Portland or Brooklyn. But to some local Georgians who share their capital city with the restaurant, the Kiwi Café is an unconventional — and possibly unwelcome — liberal establishment.
“I do not like that Kiwi place,” the owner of a local Tbilisi business told a Vice reporter. “They put things in their hair, their skin …”
On Sunday, Kiwi Café attempted to host a viewing party for Adult Swim’s bleakly comedic science-fiction cartoon “Rick and Morty.” Instead, it briefly became ground zero for Georgia’s cultural tensions, when a carnivore-vs.-vegan scuffle broke out. While wearing sausage links around their necks and hefting a variety of fish and meats, right-wing extremists stormed into the cafe, its staff says.
About a dozen men entered the restaurant and “pulled out some grilled meat, sausages, fish,” Kiwi Café wrote on Facebook. Smoking cigarettes and eating the meat — both verboten according to the establishment’s rules — they began lobbing hunks of sausage at the customers and their vegan dishes, per the account of the incident posted on social media. When staff members asked the men to leave, they refused, and the scene deteriorated.
As the cafe’s staff members began to push the men outside, the interlopers began to shout, “Why are you so aggressive?” the cafe wrote on Facebook. “What about love?” The men, which Kiwi described as “Neo-Nazis,” brandished the skewers upon which they’d brought their meats.
The brouhaha cascaded into the Tbilisi street, which is when, Vice reports, the neighbors became involved. To the dismay of the cafe’s staff and patrons, many of the neighbors sided with the alleged extremists. “Locals took the side of fascists just because in their view we are ‘different,’” the cafe wrote. A Tbilisi man lashed a customer in the face with his cane, according to the cafe’s account of the incident, and another local took a female staff member by the hair and threw her to the ground.
By the time police arrived, the sausage-wielding men had fled. The police blamed the cafe’s staff, according to the Facebook post, saying the vegans were “guilty of what had happened.” On Tuesday, police were continuing their investigation and had spoken with the attackers, reports the BBC, although no arrests had been made.
Whether the assailants were, in fact, neo-Nazis remains uncertain. The incident may have been a stunt aimed at vegans and vegetarians — who face what Michael Pollan calls subtle alienation in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and what vegan actress and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik calls hatred — that spiraled out of control. It may also be evidence of what some experts perceive as a cultural rift in Georgia.
“We have been seeing in Georgia, the growth of nationalists — fanned by Russia — who are questioning foreign Western values such as gay marriage or gay rights being imposed on the country,” Human Rights Watch south Caucasus director Giorgi Gogia said to the New York Times.
The Kiwi Café said the same group had visited the restaurant prior to the attack to inquire about the foreign and LGBT status of its patrons.
Some parts of Europe, with Austria being a particular example, have recently witnessed a surge in right-wing extremism. On Tuesday, Cas Mudde, an expert in European political extremism at the U.S. University of Georgia, told Vox that this radical right is in part shaped by a focus on nativism. “Everyone and everything that’s non-native — that is, alien — is threatening,” Mudde said.
Kiwi Café is a popular counterculture hangout and holds events including seminars on feminism, as a picture on its Facebook page indicates. But by Tbilisi’s more conservative conventions — where, in 2013, protesters disrupted an activist rally for gay rights — it may be perceived as alien. “The Kiwi Café attracts hipsters, gays, people who are different, and they symbolize liberal Western values,” Gogia told the Times.
The cafe remained open after the incident, despite the “everyday negative attitude” aimed at the restaurant. “Equality,” Kiwi wrote, “is the most important thing for us. Animal liberation! Human liberation!”