Two Chinese-American women eating at a Manhattan diner early Sunday morning said a man called them bitches and whores and told them to "go back to Tokyo" after one of the women asked him to lower his voice while he complained about Vice President-elect Mike Pence's cold reception at a weekend performance of Hamilton: An American Musical. The 56-year-old man was later arrested for pepper-spraying another diner patron in the eyes—according to one witness, because that patron had spoken up in defense of the women.
Sally Wen Mao, 29, said she told the man to lower his voice around 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, soon after he entered Lower East Side Coffee Shop on 14th Street, where she and her friend Jen were eating. At the time, he was loudly complaining about the "racist" cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton, and the audience members who had booed VP-elect Pence on Friday night.
"My friend and I were there eating our meal and then he kind of sat behind us and was having a really loud conversation," said Mao, a poet from Brooklyn. "He was very animated, and he was denouncing the Hamilton cast—the whole incident with Pence."
After the Hamilton performance in question, a video of actor Brandon Dixon urging Pence to "uphold American values" for all Americans went viral. Dixon said that he and his fellow cast members "are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us."
Mao's companion Jen (she declined to provide her last name for professional reasons) told Gothamist on Monday that the man at the diner was accusing the production of hypocrisy: of preaching diversity after issuing a casting-call for non-white actors. His argument was apparently in reference to a recent conspiratorial headline from the alt-right website Breitbart: "FLASHBACK: 'Hamilton' Cast Lectures VP-Elect on 'Diversity,' But Issued 'Whites Need Not Apply' Casting Call."
Mao said she spoke up when the Pence fan's conversation with a diner worker turned to "so-called minorities."
"Then at some point he started loudly talking about minorities, and at that point I was like, 'We're trying to eat here,'" she recalled. According to Mao, she and Jen then got up to move to a booth on the far side of the restaurant, at which point the man started berating them.
"He said, 'You guys can move if you want. Go back to Tokyo,'" recalled Jen. "And from there it just escalated. He used a lot of misogynistic slurs.... He called us bitches, sluts, cunt-whores, cunts."
After the slurs started flowing, Mao said, she walked over towards the man's booth and tossed her water on his face. "He just kept spewing, kept calling us whores and cunts," Mao said. "And I'm just like, 'Do you expect me to not react to that?' And water's not going to hurt anyone, so I just made him feel as uncomfortable as I felt."
According to Jen, when he was splashed the man stood up and began pacing, calling the police on Mao and eventually blocking the door of the diner with his body. Mao said she splashed him in the face with water a second time, emboldened by a group of three women at another booth who said they would defend her actions to the police.
Throughout the prolonged interaction, Mao and Jen said, the diner staff didn't intervene. Reached by phone on Monday, a man who described himself as the diner's manager said, "I have no idea. I have no idea."
@sallywenmao 7. The store manager says and does nothing as we couldn't believe the venom we were getting from this angry dangerous man
— Sally Mao (@sallywenmao) November 20, 2016
Police responded to the diner at 1:40 a.m., according to an NYPD spokesman. Upon arrival, they spoke with a man who said another patron had thrown water at him. Mao said she also spoke to police, but that she was not issued a summons. An incident report describes the interaction as "harassment." She and Jen left after the police had taken their statements. On the way out, they said, another patron asked them if they were all right.
Mic News reporter Marie Solis, who witnessed the entire episode, described what happened next:
When the women left, the patron who had just learned of what had transpired turned to the man and told him simply, "I don't tolerate racism." The man didn't take well to this comment. "I wasn't being racist," he insisted. "I just told them to go back to Tokyo."
I could sense things were going to escalate. Since we'd just received the bill I went up to the counter and threw some cash down begrudgingly, upset that I had to give my money to an establishment that had tolerated such bigotry.... At that moment, though, a lot of things happened very quickly: I heard shouts and then turned to see the man stand up, reach into his pocket and pull out pepper spray, which he sprayed directly into the eyes of the patron who had called him out on his racism.
Police arrested Frank Camino, 56, at 2:52 a.m. on Sunday. He's since been charged with assault with intent to cause physical injury, attempted assault, and recklessly causing injury, all misdemeanors, as well as harassment in the second degree, a violation. He was released on his own recognizance and will appear in court again on December 19th.
According to a criminal complaint, Camino sprayed a man in the face and eyes with a can of pepper spray, causing swelling, redness and pain.
A spokesman for the NYPD confirmed that Camino was also the man who called 911 to report being splashed with water. Prosecutors and police did not provide details on the arguments that promoted both interactions. Camino's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment; Camino himself could not be reached.
Mao said on Monday that she was surprised how much attention she garnered when she published an account of the experience. While many people have sent messages of support her way since Saturday night, she said she's more concerned about the man who stood up for her.
"The fact is that someone stood up against racism and ended up getting physically assaulted," she said. "That's the part that really most traumatized me. That our ally, this man who showed some decency, was the one who got hurt."