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D.C. businesses embrace diversity for inaugural weekend — but not white nationalists

Almost a hundred D.C. businesses are participating in All in Service, a movement where part of the sales during inauguration weekend are donated to charity. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

As hundreds of thousands descend upon Washington this weekend to celebrate — or protest — Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, the D.C. service industry is trying to send a message of tolerance and inclusion.

In all, 124 bars, restaurants, cafes and salons — from celebrity chef José Andrés’s restaurant group to neighborhood joints — have pledged to donate a portion of their profits from what they expect to be a lucrative weekend to local charities.

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The causes vary from apolitical organizations such as health centers and an operator of farmers markets to groups that Trump or his Republican supporters have vocally opposed — abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL, the Council on American-Islamic Relationship, the American Civil Liberties Union and those focusing on LGBTQ rights.

“This is a message of unity. Many restaurant owners have staff similar to ours — gay, transgender, immigrants, black, Latino, Asian. They reflect the diversity of what we think is good about this country, and what we’re hopeful we stay being about even in this new presidency,” said Pooja Mehta, who owns the Adams Morgan pizzeria Mellow Mushroom along with her brother.

The idea for the project, branded All In Service DC, began less than a month ago with 15 participants, said Sarah Massey, a local pop-up chef and publicist.

“This campaign season was one of the most divisive that we’ve ever witnessed,” Massey said. “Washington, D.C., residents are very concerned about our local community. Everyone is running around going, ‘What can I do?’ This is something we can all do.”   

Participating restaurants are displaying signs that say “Celebrating DC’s Diversity.”

“Everyone who sees this message can be really proud of Washington, D.C., because we are about to go through a lot,” Massey said.

Simultaneously, many restaurant owners are bracing for potential chaos and confrontation. They cite the shooter who drove from North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong in Northwest Washington to investigate a conspiracy theory spread about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of the pizzeria. A group of white nationalists hosted a meeting where participants offered praise of Adolf Hitler at the unsuspecting Maggiano’s in Friendship Heights.

And a nightclub in nearby Arlington received a flurry of harassing telephone calls after turning down a group tied to white nationalists who wanted to throw a Trump inaugural party. Organizers of the “DeploraBall” ended up renting space at the National Press Club, where anti-Trump protesters demonstrated outside Thursday night

Club President Jeff Ballou said his organization agreed to allow the event only after Richard Spencer, a leader of the white nationalist movement, was disinvited and the ball’s organizers guaranteed that anyone clearly identifiable as a white nationalist would not attend.

The anxiety and uncertainty surrounding Trump’s inauguration in heavily Democratic Washington — where more than 90 percent voted for Clinton — prompted about 100 restaurateurs to attend a recent safety training with police and a lawyer.

At the top of their minds, according to Scott Rome, a hospitality attorney who spoke at the private event: What are their rights when it comes to serving hate groups like white supremacists?

“It’s not like anything I have ever seen before,” Rome said. “A lot of these places feel like they are in a no-win situation” as protests could potentially erupt from all sides.

The DC Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate against more groups than are protected under federal law. Protected classes in Washington include not only race, religion and sex, but political affiliation as well.

“Right off the bat people are asking if we deny the so-called 'alt-right,' and they are held out to be Trump supporters, are we denying based on political affiliation?” Rome said.

He assured restaurant owners that they would be well within their rights to “choose not to serve neo-Nazis” or the racist “alt-right” group that seeks a white-only state because they are not political parties with registered voters.  

Mehta, the Mellow Mushroom owner, said her goal is to be welcoming of all customers. Her father, an immigrant from India, is a lifelong registered Republican who voted for a Democrat — Clinton — for the first time in November despite the many Trump supporters in his family.

Mehta said her father started out in this country as a Burger King restaurant manager and within 10 years had worked his way up to purchasing a Burger King franchise. “But I don’t think his story is true anymore in the new economy,” she said.

Mellow Mushroom has supported Black Lives Matter in the past by feeding activists during their meetings. The restaurant invites LGBTQ groups to meet in its community space. It has gender-neutral bathrooms. It’s hosted debate-watch parties for Clinton supporters.

A former lawyer, Mehta spent Election Day in Philadelphia engaging in voter protection. When she returned to Adams Morgan late that night and watched election returns with her staff, one of them who doesn't speak English began consoling her.

“But I am afraid for him,” she said. Many on her staff have family members who might be deported because Trump had vowed throughout his campaign to round up and deport anyone who entered the country illegally. “I have people who came to this country three years ago and spend half their paychecks on remittances. But people are openly discriminatory and hateful now towards immigrants.”

The other day she was alarmed to find her own name associated with a conspiracy theory. She said an “alt-right” group accused her in the comments section of an article of being a judge, as well as a man, whose Mellow Mushroom T-shirts contained psychedelic references to pedophilia. They also wrongly linked her to the Clinton Foundation, she said.

“Some business owners have concerns and want to remain somewhat neutral on the inauguration,” Mehta said. “For me at this point, that doesn’t seem like an option.”

Andrés, the celebrity chef whose restaurants include Oyamel, Jaleo and Zaytinya, joined the All In Service effort this week, telling The Washington Post in a statement: “No matter why you have come to DC, we are all going to eat and this way we can do good with our dollar. Together, we can make a difference.”

Andrés had backed out of a plan to open a restaurant at the new Trump International Hotel blocks from the White House after Trump referred to undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals.” Trump sued; Andres countersued.

He tried to make peace two weeks before Trump’s inauguration, tweeting a proposal that they drop their lawsuits and donate to a charity instead.

Trump has not bitten.

This post has been updated with a comment from National Press Club President Jeff Ballou.