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Waitress Discusses Taking Down Man Who Groped Her: ‘We Deal With a Lot’

It was almost 11 p.m., and Emelia Holden was finishing up her shift as a server at a Savannah, Georgia, pizzeria when she felt a hand on her backside.

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Melissa Gomez
, New York Times

It was almost 11 p.m., and Emelia Holden was finishing up her shift as a server at a Savannah, Georgia, pizzeria when she felt a hand on her backside.

She reacted immediately, yanking the man backward by his red shirt as he tried to walk away and wrapping her arm around his neck before using her body weight — all 115 pounds of it — to slam him to the ground, knocking his white sunglasses askew.

“You don’t touch me,” she yelled, adding expletives as he sat against a trash can, stunned.

The June 30 encounter was captured on a surveillance video that has been viewed more than 4 million times since her cousin shared it online.

Holden, 21, of Savannah, said in an interview Sunday that the episode led people to reach out, including women who told her they had showed the video to their daughters. Other servers shared their stories of being harassed or assaulted, she said, and told her watching the video had empowered them to react more assertively next time.

She said it was the first time she had been touched inappropriately during her year and a half as a server at Vinnie Van Go-Go’s pizzeria.

Certain things she can tolerate, Holden said, “but with stuff like that, no.”

“My whole thing is respect,” she added. “As long as you respect me, I’m going to respect you.”

The pizzeria is in downtown Savannah in City Market, where the city’s open container policy can lead to busy Saturday nights with inebriated patrons, Holden said. The camera that recorded the episode was installed recently after a man assaulted other servers, she said, but they weren’t able to pursue charges because there was not enough evidence.

After she tossed the man, whom the authorities later identified as Ryan Cherwinski, 31, of Palm Bay, Florida, she yelled for someone to call the police, and the man said that he had been trying to push her out of the way, she recalled. Cherwinski was arrested and charged with sexual battery.

Cherwinski and his lawyer, Tina Marie Hesse, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Holden said other servers and cooks from the kitchen surrounded Cherwinski so he could not leave until the police came. She had been nervous he might be let go, but once the police arrived and saw the video, he was handcuffed and taken away, she said.

Some of her customers high-fived her for the takedown, she said.

She shared the video with her cousin, who later posted it on Reddit but didn’t tell her about it until it reached 17,000 views.

“I’ve cried because I’ve been so touched by what people are saying,” Holden said.

The service industry has struggled to tackle sexual harassment even as the #MeToo movement has prompted changes in other fields. In interviews with The New York Times, more than 60 servers and bartenders shared stories of crude comments and harassment they faced from patrons. They spoke of having to decide where to draw the line, and how that affected how much they made in tips.

“We deal with a lot,” Holden said, referring to female workers who have been groped. She said she knew she would have the support of the pizzeria’s owners and her co-workers after taking the man down, so she was never afraid of repercussions.

Since the video began to circulate, customers have been nicer to the servers at the pizzeria, and tipping has gone up, she said. A local jiu jitsu business offered her and the other servers a free class. (Holden said she does not have any training in martial arts or fighting.) She redirected donations to a local animal shelter, raising about $13,000 for it and about $3,000 for a spay and neuter organization.

Holden, who will be studying funeral science at Ogeechee Technical College in Georgia next month, said she hoped the episode reminded everyone that servers are people too, who are trying to make a living.

“I’m just happy that he was held accountable,” she said. “And I’m very happy that there have been so many women empowered by all of this.”

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