Southern diner OK Cafe in Buckhead has come under fire after installing a tone-deaf banner reading “Lives That Matter Are Made With Positive Purpose” on the side of the restaurant as a student-led march called Buckhead4BlackLives began on Sunday afternoon. The banner was quickly removed after the march. But it and controversial comments made by co-owner Susan DeRose following Sunday’s protest have kicked up a hornet’s nest.
Alumni and students from three area private schools — the Lovett School, Pace Academy, and Westminster — gathered in the parking lot at the West Paces Ferry shopping plaza Sunday to kick off a protest march to the governor’s mansion in response to the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. The group, filled with students, parents, and area residents, and numbering in the thousands, was greeted with the questionable sign at OK Cafe, alongside a booth with another sign that read “OK Cafe Tea Party.”
“We all felt like Buckhead was not getting the message because it’s hard to really see what’s going on behind a screen,” Isabel Johnson, one of the organizers of Buckhead4BlackLives, tells Eater Atlanta. “But when you’re seeing it beyond your front door, and it’s being led by students and children you know and love, it makes a bigger impact.”
Johnson is a recent alumna of the Lovett School and now attends Georgia Tech.
Johnson estimates between 2,000 to 3,000 people attended Sunday’s peaceful march, which included a number of Atlanta sports stars and celebrities like Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and radio personality Frank Ski. Ski is the father of two of the Buckhead4BlackLives student organizers.
“It’s such cryptic wording that we feel like they were trying to step around it while not actually saying ‘All Lives Matter,’” Johnson says. “We aren’t going to comment on it on our Instagram page because we don’t want to waste our breath on that. Their mission was beneath us, and their message isn’t important.”
Eater first reached out to DeRose Monday morning for comment over the sign uproar, and again Wednesday after an interview with her appeared in the Atlanta Business Chronicle. She responded to Eater’s requests for comment Thursday morning via email.
“[Buckhead4BlackLives] closed down local business when we were only now getting up just to make a point that was not necessary to make,” DeRose said in the email. “People of Buckhead know black lives matter — as we know all lives matter.”
DeRose went on to explain that the restaurant was serving tea and lemonade Sunday and provided a message meant to convey positivity, which she said should have “made it clear” why the restaurant displayed the sign and set up the booth during the Black Lives Matter march.
Other signs displayed at OK Cafe included “Law & Order = Peace,” “OK Cafe Loves America,” and “We Support the Georgia Police Force.”
“Had anyone, who couldn’t understand our signs, spoken to us we would have made it clear why we were there. The mass and unhinged violence and destruction of business across America was purposeless, anti=American and destroyed the concept of law and order. A message of positive purpose needed to be said. I hope to see many similar messages posted too as Business is the glue of our free society...And to make it very clear- OK Cafe and Blue Ridge Grill stood so that others would not fall,” the email read in part.
In emails provided to Eater on Monday by a person claiming to be a former administrative assistant at the Liberty House corporate office, DeRose attempted to explain the meaning behind the banner to that employee. The person, who did not wish to be named, asks DeRose in the initial email why controversial artwork depicting the previous Georgia state flag is still on display at OK Cafe.
DeRose replied to the initial email from the former employee to say the Tea Party sign at the booth on Sunday was meant to represent “Taxation Without Representation.“ She then asks the employee which groups will be responsible for repaying business owners whose properties were apparently damaged during recent protests — “Black Lives Matter” or “regular tax payers who did nothing wrong.” Sources also tell Eater that restaurant staff reportedly told some protesters at the march that “Business Lives Matter”.
The full email to the former employee is provided below.
The flag referenced in the above email flew over Georgia from 1956 until 2001 and incorporates the Confederate battle emblem. Multiple photos of the artwork can be seen on customer review sites like Yelp. The United States Marine Corp recently banned the use of the Confederate emblem from all of its installations worldwide saying it “has all too often been co-opted by violent extremist and racist groups.” NASCAR just banned the use of Confederate flags at all race events and at its properties.
“The art piece I commissioned before we open in 1987, again — it is a representation of the Georgia flag, which was our flag when we opened and for the next 18 years after,” DeRose told Eater via email, in response to why the artwork is still on display at OK Cafe. “I am proud of the piece. And, as I’ve explained many times to those who seek to hate, I benefited greatly when that flag flew as did all other ‘minority’ groups.”
The controversial artwork has since been removed from OK Cafe and will be auctioned off, with its proceeds donated to the “police force.”
In the interview with the Chronicle, DeRose spoke at length about the sign’s message, recent protests, a press conference featuring Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and rapper Michael “Killer Mike” Render, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
DeRose says she was taking a stand with the sign at OK Cafe, “Nobody else is standing up, so I decided I would.” She says in the piece she was “offended” by Sunday’s march to protest police violence, referring to the students who organized the event as “spoiled children.”
When asked in the interview to further explain the meaning behind her sign’s message, which she views as positive, DeRose says, “I haven’t seen a lot of people being killed and even hurt in these [protests] that are going on here, but who we absolutely know is being taken out on small businesses across the land. They’re being looted. They’re being burned. They’re being taken out. And the people that are wanting to matter are taking away the thing that they want to matter to: businesses.”
Several restaurants downtown and in Buckhead sustained damage by a small group of people who broke off from the protests during the first two nights. Since then, thousands of people have peacefully protested and marched throughout Atlanta.
In the interview, DeRose seems unmoved by the flack caused by the sign or the negative feedback she and the restaurant are encountering, “We were saying, ‘Live a life of purpose.’ So, I don’t believe what they believe, and if they don’t like that, don’t come into my restaurant. That’s what capitalism is all about.”
OK Cafe opened in July 1987 at the corner of Northside Parkway and West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead, two miles from the Georgia governor’s mansion.
Update, June 11, 9:45 a.m.: This story has been updated with statements provided to Eater Atlanta from OK Cafe co-owner Susan DeRose via email Thursday morning.
Update, June 10, 3:00 p.m.: This story has been updated with excerpts from an interview Susan DeRose gave to the Atlanta Business Chronicle regarding the sign and Black Lives Matter.
Update, June 8, 3:00 p.m.: This story has been updated with a sentence regarding multiple sources reporting the restaurant staff told some protesters “Business Lives Matter.”