Why a famously liberal Maine restaurant is serving a hate group instead of its worker
|Nathan Bernard||Sep 19, 2019|
This article was originally published by Mainer, an alt-monthly magazine distributed in over 400 locations across Maine.
The emergence of a neo-Nazi group in Maine tested the values of a famously liberal restaurant this summer, and the restaurant failed that test, having chosen to accommodate racists over an activist on its own staff. The scandal at Slates, a bakery and bistro in Hallowell, shows how extremist views worm their way into mainstream politics, and how wage laborers who speak out against hate, even on their own time, risk both their lives and their livelihoods in an economic system that punishes dissent and rewards silent complicity among members of the working class.
In January of last year, Mainer editor-at-large Crash Barry and Mainer contributor Andy O’Brien (then a political reporter and editor at the Rockland Free Press) revealed that the town manager of the tiny North Woods community of Jackman, Tom Kawczynski, is a neo-Nazi working to establish a white ethno-state in Maine, which is already one of whitest states in the nation. Kawczynski promptly lost his job, but the story made national news and raised his profile in the white-power movement, earning him appearances at a conference headlined by former Klan leader and state lawmaker David Duke, and on podcasts by hatemongers like Christopher Cantwell, a.k.a. The Crying Nazi, who broadcasts from neighboring New Hampshire.
Kawczynski has continued to organize racists in Maine in preparation for what he calls a “second civil war” — efforts Barry exposed in two subsequent articles for Mainer’s predecessor publication, The Bollard (see “Crashing the Nazi’s Dinner Party,” March 2018, and “Maine neo-Nazi vows violence, writes book,” Sept. 2018). Earlier this summer, Kawczynski and his wife, Dana Steele — whose explicitly pro-Nazi posts on the social-media hate site Gab were published in The Bollard — set up a Facebook group called Maine for Mainers.
Maine for Mainers is a textbook example of how white supremacists successfully camouflage extremist views under cover of conservative talking points like toughening immigration laws, putting “citizens” first, and defending “traditional American values.” “Maine for Mainers is a public discussion and organization group for US citizens residing in the state of Maine who believe our government’s primary and singular responsibility is to our own people in this state,” reads the bio on the group’s Facebook page, which is still active.
The neo-Nazis’ group attracted over 360 members in a matter of weeks, including Republican state lawmaker Shelley Rudnicki and former Maine State Rep. Paula Sutton. It also attracted the attention of MacKenzie Swift, a young woman who worked as a server and bartender at Slates, which recently celebrated its 40th year in Hallowell, a small town on the Kennebec River just south of Augusta, the state capital.
In late July, Swift published a post on her personal Facebook page calling attention to Maine for Mainers’ “racist rhetoric,” the fact it’s “run by white supremacists,” and that its membership comprised “lots of public figures including state politicians and business owners who clearly are either white supremacists or at the very least associated with them.”
“It’s a public group,” her post continued, “so if you’re interested in finding out which politicians to make sure not to vote for or which businesses to boycott, go ahead and search the group’s member list.”
Then Swift went further. She set up a Facebook group called Maine for Everyone that’s since attracted nearly 1,000 members.
“The Facebook page was less about antagonizing Maine for Mainers, and more about being a community meeting spot for activists around the state,” Swift told me this month. “People were sharing fundraisers for asylum seekers and anti-racism workshops.”
An active member of Kawczynski’s neo-Nazi cabal, Camille Cheaney Patterson, identified Swift’s place of employment from her Facebook profile and shared her personal information with fellow racists in Maine and beyond, a practice called doxxing. According to Swift, a member of the Maine for Mainers group then posted a threat against her boyfriend and his kids, writing that “he should be more careful since he has children.”
Members of the hate group and its supporters also started pressuring Slates owner Wendy Larson, demanding she denounce or terminate Swift for her online activism. They accused Swift of libeling their group, made disparaging comments about her appearance, and vowed to show up at her workplace as customers.
The racists were further riled by Swift’s assertion, in a Facebook post, that she would not be fired from Slates because the restaurant is renowned for its progressivism. In the 1980s, Slates’ public stand for gay rights prompted a domestic terrorist to open fire on the establishment, and Larson has continued to be a vocal advocate for peace and social justice. The restaurant flies rainbow flags and has a mural outside depicting a black male hand and a white female hand forming the shape of a heart over the world.
“I’d been working at Slates for two years and was a loyal employee,” Swift said. “Slates is a local landmark, a pillar of our community. It’s known for being very LGBT friendly and the general vibe [reflects] Hallowell’s liberal beliefs. When the attacks started online, I was like ‘go for it,’ since I knew the history of Slates.”
To Swift’s dismay, Larson demanded she remove the post asserting that Slates wouldn’t fire her for exposing white supremacy. Swift told the Kennebec Journal at the time that, according to Larson, her boss hadn’t yet decided whether to fire her or not.
Swift asked Larson for the names of those who’d sent messages to Slates defending the white-power group, so she could file protection-from-harassment orders against them. Larson refused, but eventually agreed to give the messages, which filled over a dozen pages, to the Hallowell Police Department. The cops refused to take any action and denied Swift access to the documents unless she hired an attorney to request them, she said.
Both Larson and Hallowell Police Chief Eric Nason claimed the messages contained no explicit threats against Slates or its workers. Nason didn’t even write a report. “It was just a lot of drama is what it is,” the police chief told the KJ. “People are expressing opinions back and forth, and people feel strongly about a particular subject, and that’s when Facebook kind of blows up.”
Larson told the paper she’d refused to share the names with Swift because she worried Swift would make them public, potentially damaging the reputations of the hate group’s members and supporters. “I don’t want either side hurting anybody,” she said.
Swift told her boss she didn’t feel safe at Slates in the wake of the controversy and was trying to get other workers to cover her shifts until it blew over. “Wendy told me that she wouldn’t give me any help finding coverage for my shifts and that if I didn’t find coverage on my own, I was fired,” Swift told the KJ last month. Larson advised her to “come face the music and be ‘gentler’ with the white supremacists,” said Swift.
Larson confirmed to the paper that she pressured Swift to get back to work, under threat of termination, despite the employee’s fears for her safety. She added that she’d assured Swift she had a “plan” to protect her if an enraged white supremacist showed up. “If anybody ever came, I would talk to them and she could walk out the back door,” Larson said.
The boss wasn’t the only one who seemed to resent Swift for speaking out. “Most of my co-workers just wrote me off,” she told me. “One co-worker, who was one of my best friends since I was 13, told me I was dead to her.” Swift eventually stopped trying to get others to cover her shifts and no longer works at Slates. Warning her community about the neo-Nazi group effectively cost Swift her job.
Tom Kawczynski, second from right, plotting with fellow neo-Nazis in a Lewiston restaurant in February 2018. photo/Crash Barry
Sass Linneken, Swift’s mother, took Larson to task on Facebook last month, writing that Slates “sympathizes with Nazis” and calling for people of conscience to boycott the restaurant. “Slates needs to say *explicitly* that they will NOT welcome white supremacists,” Linneken wrote. “Taking full accountability can go a long way toward disrupting hate in our state, and restoring faith in any idea that they care about the safety and well-being of their employees.”
On Aug. 5, Larson responded via Slates’ Facebook page. “I have been a proponent of equal rights in Hallowell for 40 years,” she wrote. “Slates does not tolerate hate, never has and never will. We have been a haven for diversity. I am opposed to any belief diminishing one person’s value over another. I am a firm believer in the first amendment [sic]. We are a family and stand together in our belief that love and truth wins in the end.”
Larson’s post, which has since been deleted, drew criticism from other locals. “There were multiple people of color commenting on the Slates post saying this is not sufficient,” recalled Swift. “They asked if Slates would let these people come and sit next to us, putting us in danger. The comments were deleted, then the commenters were blocked from posting any further.
“That sort of attitude goes to show it’s not about justice or fairness or equity for people that are being marginalized,” Swift continued. “It’s about giving a false sense of peace, love and kumbaya to the privileged people that frequently patronize Slates. That whole mindset really bothers me.”
The neo-Nazi group and its supporters tried to reframe criticism of their intolerance as an attack on free speech. And, at least in the mainstream media, it worked like a charm.
The KJ’s lengthy Aug. 8 article about the scandal casts Larson as the victim of Swift and other “social justice advocates” who’ve caught her in their “crossfire.” “Slates owner defending herself after social media post calls her ‘Nazi Sympathizer,’” the headline reads.
“I’m sure it was disorienting for [Slates] to just be blasted with an onslaught of complaints and bad reviews and spamming of their social media,” said Ana Rothschild, a teacher and mentor to Swift who tried to defend her, and who was subsequently doxxed and harassed online by the white-power troll mob. “I’m sure the restaurant doesn’t want to be perceived as inimical to conservative views, which is exactly the way Maine for Mainers has painted themselves — as just a group of local conservatives, and not an actual part of a national white supremacist network,” Rothschild told a reporter for Beacon, a website run by the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive political organization.
I went to Slates a few weeks ago and Larson was there. She agreed to talk with me about the scandal and her response to it. We sat at a table beneath another mural, this one featuring a brown-skinned mermaid caressing the sun.
“Hallowell is Slates and Slates is Hallowell,” Larson declared. “We have always welcomed everyone. I’m a strong believer in free speech.”
Larson acknowledged that Kawczynski “is a white supremacist,” but stressed repeatedly that she’s “not scared of these people.” Though Larson said she “wouldn’t want to have dinner with them,” even customers who openly display their allegiance to Nazism are welcome to dine at Slates.
“A young man with a swastika tattoo on his neck once came into the bakery and it made me uncomfortable, but I still sold him a cookie,” Larson said. “I think that if [neo-Nazis] came into our restaurant they would be surrounded by diversity that they may not otherwise be exposed to. That may help change their opinion.”
Larson claimed, absurdly, that the only alternative to her open-door policy would be to subject every potential customer to some sort of political litmus test before seating them. “How can I tell if they are Nazis?” she asked me. “Am I supposed to screen everyone? You have blonde hair, blue eyes, are Aryan. See what I mean?”
Of course, restaurateurs and bar owners routinely refuse service to people who may pose a danger to patrons or staff, and they’re legally entitled to do so. For example, bar owners in Portland’s Old Port nightlife district share mug shots and other information provided by police to identify troublemakers and stop them at the door.
Swift said her standard would be simple: “no outward display of Nazi symbols” and “barring publicly known white supremacist figures from dining” at Slates. “It’s about making these [neo-Nazis] feel uncomfortable in mainstream society,” she told me. “These people aren’t going to be turned by peace, love and expensive food.”
“If we’re not actively fighting against white supremacy, we are complicit in its rise,” Swift added. “You have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone and stand up when it’s difficult. It’s our responsibility, especially as white people, to smash this ideology so it stops killing people.”