A Charlotte restaurant has faced boycotts in the past week after a fight escalated between a pro-Trump group and a former employee who is a political activist.
“It’s like a little microcosm of where we are in this country,” says Will Bigham, owner of Pizza Peel in Plaza Midwood. Bigham is head of the restaurant group Stomp, Chomp and Roll, which has three Pizza Peel locations and owns other local restaurants.
And Bigham says his pizza restaurant has been caught in the middle — between supporters of a bartender he fired and his political opponents.
It all started as a Facebook fight over politics about a week ago that spiraled into a barrage of incendiary comments from both sides.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Now, former employee Andrew Woods, 34, says he’ll protest Bigham’s restaurant and planned a sit-in there Monday night. Woods says he was unjustly let go after he stood up to aggressive political adversaries who had sent him death threats. His supporters have stopped eating there.
“If they will do it to me, they will do it to people more vulnerable than me,” Woods says.
He says he doesn’t want his old job back or any severance money: “This isn’t just me: an angry bartender. This is a grieving black community.”
Woods was fired Thursday after a week-long feud with a conservative political group. Seizing on a post on Woods’ personal Facebook profile where he called for “brutal harm” against all white Republicans who support President Donald Trump, a conservative group called “Deplorable Pride” and its followers flooded Pizza Peel with phone calls and negative online reviews.
Two days later, Woods — who was asked to take two days off work at the restaurant — posted a Facebook Live video inviting Republicans and white nationalists to fight, just two blocks from the restaurant. Before that, Woods said he’d received threats targeting him as an activist and a Communist, telling him to “dig himself a shallow grave,” and some harassing messages included images of his young daughter.
It’s the latest example of politics spilling into the workplace, says human resources expert Laura Handrick, with Fit Small Business. Increasingly, she says, employers are squeezed in a deeply-divided United States.
Small business owners and employees alike need to know their rights and how to avoid costly mistakes, Handrick said.
“It’s getting worse and employers need to see what’s happening on the political landscape,” she said.
For employees, she recommends not identifying your employer on your personal social media pages where you post political views and not wearing clothing with your employer’s logo to attend protests. For employers, Handrick says the bare minimum is a social media policy that warns workers any harm to the business’ reputation or brand could result in termination. Employers, too, should ban all political speech or conversation while on the clock, Handrick said.
Mounting pressure on employers to fire people with opposing views or beliefs has been used as a form of protest by activists across political persuasions in recent years.
For instance, several people were reportedly fired after they were identified in pictures from the 2017 “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a protester died after being run over by a car. And last year, a man in New Jersey who was organizing an anti-Trump balloon display said he and his employer endured days of backlash due to his activism.
“Employers are in a really tight situation,” Handrick said. “They can’t violate their employee’s rights. But they have to protect their other employees and their customers … (An employee’s) religious practices are protected — but your political views are not.”
Although Woods’ activism took place off-duty and the comments were on his personal Facebook page, the controversy was brought to his employer’s doorstep when Deplorable Pride posted a link to where he worked. Brian Talbert, the group’s founder, said that he initially tried to reach the owner through a private message but chose to “go public” after receiving no response.
Woods was fired due to “inciting” violence, according to Bigham, Pizza Peel owner. Bigham says he supports Woods right to free speech and says he has supported many of the causes Woods fights for, such as raising money for the refugee community in Charlotte and hiring people of color from a range of backgrounds.
“Our mission is to intentionally spread the love – and that’s love for everyone,” Bigham said, referencing the motto of his restaurant group ownership Stomp, Chomp and Roll. “Hate against hate is never gonna win.”
Deplorable Pride’s founder says he didn’t call for a widespread boycott of Pizza Peel but the group had planned to protest until Woods was fired.
Talbert says he and others who support Trump are under attack. In recent months, Talbert says his tires on his car have been slashed, his family members have been harassed and he’s received threatening phone calls after his home address and phone number was published by an antifascist group.
The Deplorable Pride page regularly posts support for banning Muslims in the United States and increasing immigration enforcement and arrests. The page also says it is pro-gay rights. And Talbert says Woods and other local activists been unfairly labeled him a white supremacist.
Police attended firing
Part of his activism, Woods says, will center on Pizza Peel’s decision to call Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police to the restaurant to attend the Thursday meeting when he was fired.
Woods, who is a person of color, says the white-owned restaurant used three police officers to intimidate him. CMPD records show the restaurant requested officers about 15 minutes before Woods arrived to the pre-planned meeting.
The potential for violence led Pizza Peel to call Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, Bigham said. He says he was worried about the safety of customers, other employees and Woods himself.
Still Woods and others say the pizza restaurant’s choice to call for police backup during the meeting shows a lack of understanding and sensitivity. Charlotte pastor Ray McKinnon says it “flirts” with the line of racism to pre-emptively call law enforcement when meeting with an employee of color.
“In their firing of Andrew and the way they did it, they took a stand,” McKinnon, an anti-racist activist, said. “When white folks call the cops, the cops are there to help … But for some of us in our community, we don’t always feel safe when police are there.”
“I want to remain open, I want to listen,” Bigham said, noting his business group is already reviewing its decision to call Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and may change its policy on when to do so.
“What we did was what we did based on threats (on social media),” he said. “But I say, ‘Let’s review that policy.’ If it’s not safe for everyone, yeah, we’ll change it.”