When the Alt-right Bellies Up to Your Bar

Inside a cultural and constitutional quagmire

Make Westing, a popular bar in Oakland, California, has a front patio that some patrons refer to as the city’s front porch. “We have a huge crowd, and it’s everything—it’s black, it’s white, it’s old, it’s young,” says a representative of the bar, who asked not to be named. Imagine their surprise last summer when an assistant manager saw a Reddit post claiming that a local chapter of the Proud Boys would be meeting there.

The bar had a choice to make: Let the group in or kick them out. “We were between a rock and a hard place,” the rep says. “If we said, ‘Fine, come,’ we’d get destroyed in a liberal city like Oakland. And if we didn’t let them come, the alt-right would come after us.” (Started during the 2016 presidential campaign by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys reject the “alt-right” label; the group calls itself a “Western chauvinist” organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies it as a hate group.) After consulting with lawyers and other bars in the neighborhood, Make Westing decided to “figure out what good we could possibly bring to this.” They created a Facebook post disavowing racism and announcing an event of their own for the day of the planned Proud Boys meeting—one that would raise money for Black Lives Matter, the ACLU and other organizations.

The day before Make Westing’s event, African American teenager Nia Wilson was murdered by a white man at an Oakland train station, and the organizers of a march scheduled for the next day decided it would end at the bar. Suddenly, Make Westing was at the center of an upheaval: Even the mayor of Oakland tweeted a link to its original Facebook post, which reached more than 100,000 people.

On the big day, the Proud Boys didn’t show. Make Westing’s event raised thousands of dollars for Wilson’s family and various progressive causes, but the bar experienced online and voice-mail vitriol from both sides. “No matter what we did, we were wrong in a lot of people’s eyes,” the bar’s representative says.
There was barely an employee manual, let alone a policy for this situation.
In this apparent civil liberties stalemate, the staff of Make Westing is not alone. In September, a group of alleged white nationalists harassed and pepper-sprayed a Democratic Socialists of America meeting at a bar in Louisville, Kentucky. In July, six skinheads were charged with ethnic intimidation and simple assault after beating an African American man at a bar in Avalon, Pennsylvania. Later that month, Joey Gibson—a U.S. Senate candidate and the leader of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group whose marches and rallies have turned violent several times—urged followers in a Facebook Live post to contact a Vancouver, Washington bar that had kicked him out. The bar was inundated with harassment and threats.

It can happen the other way too: In Los Angeles last summer, a scuffle broke out in a bar one Saturday night after a Proud Boys gathering wasn’t ejected quickly enough and opponents of the group showed up en masse. The bar closed that night and Sunday. Its owner, who was not at the bar during the incident, issued a statement: “I am ultimately to blame for not having a policy in place to deal with this sort of thing that could be implemented in my absence,” he wrote. “I’ve just never had any experience with something like this before.”

The political and business consequences of refusing to serve certain people may be complicated, but the legal consequences are not. “You have a First Amendment right to associate with some and to disassociate with others,” says Matt C. Pinsker, a constitutional law expert and adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The general rule is private property owners can do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t discriminate against a legally protected class,” including those based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, disability and a few other categories—but definitely not including political views. (Sexual orientation is a protected class in some states but not federally; see the Supreme Court’s 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop decision.) Technically, then, business owners and staff “can discriminate against other groups,” Pinsker says. “If you have something you find morally appalling, you have the right to exclude them from your bar. Some people might find fans of the wrong football team morally appalling, and others might find neo-Nazis morally appalling.”

Even on a small scale, the decision to kick someone out for their beliefs is fraught. San Diego bartender Ashley Wardle learned this firsthand when she eighty-sixed a customer wearing a Proud Boys shirt last summer. “I was the person in charge at the time; none of the owners were in,” she says. “I told him, ‘I can’t serve you at this bar wearing that shirt.’ He said, ‘Well, now who’s the bigot?’ ”

The customer left, and Wardle thought that was the end of it. But a few days later, her phone started blowing up with messages from her bosses. She heard the guy she’d kicked out had posted about the incident on several far-right websites, and the bar was getting hit with negative reviews and posts. One now-deleted tweet from a local conservative activist even named Wardle specifically. The bar’s owner worked quickly to have the online abuse taken down, but the experience contributed to Wardle’s decision to find a different bartending job soon afterward. (Fearing further reprisals, the owner also asked that this story not name the bar.)
With hard-right groups growing ever more bold since the 2016 election, standoffs like these won’t be going away anytime soon.
“I kick people out for being too drunk, but that was the first time I’ve had to deal with anything like this,” Wardle says. “Like most bars, this is a small start-up. There was barely a training or an employee manual, let alone a policy for this situation. The idea of an alt-right person coming in the bar was not even in the owner’s mind.”

Make Westing’s representative agrees: “If you’re fighting or treating people poorly, you’re kicked out; you’re banned. But there was no specific policy on the Proud Boys.” There’s still no specific policy at Make Westing, and the representative is ambivalent about the bar being drawn into this controversy. “Hopefully it brought more good than bad, but I don’t know.”

Wardle doesn’t regret her actions. “Wearing a hate group’s shirt is a statement of hate; it was designed to provoke a reaction,” she says. “Whether or not he was a member of this group, his shirt made him one. As bartenders, our responsibility goes way beyond just putting stuff in glasses. It’s creating a space that’s inviting and safe.”
Most bars, of course, don’t have constitutional scholars on staff. But there may be hope in numbers: In advance of the Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington, D.C. last August, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington sent a “toolkit” to its members, affirming their freedom to refuse service to white nationalists and other political groups.

The event and its counterprotests were relatively peaceful, especially compared with the deadly Charlottesville rally of 2017; D.C. saw only one arrest. But with hard-right groups growing ever more bold since the 2016 election, standoffs like these won’t be going away anytime soon.

Proprietors, pint pullers and patrons will have to decide for themselves whether extremist groups should hide in the shadows or be exposed to the (neon, possibly smoke wreathed) light.

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