Top Stories

Mobs on the Menu: Restaurateurs and the Culture War

Last month, the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia attracted international attention when the owner turned away White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family. The episode shocked many Americans, especially Donald Trump supporters. But in this era of aggressive ideological mobbing, such episodes have become common—even if most of the victims are not nearly as famous as the press secretary.

A hip bar in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles has become the latest business caught up in this phenomenon. And unlike the owner of the Red Hen, the operators of The Griffin found themselves accused of bias by critics on both sides of the political spectrum.

Last weekend, The Griffin was forced to shut down when a group of social media-mobilized activists swarmed the bar upon hearing news of a meet-up by Trump supporters in ‘MAGA’—Make America Great Again—hats. For days afterward, activists from both ideological camps followed up by filling the web with negative reviews and hateful comments. A visit to the business’s Yelp page shows a banner indicating the site’s support team is monitoring the page’s content “related to media reports.”

Photo: Yelp

Around 9 p.m. on July 14, VICE contributor Josh Androsky, who’s also a member of the L.A. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, began asking his social media followers to descend on The Griffin after receiving a tip that a group of ‘Proud Boys’ were drinking on-site.

The Proud Boys are a hard-right men’s group made up of self-described ‘Western chauvinists.’ They consider themselves to be a fraternal men’s rights organization with somewhat high-minded aims—when, in fact, it’s mostly a drinking club for young men who enjoy railing against political correctness. As part of their provocative posture, the Proud Boys have adopted MAGA hats paired with black Fred Perry polo shirts, making them easy to identify when they gather in public. They revel in their open street brawls with antifa. And they’ve been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), based mostly on crass quotes uttered by the group’s gadfly, say-anything founder, Gavin McInnes. While the SPLC has a questionable methodology and has frequently been accused of bias, the Proud Boys really do often come off as sexist and xenophobic—though not generally racist or fascistic.

Such distinctions don’t matter to Androsky, however. He live-tweeted his protest and galvanized support by referring to the Proud Boys as “Nazis.” After the bouncer (who happened to be a black man) rebuffed his demand to kick the Proud Boys out, Androsky began accusing the bar of siding with the Nazi cause. 

At some point during the evening, the altercation at The Griffin became physical. It isn’t clear whose version of events is accurate, but the facts suggest that Androsky’s group was the original instigator. The Proud Boys allege that a shoving match began after he slapped a MAGA hat off one of their members. Androsky claims his girlfriend pushed one of the Proud Boys because he was getting too close to him. A scuffle ensued. The police were called and the bar eventually kicked everyone out, including patrons who had no connection with the fracas.

Nobody was injured or arrested. And in the days before social media, this is likely where things would have ended. But Androsky wasn’t satisfied. He continued his tirade online against The Griffin, and encouraged his followers to denigrate the business on Yelp and Facebook. Fellow VICE writer Justin Caffier (who was not at the scuffle) declared in a viral tweet

Putting aside all the other unsettling elements of this episode, it shows how reflexively (and often baselessly) terms such as ‘Nazi’ and ‘white supremacy’ get thrown around. The leadership of the L.A. chapter of Proud Boys is headed by an Asian president and a queer V.P. (they asked that they not be named). Several of the Proud Boys in attendance that night included men of color. Edwin Arthur, a 44 year-old black Proud Boy who was at The Griffin tells me he was shocked to see white protesters calling him a white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer.

The Griffin, knowing which side its bread is buttered in largely progressive northeast L.A., capitulated to the mob sent by Androsky. The ownership issued a lengthy and saccharine apology. They announced a new policy of “screening” patrons, so as to deny access to anyone who holds racist, sexist, fatphobic, or transphobic views. They did not specify how the policy would be enforced. But the bar reopened with a fundraiser later in the week with proceeds going to—wait for it—the SPLC (the organization’s endowment of $432.7m ballooned following the election of Trump).

The incident at The Griffin presents a case study in how relatively small groups of activists can now leverage their power on social media to enlist otherwise apolitical businesses into their mission to shame and marginalize political actors with unpopular opinions.

In March, Kachka, a Russian eatery in Portland, Oregon, was smeared online as a hub for Nazi sympathizers after the owner refused to eject a patron accused of wearing a Nazi shirt. Deavon Snoke, one of the offended patrons, had shared her experience online with a photo of the man. “Remember his face. Memorize the symbolism on his shirt. Yell as loud as you can,” she wrote in the viral post. The business was soon bombarded with calls and hysterical accusations that it had acted in solidarity with Nazis. It didn’t matter that the business was Jewish-owned, or that one of the owner’s grandmothers escaped the Nazis in Belarus. As for the shirt, it actually just displayed a variant of the contemporary German Air Force logo (the German word for air force—Luftwaffe—is unchanged from that used during the Nazi era).

Last month, The Green Dragon Tavern in Boston was similarly accused of hosting Nazis when a group of patrons dined there following an entirely legal gun rights and free speech rally at the State House. They were followed by counter-protesters who demanded that management kick them out. When The Green Dragon declined to do so, an online campaign mobilized hundreds of people to attack the family-owned business with vicious reviews. In what now seems like a predictable development, some trolls spread the claim the group was tolerated even as its members openly wore swastikas and white supremacist symbols (the tavern released security footage showing this claim was false).

America’s barroom politics are also spilling over into Canada. In late June, a manager at the Teahouse in Vancouver, B.C. kicked out a patron wearing a MAGA hat. Darin Hodge, the employee, was fired over the incident—but he told media he didn’t regret his decision, casting it as a moral issue. And the Teahouse’s Google and Yelp reviews have since been marred with low scores from anti-Trump activists angry at the manager’s firing.

An entrepreneur should be allowed to run his or her business in an apolitical fashion. Unfortunately, there generally is no legal process that will ever allow business owners to recoup lost profits when they are the victims of slanderous online mobs. Meanwhile, we are all losing the ability to discuss our political differences without recourse to apocalyptic language. Yes, the Proud Boys are right-wing provocateurs and trolls. But they aren’t the KKK or a lost division of Nazi guards.

Calling all right-wing ideologues Nazis and white supremacists diminishes the horror of actual Nazi crimes and chattel slavery—doubly so when such libels are hurled at Jews and blacks. Online activists such as Androsky claim they are looking out for the vulnerable. But the main effect of their campaigns is to drive away customers from small businesses that provide jobs for those in the community.

No one can prevent trolls from speciously trying to stir up antagonism. But the rest of us can stop jumping on board these reactionary campaigns. If someone is tweeting at you that fascists have taken over your local bar or restaurant, do a little independent research before you retweet. The odds are good that, contrary to claim, your local tavern or diner hasn’t actually become the rallying point for a new kind of Kristallnacht.

Feature photo by Andy Ngo.

 

Andy Ngo is a graduate student in political science at Portland State University and a subeditor at Quillette. Follow him on Twitter @MrAndyNgo