Features, Politics, recent, Social Media

The Internet Locusts Descend on Ristretto Roasters

Camila worked for Ristretto Roasters, my husband Din’s coffee roasting company in Portland, Oregon, for five years. She received regular promotions and by 2016 was earning a mid-five figure salary. In October of last year, Camila resigned. The end.

Or, the end until last month, when she sent an email to more than two dozen former and current Ristretto Roasters employees, alerting them to the YouTube series, #MeNeither Show, that fellow journalist Leah McSweeney and I launched in December 2018. In three half-hour episodes, we had discussed, among other topics, celebrities who have exploited the #MeToo movement, and the difference between sexual predators and those swept-up in the excesses of the current moment. The show’s “about” page reads, “#MeNeither is an almost-weekly conversation about the cultural issues of the day, and an attempt to create a space where people can find ways to think out loud through uncomfortable topics.”

In her email to Ristretto employees, Camila described our show as “vile, dangerous, and extremely misguided” and announced her intention to “take this information to [local newspapers] Willamette Week and The [Portland] Mercury.” She went on to explain that, “it could be really powerful to have a formal letter singed [sic] off by as many RR employees as possible so that the community at large knows that the people who actually keep RR running do not stand for this.”

The letter Camila circulated to the local press read in part:

We believe it is a business owner’s responsibility to create a safe and supportive working environment for their employees. Invalidating assault survivors throws into question the safety of Ristretto Roasters as a workplace and has the potential to create a demoralizing and hostile environment for employees and customers alike. This cannot be tolerated.

The career-destroying potential of the internet mob immediately snapped into action. Articles appeared in at least four newspapers and on innumerable websites. People on social media hurried to declare that they would never again spend a penny at Ristretto and were rewarded with approval from like-minded peers. A college-age girl walked into one of the cafes screaming, variously, that the baristas were in danger, and that working for Ristretto somehow posed a threat to the community. Employees who had previously been secure in their jobs became jittery and quit. One of Din’s managers suggested that he sell the company and that I offer a public apology before it was too late.

This was within 48 hours of the first news reports appearing.

The mob did not seem to notice (or mind) that Camila’s email had created precisely the kind of “demoralizing and hostile environment for employees” it was ostensibly intended to prevent. Young staff now worried that maybe the next crazed college girl would do more than scream; that they’d lose their jobs (and health insurance) if Ristretto were forced to close; that I—a person with whom they’d heretofore had a perfectly congenial relationship—might be a secret monster.

“Once you’ve gone through the looking glass, it’s like, I knew, but now it’s crystal clear,” said Heather Heying when we first met. “Also, deeply confusing and unsettling.” Heying and her husband Bret Weinstein were tenured professors at Evergreen State College in 2017 when the mob came for them. A small and increasingly agitated group of students accused Weinstein of being a racist after he objected to a requirement that white people absent themselves from school for a day. The campus devolved into mayhem, and the faculty and administration lost control of the situation, finally acquiescing to a vague set of demands for “equity and inclusion.” Heying and Weinstein chose to leave instead, writing later in the Washington Examiner that, “Evergreen handed [the students] temporary power, an intoxicating thing, rather than establishing and legitimately empowering them with insight and wisdom.”

Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein. Photo: Andy Ngo

Heying contacted me on day four of the Ristretto maelstrom. We met at one of the cafes, where a barista I had never met eyed me warily. This was very strange. Although I no longer worked with Ristretto, I had helped my husband build his business, at various times doing everything from the baking to the books to filing liquor license applications. I had no bearings to be seen as a threat by young people I might have joked with a week before.

I told Heying I’d been labeled a “rape culture apologist,” that my work was “not journalism—this is privilege talking.” “It’s all on-script,” she replied. “They respond with the right words—fighting racism, transphobia, internalized misogyny—and build a group of believers who go out and do the work for them. They’re like the puppeteer. The fundamental difference between your situation and most others is that you’re facing real financial ruin.” This is true, and a prospect about which Camila seems sanguine. “If it happens,” she informed one publication, “it would just be a result of their actions, and at least the people who support them will know the truth.”

Camila had evidently been nursing this truth for a while. In a blog post published a couple of months after she quit, she complained that Din had accepted her resignation with undue haste given her years of service, and pointed out that when a male colleague had resigned a year or two previously, he had been allowed to serve out his notice. She confessed that she could not explain why she had been treated differently, but that it was nevertheless clear that it was “based in a deep and abiding misogyny.”

The explanation is, in fact, more prosaic. Camila was the operations manager, overseeing staff at four cafes and, over the summer of 2018, she had become increasingly difficult for my husband to work with. At weekly management meetings, she would recommend operational changes beyond her purview. She wanted Ristretto to host a “Reparations Happy Hour,” which would involve stationing white people at the front door to buy patrons of color a coffee. She hired someone for a key management position without Din having met or okayed the person, and sought to push the company in directions he saw as neither feasible nor useful. In short, the working relationship between Din and Camila had become dysfunctional and both parties knew it. Days before Camila handed in her resignation, Din told me he was going to let her go before the end of the week. Her resignation relieved him of the trouble. Camila was ready to move on, and Din was ready to ask her to do so. Such things happen in small businesses all the time.

But instead of moving on, Camila has embroiled Ristretto, its staff, and my husband and me in a hugely damaging public row, the meaning of which continues to elude me. If Camila really believes that my opinions are creating a dangerous environment for Ristretto’s female employees, why did she work there for five years? And why was she affronted by being asked to leave without serving out her notice? And why, ten months earlier, did she successfully petition for one of her closest female friends to be employed as Ristretto’s wholesale manager? That friend also recently quit and is now, we’ve been told, working hard to amplify Camila’s campaign against us.

These former employees seem to have fashioned whatever resentment they are carrying into a credo meant to rally the troops. The cost of this onslaught seems disproportionally severe. For all the allegations about female safety, since the company’s founding in 2005, there has never been an internal sexual harassment incident. Most of Din’s hires are and have always been women. He pays his employees competitively, offers paid vacation, and engages in Direct Trade with many coffee farmers. In a matter of weeks, all this is hanging by a thread. Ten days after Camila’s opening salvo, Ristretto lost its biggest wholesale account, with which it had enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship. This resulted in Din having to layoff one of his best employees. There will be more layoffs as other accounts peel away.

Many of them have not even taken the time to check what exactly they are attacking. Below one of the various Instagram posts drumming up a boycott of Ristretto, a woman wrote of #MeNeither, “I clicked, paused, down voted, then reported on YouTube that it violates community guidelines: hateful … I didn’t listen but it’s one way to make that shit go away.” This kind of virtual attack on something she hasn’t bothered to watch, to assess on her own, strikes me as childish—it is the behavior of a toddler whose tantrum brings a dinner party to a halt until it can be placated with the attention it seeks.

I have invited my critics to speak with me; the whole point of #MeNeither is to provoke discussion. Only one woman took up my offer. It is evidently easier for some random guy on Facebook to send me the message, “You are scum. Rot in hell you dirty bitch.” Those with a bit more ambition have taken to phoning all my husband’s purveyors and telling them to discontinue their relationships with Ristretto. There is purpose here; there is drive; there is, maybe, a sense of triumph at a business being eradicated. “Yes, the delight in the potential destruction of others,” agreed Heying. There had, she added, been “total dismay in some corners” when she and her husband had survived.

Dismay seems to be the very sustenance of these campaigns. The digital activists swarm like locusts, descending and leaving the earth shorn before moving on to the next field. But what lasting satisfaction can there be in forcing a small business to close and its employees out of work? Do the people leading these crusades picture themselves as admirable figureheads? If so, they seem to be steering into perpetually unhappy waters, full of hazards real and imagined, with the pervasive fear that everyone and everything might harm you so you must harm them first.

“Exhausted is a big word with this crowd,” remarked Heying. “They’re just so tired of fighting. What they’re fighting are their own shadows.” The fight against Heying and her husband, and me and my husband, all but obviated personal inquiry and interaction. Why risk having uncomfortable conversations? Why challenge your beliefs—such as the notion that only you are entitled to free speech—when you are convinced your cause is entirely just and that your opponents are evil? What these campaigners call progressivism strikes me as fundamentalism.

“It’s totally regressive,” said Heying. “An actual backwards regressive ethos.” But why do they want to go backwards? Why are they scared of everything? I’d asked my nephew, a recent graduate of Hampshire College, if it were true that students are taught that all men are potential rapists. He said, “Yes.” Will young people who actually believe this be able to trust enough to fall in love? What does this portend when they turn 35 or 40? Will they look back and realize they had no foundation in cultivating joy? It seems like an impoverishment of the soul.

I thanked Heying as she left, and then I approached the wary barista and introduced myself. “I know who you are,” she said. She looked as though she was about to cry. I gave her a copy of my new book. The whole encounter felt very weird but I thought it went okay. I was wrong. 

“Don’t go into any of the cafes,” my husband said. “It didn’t go so well last time.”

How can I know the barista found my speaking with her unnerving if she chooses not to speak her mind to me, or speak at all? If Camila, who had spent a good deal of time with me over the years, shows neither the will nor the curiosity to contact me directly? Had she said, “Nancy, I think the views you express on the show are garbage and I want hash it out and it might get messy,” I would have told her to name the place and paid for the drinks.

Dialogue does not seem to be part of the outrage culture playbook. Communication has been replaced by the antagonism of the mob. Watch the VICE video of what happened at Evergreen and you will see young people scream epithets at Weinstein. You will see him ask if they want him to answer their questions, to which they shout, “No!” You will hear students demanding that any speech they perceive as potentially harmful to their ideas and existence be shut down. “I don’t care what happens to Bret anymore,” one young woman says. “He can go and be racist and be a piece of shit. Hopefully long-term we can just weed out people like Bret.”

The person who started this campaign against my husband’s business may not have known what sort of assault she was initiating, or maybe she did and did not care. For Camila, and for the people who answered her call to arms, ideology is prioritized over the lives and welfare of individuals. Maybe it is because young people do not yet have much to lose that they struggle to empathize with those who do. Maybe the rush of feeling part of something, or of bending others to one’s will, proves irresistible. Maybe calling all of my husband’s vendors and telling them to drop Ristretto feels like progress—but to where, and for whom?

After Ristretto lost its biggest wholesale account, Din asked to come in and speak with the management. The meeting, I am told, was civil. When Din told the manager what had happened, from his point of view, the manager appeared concerned. Din’s version of events did not match what he had heard. He was sympathetic when Din told him Ristretto would, without this account, need to lay off key employees, and agreed to Din’s suggestion that they revisit the relationship in six months. Dialogue proved enlightening and led to a positive possible outcome, and one I might look forward to. Only, as of this writing, it is unknown whether Ristretto can survive that long.

 

Nancy Rommelmann is a journalist. She is the author most recently of the book To the Bridge, a True Story of Motherhood and Murder. You can follow her on Twitter @NancyRomm

Feature photo by Andy Ngo.