News & Politics

A DC Shop Owner Got Pepper-Sprayed by Someone Shouting Racist Taunts. It’s Just the Latest Incident, He Says.

Valley Brook Tea's owner, Yunhan Zhang, says he's experienced multiple incidents of verbal abuse this year.

Photograph by Anna Spiegel.

It was a quiet morning in Dupont Circle when Yunhan Zhang, owner of Valley Brook Tea, was pepper-sprayed for the first time in his life. He was sitting at his shop counter Tuesday when a man walked through the open door saying, “Chinese folks. Covid-19, bitch.” Some 30 seconds later, Zhang had his hands up as he tried to move away from the pepper spray.

The incident was captured on Zhang’s security camera, and later that day he posted a video of the incident on Twitter that has since received more than 29,000 views. “When I looked at the video later, I realized that I was lucky that he only pulled out the spray, not a gun or another weapon,” Zhang tells Washingtonian.

Zhang called the DC police and reported the incident, which they’re reportedly investigating as a hate crime. The pepper spray burned on his skin for hours afterwards, and some of it even got in his mouth. He tweeted photos of his clothes and face mask that got stained from the chemicals. Though harder to see in the video, Zhang flashed his own can of pepper spray, which he shows potential attackers as a deterrent.

“The pepper spray is to try to persuade some behavior away, try to make them leave,” Zhang says. “We have been told by the police department that we cannot use it, and we were never going to use it on someone.” He also mentions that pepper spray would be very harmful for the shop’s merchandise.

Valley Brook Tea opened in February, right before Covid-19 lockdowns hit the area. Zhang says that he has experienced multiple instances of “verbal abuse” throughout this year. “Since the reopening, we’ve had too many incidents which we’re verbally abused by homeless, mentally-ill and rascists. We’ve never made these cases public because they’re just ‘verbal’. But property damage and personal assault is really too much for us to handle,” the shop-owner tweeted in July. That message came after a different incident, when a man whom Zhang calls a neighborhood “troublemaker” broke one of the store’s planters and assaulted him.

“That one was bizarre,” says Zhang. “When I was trying to stop him he slapped [my arm], sent personal stuff in my hands flying into the middle of the road, then he took my stuff and ran away.” One stolen item was particularly treasured: A folding fan made by Zhang’s father.

“From my perspective, those verbal abuses were going to happen anyway because there are always people who want to say stuff about people like us,” says Zhang. “The pandemic is just one of the things they feel it’s safe for them to say without facing any consequences.” As many people remain at home, Zhang has also seen a serious decline in foot traffic in the neighborhood, which he thinks has contributed to this uptick in incidents.

The other instances Zhang describes have not been as explicitly racist as what happened on Tuesday. “Many of the incidents, it can go either way. Someone might argue they just don’t like me, so they attack me in particular and it’s not exactly racially motivated,” says Zhang. “Or, you can argue it is, because of who I am. We don’t want to bridge too far into the politics because that’s not what we do, we’re not a nonprofit who studies this all the time. Our main goal is trying to stop it and deescalate and get rid of unwanted behavior.”

Since posting the video, Zhang has received many messages of support from shop neighbors and Washingtonians, including Anju’s Danny Lee. “We don’t want to be defined by these incidents—after all, we are a tea shop” says Zhang. “People love what we do here, and we are loved and protected by members of the community.”

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Web Producer/Writer

Rosa joined Washingtonian in 2016 after graduating from Mount Holyoke College. She covers arts and culture for the magazine. She’s written about anti-racism efforts at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, dinosaurs in the revamped fossil hall at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, and the horrors of taking a digital detox. When she can, she performs with her family’s Puerto Rican folkloric music ensemble based in Jersey City. She lives in Adams Morgan.