By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
A man spat at the owner of Abyssinia Market and Coffee House and vandalized the shop on Sunday morning after she asked him to wear a mask.
The incident occurred at Abyssinia Market, located at 720 Jefferson St., around 7:40 a.m. Lily Damtew, the owner of Abyssinia Market, was alone in the shop when a man entered without a face mask. When the man attempted to order coffee, Damtew, who was wearing a mask and a face shield, told the man he was required to wear a mask.
There is a sign on the front door informing customers of the requirement. There is also a state mandate in place that requires people to wear face coverings in public indoor spaces, such as stores. After Damtew asked, the man repeatedly refused to wear a mask.
“He’s like, ‘I’m not wearing a mask. I don’t have to wear a mask anywhere I go. Virginia doesn’t support this. Alexandria doesn’t support this,’” Damtew said. “And I said, ‘Yes, there’s a law if you go into certain places, you have to wear a mask.’ And after that he got very upset.”
Damtew then offered the man a mask to wear. He put the mask over his eyes and began following Damtew around the store, taunting her, cursing at her and asking, “Is this better?”
“At that point, [he said,] ‘You people, if we do this to you, you people,’ and I knew he got upset,” Damtew said. “It was getting worse, so I said, ‘Please leave’ and he wasn’t leaving. He said a lot of things. He used the B-word. He used the F-word. He called me ugly something.”
Damtew got out of the man’s way and went to the door, holding it open and repeatedly asking the man to leave.
“I was terrified. I was by myself in the store, and he was getting louder and louder,” Damtew said.
Eventually, the man walked up to Damtew, spat on her feet and left the store.
Shaken up by the incident, Damtew called the police and watched the man walk up Jefferson Street. While she waited for the police, Damtew called her friend Jean, a neighbor who occasionally volunteers at Abyssinia Market, and asked her to come to the store. Jean and her husband arrived shortly after.
“She was crying on the phone when she asked me to come down,” Jean said. “By the time we got there, she had calmed down a little bit and she was very upset, but she told us what happened, that someone had come in when she was alone, and … she’s a small petite woman.”
Several police officers arrived and spoke with Damtew, then left to look for the man.
When the police left, Damtew, Jean and Jean’s husband stayed in the store with the door locked. While they were waiting, the man returned and threw food at the window.
“My back was to the window and I heard a bang type thing,” Jean said. “He had thrown, we don’t know what it was, the officer thought it as chicken and rice, but thrown this food all over the door, the picture window, the table that was out there. I jumped because of the noise. And by the time I looked around he was gone. We could see him running down the street.”
Jean’s husband went to tell the police officers that the man had returned. Shortly after, the officers returned to the coffee shop to inform Damtew they had located the man.
Lt. Courtney Ballantine, public information officer for the Alexandria Police Department, said the suspect who was identified is currently in a local facility receiving services. Ballantine declined to release the suspect’s name since he was not arrested.
Damtew described the man as tall, skinny and white. She said she hadn’t seen him at the coffee shop or in the neighborhood before.
The incident took place on just the second day the coffee shop was open following a months-long closure due to COVID-19.
“She had just reopened on Saturday and things went well on Saturday. Sunday, it was a little slow,” Jean said. “My feeling was if we were busier, he wouldn’t have had the nerve to do something. He was doing an opportunistic release of hate, basically, … saying things that were totally inappropriate, like ‘You people. You people.’ Obviously, we understood what that meant: He was white. She was black.”
Abyssinia Market has been closed since the incident. Damtew said that immediately after the incident, she had considered closing permanently.
“Knowing that I’m there all the time by myself and even though I know I can call police, I was just thinking it might be too late. What if this guy comes back and does something else?” Damtew said.
However, Damtew has received an outpouring of support from neighbors and community members that has motivated her to reopen eventually.
“It’s a bad experience, but then seeing people, the whole community, the support is amazing,” Damtew said. “I don’t know how to thank them because I keep getting emails, calls. One of my customers sent me a picture this morning and my door is covered with notes and it’s amazing. People are very encouraging.”
Unfortunately, incidents like the one Damtew experienced are not unique. Across the country, the decision to wear a mask is becoming a political statement.
“For me, wearing a mask is protecting me and then my family and friends and everyone around me,” Damtew said. “I have very sensitive customers. [Most of my] customers are neighborhood people. I know them very well. I’m protecting the community. I’m protecting my family. I’m wearing one, and if you’re not wearing one, I’m not serving you.”