Police barricades bookended South Broadway, the main thoroughfare of downtown Pitman, N.J, as parked police cars bathed the street in an eerie glow of flashing blue and red lights. Officers on duty stood around with arms folded, surveying the scene and instructing pedestrians where to walk. A crowd had gathered on the lawn of Ballard Park, so often the setting of food festivals and community events, across the way from a row of establishments – all shuttered except for one, the Human Village Brewing Company. What tragedy could have befallen this small leafy borough where not a single chain store is in sight, where children can safely bike around unsupervised, a place whose official slogan is ‘Everybody Likes Pitman?’
The blinds of the craft brewery were drawn so the only thing discernible from the outside were the faint shadows of people. Inside, a private after-party was in full swing, a gathering that the Pitman Police Department and supplemental officers from neighboring towns were marshaled in to oversee.
The party capped off a day-long conference called ‘Ending Violence, Racism and Authoritarianism,’ put on by Mythinformed, Subverse and minds.com, three organizations bound by the common conviction that promoting viewpoint diversity and freedom of expression are the only antidotes to an ever-more fractured and polarized America. The conference was part of a series called ‘Minds IRL’ (In Real Life), an eponymous attempt by the alternative, open-source crypto-based social media network to take online discussions offline. Their hope was that people will engage in face-to-face, open dialogue, offering a stark contrast to the uncivil, nuance-eviscerating behavior that tends to predominate social media discourse.
A targeted harassment campaign led by ‘No Hate NJ,’ a group whose social media presence seemed to have only spawned spontaneously around August 18, was purportedly successful in getting the original conference venue, the Broadway Theater, to cancel the contract, leaving organizers scrambling to find a new host just two weeks before the event’s scheduled date on August 31, 2019.
Speakers and attendees – all 485 ticket holders – were informed of the new location, the Sugarhouse Casino located across the Delaware River in Philadelphia, just two hours before doors opened. The entire operation had a clandestine feel, as if the organizers were running a pop-up speakeasy during Prohibition. The casino’s air-tight security prevented protesters and hecklers from disrupting the event, but that was of scant comfort to Rich Myers and his business partner, Megan Myers, co-owners of the Human Village Brewing Company who hosted the official conference after-party. Despite facing harassment from all fronts, Rich and Megan refused to cancel their contract with the organizers.
The ensuing ordeal has transformed their story into yet another flashpoint in the wider outrage mob-fueled political and cultural war. ‘We’ve been getting terrible reviews on Google as far as like “these guys are Nazis”, “Nazi supporters” and they started a call campaign against us,’ Rich said. ‘There were three days solid of phone call after phone call, from as far away as San Francisco.’ A few names on the conference agenda were singled out – Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad and Count Dankula, controversial online personalities, both of whom are members of Ukip, a right-wing anti-immigration party.
This caught Rich Myers completely off-guard, so he decided to take a closer look at the ‘Minds IRL’ speakers. ‘When we host events we don’t ask many questions. They’d tell us if it’s a wedding or christening or baby shower. As far as details about guests, we don’t care,’ he said. The first speaker he researched was Tara Devlin, a comedian and progressive commentator who founded the unapologetically liberal website RepublicanDirtyTricks.com. Stumbling upon a YouTube video where she opened with the phrase ‘we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,’ Rich found it incongruent with the protesters’ accusations and so, he went down the political YouTube rabbit hole, consuming video after video for three days straight, just to get a better idea of the people who were going to be attending this maligned after-party. ‘It was clear that there was just no way this was a white supremacy meeting,’ he said. ‘You don’t bring in gay people, black people, trans people – the gambit of people that were represented by this, or the number of women that were represented by this, made the protesters’ claims extremely unlikely.’
Like the other 78 percent of America, Rich does not have a Twitter account and only uses his personal Facebook profile to keep in touch with friends; on the rare occasion, he’d make a comical post to document ‘silly things that the kids say.’
Initially, when the onslaught first began, he had naively attempted to engage in good-faith debates with the callers. He asked the first activist who called the brewery’s business line, ‘have you actually listened to a single one of these speakers?’ His interlocutor replied, ‘I’ve seen enough of this stuff online.’
Rich told the caller he had taken the time to sit down and evaluate the content for himself and provided examples of speakers with bona fide liberal cred, people like Devlin and Graham Elwood, who was a regular guest on The Jimmy Dore Show and Aggressive Progressives on The Young Turks. The activist, like the others he tried to reason with, was dismissive. Someone called in with a lead-in story about wanting to patronize the business but then abruptly changed her mind because she had apparently found out that they were ‘hosting Nazis.’ Rich asked her if she knew who the keynote speaker, Daryl Davis, was.
He described how Davis was single-handedly responsible for pulling 200 people out of the Ku Klux Klan by infiltrating the group, befriending his enemies and de-radicalizing them in the process. ‘She said, “I don’t care who else is going to be there, but you got some terrible people coming,”’ Rich said.
This appears to be a strange application of a political version of the One Drop Rule: the social principle of classification where an event featuring just one person with remotely right-wing views is grounds for condemning it entirely as a ‘neo-Nazi’ or ‘far-right’ rally. Despite the mixed bag of speakers, myself included, whose views map on to a wide range of the political spectrum, the entire affair is judged only by its most extreme participant and thus branded accordingly. This same concept also extends to evaluating individuals and businesses in the public show trial of performative wokeness, often by making tenuous connections via guilt by association.
Megan Myers, whose personal social media accounts were linked to the brewery’s business pages, faced a barrage of personal insults online. She was first accused of hosting Nazis, and before long, the charges evolved and escalated to her being called a Nazi herself. As a Jewish woman, she considers the malicious use of the epithet ‘Nazi’ morally unconscionable. ‘You cannot idly use the word “Nazi” and not offend me,’ she said. Rich agrees: ‘I had family disappear in Germany in World War Two. There are a couple of ancestry lines that stopped around the time of concentration camps. To be throwing these words out, it’s really offensive.’
The brewery owners were unfamiliar with the YouTubers and political commentators scheduled to speak at the conference until the harassment campaign began. ‘When I heard of “Sargon of Akkad” I wondered, “what is that? Is that an Xbox handle?”,’ Megan said. Rich and Megan found themselves caught up in a war of ideas and public opinion that they never asked to be drafted into, and were effectively coerced into learning a who’s who of YouTube punditry in order to responsibly address the baseless accusations thrown at them.
The outrage mob, intent on destroying the lives and careers of innocent bystanders who refuse to conform to their orthodoxy, employs a form of guerrilla warfare. Campaigns are launched by a faceless, amorphous adversary well-versed in weaponizing online review systems for political and social gain, all made possible by an asymmetry of power and reputational risk between the activists and their targets. A small, anonymous activist mob with copious amounts of free time, nothing to lose and an infinite will to prevail has a far lower opportunity cost associated with waging this proxy battle across platforms. ‘It is funny listening to the narrative of these hate groups saying “we’re here defending our home town.” Well, none of you are from here – you’re not defending, you’re just coming here and attacking,’ Megan said.
This has happened before to many other small business owners across the country, and it certainly won’t stop with what happened to the Human Village Brewing Company. Ristretto Roasters, a coffee chain in Portland, Ore. was led to financial ruin and eventually forced to close when an employee found out that the owner’s wife, the journalist Nancy Rommelmann, ran a podcast, #MeNeither, about the excesses of feminism and the #MeToo movement. In the wake of recent investigative stories that appear to vindicate Sen. Al Franken, Rommelmann’s perspective seems to have aged well. Earlier this year, Red Hen bistro in Lexington, Va. drew the ire of conservative trolls when the owner turned Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family away from her establishment, which led to a torrent of one-star reviews on her restaurant’s Yelp page.
Last year, Dominic Laurenzo, the co-owner of the Houston Tex-Mex restaurant chain El Tiempo, posted a photograph of himself and Jeff Sessions on Facebook alongside a caption expressing how honored he was to serve the attorney general of the United States. It didn’t take long for anti-Trump Houstonians to get the hashtag #BoycottElTiempo trending. Reeling from the disastrous fallout, his father (and fellow co-owner) urged him to issue an apology and clarify that they in no way endorse Sessions’s immigration policies. Pro-Trump supporters saw this as a spineless maneuver and in their ire, submitted one-star Yelp reviews castigating the restaurant owners for apologizing.
The most recent sacrificial lamb to the altar of wokeness is the Manhattan-based Lucky Lee’s. Owner Arielle Haspel, a white female former health coach, was excoriated by the outrage mob for opening a restaurant which served up ‘sanitized’ Chinese cuisine, adapted to meet healthier, clean-eating standards. This drew charges of both cultural appropriation and racism, especially for implying that Chinese food is, by default, ‘unclean’ (read: greasy). Yelp temporarily suspended reviews and removed politically-motivated ones due to high levels of ‘unusual activity.’
In a world where everything is politicized, no business owner or individual is safe from the mob. The onus is on tech companies to design solutions that can prevent their platforms from becoming political and cultural battlegrounds, while neutralizing or better still, reversing the perverse incentives for activists with political agendas to game their ratings systems.
For now, Rich has stopped answering the phone. ‘The stress that this puts us through this last two weeks, honestly it’s easier to say I wish I just closed,’ he said. ‘I had panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep for weeks. I was so stressed at times I felt like vomiting.’ The founding principles of the Human Village Brewing Company track closely with the underlying spirit of the ‘Minds IRL’ conference that aspired to be a bridge that welcomed all points of view. For millennia, humanity has thrived in the enduring configuration known as ‘the village’, one which instantly conjures up feelings of conviviality, neighborliness and a sense of belonging. Those emotions have become increasingly elusive as our lives migrate online and our world marches in lockstep with the progressive forces of urbanization.
The brewery’s bathroom signs hint at the co-owners’ political leanings which are, ironically, far more aligned with that of the boisterous protest group stationed outside. It was a conscious decision on their part to label both restroom doors ‘human,’ a subtle statement in response to the controversy which led to a conservative boycott of Target over their transgender bathroom policy. ‘I make no secret of my left-leaning opinions,’ Megan said. While there are some holdouts who criticized Megan and Rich for ‘bringing this chaos upon the town,’ most Pitmanites, they say, are generally supportive of their refusal to back down.
When asked if the deluge of online abuse, harassment and swarm of negative local press coverage ever made her reconsider her stance to honor the contract, Megan resolutely said no. For one, she has a degree in diplomacy which she says is ‘literally about methods in smoothing over conflicts that arise between people who disagree with each other.” Apart from refusing to cower to the morally callous agenda of the protesters who nonchalantly throw around the word ‘Nazi,’ she also believes that, just as the El Tiempo case had proven before, apologies to the mob are futile. ‘Once the narrative is out, you’re done,’ Megan said. ‘Once the first charge is levied, there’s no stopping the narrative. The internet doesn’t forget.’ The character assassination and reputational destruction would be immortalized, and short of hiring expensive consultants to help clean up the public relations mess, not much else could be done to change it.
While the Human Village Brewing Company owners receive a lot of in-person support, they’re concerned about how they have been represented on the internet. ‘There are so many who are activists against something, but we need the activists who stand for the things they support,’ Megan said. ‘Where are our supporters writing reviews online and countering the bad ones?’
When it comes to standing up for the principles of open dialogue and free expression, it does, as the saying goes, take a village.