Mission District civic engagement space met with protests, calls for boycott

A Middle Eastern eatery that opened in November with a promise to offer space for political activism and civic discourse has become the focus of intense debate and weekly protests over Palestinian oppression and gentrification in the Mission District.

Manny’s, a cafe and restaurant that operates out of an affordable housing development at 3092 Valencia St., has hosted talks led by the likes of Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, state Sen. Scott Wiener and Mayor London Breed. A roster of monthly events includes urban sustainability, the LGBT Rights movement, and the Queer Latinx history of the Mission’s 16th Street corridor.

Owner Manny Yekutiel told the San Francisco Examiner that his vision “is to create a central, accessible, and affordable place to go to become a better informed and more involved citizen.” He has received high praise in some quarters for this concept.

“He really is curating incredible panels and discussions on such a broad range of issues that people are excited about. People are hungry for the type of space he has created,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes the Mission.

Manny Yekutiel, left, owner of Manny’s, helps customer Lia Salaverry at the Mission District cafe on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

But in recent weeks, the sidewalk outside of the two-month old establishment has attracted a different kind of civic gathering in the form of a weekly protests.

Since December, a self-described group of “black and brown folks, radical jews…trans and queer people” and low-income Mission District residents “committed to collective liberation,” have been calling for a boycott of Yekutiel’s social justice-themed business. The protesters, who include members of the Lucy Parsons Project, the Black and Brown Social Club, Gay Shame and the Brown Berets, describe Manny’s as a cover for a pro-elite, pro-Zionist and pro-gentrification agenda.

In particular, advocates have pointed to social media posts published in recent years by Yekutiel –who described himself as a “Liberal American Jew” — inquiring about Zionist groups in the Bay Area and commemorating the anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel.

“He’s a proud Zionist and supports what’s happening to the people in Palestine. He’s disguising it by having certain speakers and artists come through and take pictures with him,” community advocate Ilyich Sato, a Bay Area rapper who goes by the stage name Equipto, told the San Francisco Examiner.

In an email to the Examiner, Yekutiel, who said his father fled to Israel to escape persecution, described his feelings about the country as “complicated.”

“I do not support everything that its government does (nor everything our American government does),” he said. “Israel and the United States have provided my family with safety when other countries haven’t, but that doesn’t mean I support the ending of innocent life.”

No matter, about a dozen protesters waving signs that read “Zionists out of the Mission” and “Manny’s = homelessness” gathered in front of Manny’s on Wednesday night, where they were confronted by supporters and patrons of the space.

Sam Wolf, left, an alumnus of Club Z, a Zionist youth group, confronts activists with the Lucy Parsons Project and other organizations during a protest outside Manny’s in the Mission District on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“It’s a community space, they do a lot of good things for the community. Did you see all the programs they’ve got going on?” said a patron of Manny’s who declined to give his name. “It’s a place to bring community together, to discuss, and they are trying to separate everyone like Trump.”

Others described the protesters as “anti-Semitic.”

“There’s only one reason that they are protesting a Jewish owner, it’s very clear anti-Semitism,” said a student who gave his name as Philip and identified himself as a member of a Zionist youth organization, Club Z.

Some students who squared off with the protesters indicated that they had come specifically to counter the boycott and “fight bigotry.” Another member of the same club said that while he agreed that the business was gentrifying the neighborhood, the “fact that [Yekutiel] is a Zionist Jew makes it so that he can’t open a business here?”

Wiener has also come to the defense of Manny’s. In a tweet Wednesday he called Yekutiel a “friend” who “supports Israel’s right to exist” and whose father “fled Afghanistan to Israel.”

Wiener described the protesters as “anti-Semites & trolls” who “are targeting Manny’s [with] vandalism/pickets. This bully behavior isn’t ok.”

Ralowe Ampu, an organizer with the Lucy Parsons Project, denied that the boycott was motivated by anti-Semitism.

“Being anti-Zionist is not being anti-Semitic,” said Ampu.

Ampu said protesters also object to an “upscale” eatery moving into an affordable housing development at below-market rate rent.

A flyer in support of the boycott labeled Manny’s as “another gentrifying attack” on a community rocked by displacement and gentrification in recent years. The establishment’s existence “raises rents, triggers more evictions and supports colonialism” — and it’s progressive roster of speakers is a “systematic attempt to make gentrification and racism seem cool through ‘woke-washing,’” the advocates allege.

Yekutiel’s political connections are also an issue. A former White House intern under former President Barack Obama and deputy finance director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, he launched a consulting practice in 2015 assisting entrepreneurs, “individuals and families with their political and charitable giving.” Yekutiel told the Examiner that he has not been active in that role in over two years.

But Ampu described Yekutiel as being “in cahoots with politicians who only want to further displace our community and create more luxury condos — like his homies Scott Wiener and London Breed.”

Bookcases filled with books on various social issues sit against a wall at Manny’s in the Mission District on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Mission Housing Executive Director Sam Moss said that Yekutiel’s business was chosen to fill the vacant commercial space formerly occupied by a sushi restaurant “after watching him engage with Mission community for months.”

Denying the protesters’ claim that the space would be used to further a pro-housing agenda, Moss, who a supporter of the pro-housing YIMBY movement, said that he was not acting in this capacity when he offered the space to Yekutiel at “close to market-rate” rent. He said that he hoped to occasionally use Manny’s event space to host educational activities for Mission Housing tenants. 

He said slightly reduced rents are granted to most Mission Housing commercial tenants.

“We are getting good rent per month, Manny’s took care of all tenant improvements in a space that was very neglected,” said Moss, adding that Yekutiel has met with Mission Housing tenants and that further outreach would be conducted in the coming months to encourage greater participation in the space.

Ronen said that Yekutiel ticked all the boxes before opening his business in the neighborhood, including meeting with her and other community leaders, presenting affordable food options, enlisting a nonprofit to staff Manny’s kitchen with formerly homeless workers and “offering a low-cost space to nonprofits in the area.”

For his part, Yekutiel said that he met with a long list of community leaders before opening the space, including representatives of the Mission Economic Development Agency, the San Francisco Planning Commission and local merchants.

But the protesters countered that Yekutiel bypassed the needs of the local entrepreneurs and low-income residents — particularly Mission Housing tenants, whom the protesters said had no say in Manny’s placement.

“We want him to close down,” said Sato’s mother, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, an activist involved in anti-police brutality and anti-displacement efforts who is not a Mission Housing tenant. “And we want for the tenants of Mission Housing to decide what and who they want [in that space].”

[Not a valid template]This story has been updated to provide additional context to remarks made by Mission Housing Development Corporation Executive Director Sam Moss.


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