Diners aren’t just great places for an affordable bite to eat.
Specifically here in Philadelphia, they’ve long been places for community members and politicians of all stripes to gather, talk and debate, with a civil tongue.
But the 2016 presidential election may be changing that, judging by the firestorm that has erupted at the Trolley Car Diner in Mount Airy. A server’s comment to a supporter of President-elect Donald Trump has fueled racist and anti-Semitic harassment—an episode that has potentially disturbing implications for free speech in the era of Trump.
It all began the morning after the election, when emotions were running high. A woman, who declined to be named came to the Trolley Car for breakfast wearing the iconic red pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” hat. A longtime server at the diner, who also declined to be named, made a comment to the customer.
Here, the accounts diverge: Ken Weinstein, a Mount Airy resident who has owned the Trolley Car Diner for 16 years, and others who were present maintain that the server said, “Good thing you’re not in my section.” The customer maintains that the server called her “ignorant” and “disgusting.” All agree that the customer then complained to the manager, who apologized on behalf of the server; and just 10 minutes later, left.
“[The server’s] comment was absolutely inappropriate,” Weinstein admits. “We addressed it with her on a scale that we felt was appropriate. She knew it was wrong. She’s a strong person, and she feels really bad.”
A week later, Weinstein says, staff was surprised to see the customer return to the diner during the server’s shift. “She [the customer] got up to go to the bathroom, while the server was in a staff area,” recalled Weinstein. “She came up behind the server and stood uncomfortably close, and when the server turned around she bumped into her.” The customer’s version, told to 6ABC, differs: “I get up from the table and she’s standing in the hallway, and she backs into me and then, like, checks me.”
The customer then raised her voice, shouting that the server had physically assaulted her, and left the diner. She emailed Weinstein later that day, who says he replied that “whatever happened, we’re very sorry.”
Still Weinstein said he was skeptical: “It just felt like a setup.”
What happened next turned a minor altercation into an international campaign of harassment.
The angry customer happened to be a friend of Jack Posobiec (@JackPosobiec), the special projects director with “Citizens for Trump.” Posobiec then tweeted to a throng of more than 53k followers that the server had “beat up” the Trump supporter.
He then went live for 10 minutes on the social network Periscope, claiming that the server had been “body-checked,” “physically assaulted” and screamed at the woman. His broadcast included the diner’s phone number and address and encouraged viewers to call the diner. The tweets went viral with the hashtag #AbortionDiner, which Posobiec used as a charge that Weinstein promotes abortion. Weinstein said he finds baffling that it had any issue on the bearing.
Posobiec did not respond to requests for comment.
Needless to say, Posobiec’s followers responded en masse. The diner received thousands of calls and had to disconnect its phone line. Emails, Facebook messages, and negative reviews on Yelp, Google, TripAdvisor and elsewhere poured in. Though Posobiec specifically asked viewers to ask only “if using violence is okay to express political beliefs,” his followers went further, with several threatening to burn down the diner, bring guns inside, or use violence against staff members.
Weinstein even said people contacted the health department alleging code violations.
Weinstein, who is Jewish, says that he was horrified not only by the scale of the backlash but by the anti-Semitic and anti-African-American content of many of the messages he received. They came from all across the country, with some arriving from as far away as Switzerland.
“They used racial slurs against the server (who is African American), religious slurs against me, really unspeakable things,” said Weinstein. “But not a single person has come in here to confront me face-to-face. They only say these things when they can hide behind phones and computers.”
While online the hate and anger has been prevalent, Weinstein says the in-person response has been one of support, with regular customers and Mount Airy residents bringing friends to the diner to eat and show their support.
“You don’t know how many friends you have until something like this happens,” Weinstein added. “Customers have left extra-generous tips, sent flowers, purchased gift cards and given them to staff members, and written positive reviews to counteract the negativity on dining and travel sites. Weinstein, who is planning to open a new location in West Philly this spring, says he’s grateful for the support.
It’s no secret that Internet rage was a factor in propelling Trump’s candidacy. Nor is it uncommon for right-wing trolls to doxx, or release personal information about, people with whom they disagree—particularly women and people of color. The phenomenon, which has arisen in the last decade, is new enough that the laws have not yet evolved to address it adequately, but old enough that feminists, anti-racists, and other left-wing writers know they’re likely to face a huge wave of online hate when they publish their opinions.
In this case, the target isn’t someone who published an opinion online—it is a worker who happened to lose her temper for a moment (and was disciplined for doing so); it is her employer who is responsible for the livelihood of dozens of other employees; and it is a business that is a popular institution in a thoroughly diverse neighborhood.
Even more notably, this particular Twitter mob didn’t arise simply from some dark corner of 4chan; it was touched off by, and organized in favor of, a man who has just been elected president of the United States.
Make America Great Again? Hell, it’s looking like we can’t even make America breakfast again.30