Raid may have been more anti-gay than anti-vegan
TBILISI, Georgia––The headline “Sausage-wielding protesters attack patrons at vegan café” and the shorter version, “Sausage thugs target vegan café,” flew around the world on June 1, 2016 at social media warp speed, amplified by at least 11,500 online media, before the bizarre story was upstaged by global response to the shooting of the gorilla Harambe two days earlier at the Cincinnati Zoo.
What really happened in Tbilisi, why?
All previous accounts from one source
All versions of the story published in English, until now, appear to have originated with London-based New York Times correspondent Dan Bilefsky, who appears to have based his account almost entirely on a single translated Facebook posting on the Kiwi Café page on Facebook.
Opened Bilefsky, “Georgia, a proud nation in the Caucasus that went to war with Russia in 2008, is no stranger to conflict. But a weekend assault by sausage-wielding attackers at a vegan cafe in central Tbilisi is fanning concerns that a simmering culture war could be intensifying.”
Goons pelted patrons
The Sunday evening incident occurred “at the bohemian Kiwi Café,” Bilefsky wrote, “a popular spot for foreigners and Georgians alike, when, witnesses say, more than a dozen men carrying slabs of meat on skewers suddenly showed up and began pelting patrons with grilled meat, sausages and fish.
“Witnesses writing on social media said that customers at the cafe, who were watching an animated science fiction sitcom, felt intimidated by the men, who refused to leave. The cafe referred to the attackers, some of whom wore sausages around their necks, as anti-vegan ‘extremists.’”
“Who is behind the attacks remains unclear,” Bilefsky said, “and analysts cautioned it was too early to say whether the incident was a violent prank, a revolt against veganism or part of a nationalist attack against the freewheeling Western liberal values epitomised by the cafe.”
Bilefsky did not identify the “analysts,” but much more information was available, including from the Kiwi Café posting that appears to have been his sole source.
What the Kiwi Cafe actually said
Said the Kiwi Café posting, “During the movie screening a group of people who prepared an anti-vegan provocative action entered and started to be violent. They came into the cafe speaking and laughing loudly and didn’t care when we asked them to be quiet and not to disturb the people who came to watch the film. Continuing to act loudly and disturbingly, they pulled out some grilled meat, sausages, [and] fish and started eating them and throwing them at us, and finally they started to smoke.
“Knowing that all of the above is forbidden here,” the Kiwi Café account alleged, “they were just trying to provoke our friends and disrespect us. We said that they must leave because this is a vegan café, and because it is our place and we don’t want them to provoke a conflict with their behavior. But they didn’t leave and started yelling, laughing, and talking to us sarcastically. They said things like ‘Why are you so aggressive? What about love?’, showing their disrespectful attitude to vegans and our ideas.
Female cafe-goer assaulted
“We started to push these people out of cafe,” the Kiwi Café posting said. “Hearing shouts, locals from neighboring houses came out and here is the most interesting part. One of the neighbors showed a knife. He said, ‘Come out, we will figure everything out.’ Our friend said that no one will go anywhere, and then one of them took her by her hair and pushed her on the street, pushed her to the asphalt with her face toward the ground. Then the fight started on the street. We called the police.”
There was further violence, according to the Kiwi Café posting, while the police were en route.
Hit in face with walking stick
“One passer-by, maybe also local, shouted out an insult at us,” the Kiwi Café posting recounted, “and one of our friends reacted adversely and responded with shouts, and after that this man yelled that he must be respected because of his age and lashed him in the face with his walking stick, which caused a bleeding injury on our friend’s face.”
“The police finally showed up,” the Kiki Café account continued. “One of policemen was very aggressive, pushed us, yelled with anger, said that we are guilty of what had happened. Some café workers were brought to police office for interrogation.”
“If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.”
ANIMALS 24-7 found a second source through networking with contacts who have done animal rescue and advocacy in Georgia.
“I was not present personally,” e-mailed one Tbilisi source, “but some of my close friends were there. Indeed, this group [the attackers] are much more dangerous than as portrayed” by Bilefsky. “They are right wing extreme nationalists, who fully share and follow fascist ideology,” and have a café of their own “as a kind of exclusive gathering place in Vera district in Tbilisi,” ANIMALS 24-7 was told. “Regular police patrols respond sluggishly to their actions.
“Conflict between these groups has some history,” the Tbilisi source continued, “and everybody is aware of long standing animosity. This is probably why the nationalists were met with much rage, because vegan people knew that they came with the aim to stage provocation.
“It is as yet unclear who will be punished,” the Tbilisi source concluded, “but most probably not the nationalists.”
But was it about veganism?
But did the incident actually have anything to do with meat, or veganism?
The meat industry has considerable cultural and economic significance in Georgia, as in most of the world. The cultural and economic significance of eating meat has been amplified in Georgia, as in most of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, by decades of warfare and deprivation.
Born in Gori, Georgia in 1878, Joseph Stalin, dictator of the USSR for 30 years until his death in 1953, made increasing meat production and consumption the primary measure of societal socio-economic progress during the post-World War II phase of his regime.
But veganism is increasingly popular among younger Georgians, as among younger Europeans (and Americans) generally. Behind the former Iron Curtain, veganism has gained momentum both as a lifestyle and as a statement of self-differentiation from older generations, for whom merely becoming able to eat more meat was a mark of success.
The eastern European vegan movement gained momentum and a political accent from the example of Janez Drnovsek, who as first president of Slovenia, 1991-2002, led the nation to independence after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, almost without bloodshed, even as civil war engulfed Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Serbia. Developing cancer in 1999, Drnovsek became vegan in his quest for a cure, and evolved into an outspoken animal advocate before his death in February 2008.
Founded that same year, an annual two-day vegan festival in Zagreb, Croatia now attracts more than 40,000 visitors per year.
The vegan movement in Georgia, farther to the east, is relatively young and small, but has challenged entrenched beliefs in a manner making more conservative elements profoundly uncomfortable.
Said Café Kiwi, “Some neighbors had already showed us their negative attitude a lot of times, because the way we look, the music that we listen to, the ideas we support, and the fact that we don’t eat meat are out of the world they are used to. We act weirdly by their measurements and are not embarrassed of who we are.”
The major issue, for the neighbors and the attackers, may be not that the Café Kiwi caters to vegans, but rather that it is among the few places in Tbilisi (and Georgia generally) where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are allowed to be openly themselves.
About a month before the June 1, 2016 incident, the Café Kiwi management posted the Facebook, the attackers “came here at night and asked our friend in the next shop about the people who hang out in the café, implied LGBT, foreigners, punks, etc. Locals took the side of the fascists just because in their view we are ‘different.’”
Ordinary sandwich shop
But photos and web video from the Café Kiwi show nothing that one would not see at small sandwich shops in almost every university neighborhood around the world. The clientele and staff include some people with long hair, tattoos, beards, and piercings, but most are conventionally dressed young people, doing nothing remarkable.
Concluded the Café Kiwi management, “In spite of the situation and everyday negative attitude toward us and other people who visit us, the Café Kiwi is continuing to work and is ready to accept all customers regardless of their nationality, race, appearance, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious views, etc. Equality is the most important thing for us. Animal liberation! Human liberation!”