I’m not sure which group worries me more: ignorant people who espouse racist views or the mobs that form on Facebook to condemn them. Ultimately, it’s the combination of the two that’s the real problem.
A couple days before Christmas, Samuel James, the renowned bluesman and storyteller (who also writes a column about racism for The Bollard) posted a bunch of offensive memes on his Facebook page. The memes (images combining pictures and text in an effort to make a witty point) were taken from the personal Facebook page of a guy named Pat Scally. Earlier that day, a Portland foodie website had reported Scally’s plan to open a pizza shop, called Pizzaiolo, on Cumberland Avenue this January. The item also noted that Scally had previously been the director of operations for OTTO, which operates numerous pizzerias in and around Portland and Boston.
“Muslims hate pork, beer, dogs, bikinis, Jesus, and freedom of speech,” one of the memes reads. “My question is, what the hell do they come to America for?”
Another meme on Scully’s page plays on the canard that President Obama is a Muslim bent on destroying America — “Yet you simply let me do it while I played golf!” it says. A couple others attempt to make the point that it’s acceptable for minorities to express pride in their race, but considered racist for white people to do the same.
Over 130 people “liked” James’ post, and 157 Facebook users shared it, thus ensuring that thousands of locals found out the memes were on Scally’s “timeline.” The comments were, predictably, brutal. Facebookers called Scally names and pledged to boycott his business. Someone posted a link revealing that Scally was convicted in 2008 of “conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine.” Commenters on another thread debated to what extent OTTO was culpable for having employed Scally.
In response to my query, OTTO founders Mike Keon and Anthony Allen released a statement: “We were shocked and appalled to learn of the extremely offensive public social media postings made by former employee Pat Scally, which reflect views that are in complete opposition to OTTO’s core values … Mr. Scally was hired in late 2011 based on his qualifications and experience in pizza and pizza delivery operations. He was terminated early in 2014.”
When I visited Scally’s Facebook page this week, I noticed the offending memes had been removed. From the photos that remain I saw that Scally is a big, muscular biker dude with a scary tattoo. So, naturally, I went to his pizzeria to talk to him.
Pizzaiolo isn’t open yet, and Scally wasn’t there, so I called the cell phone number on his license application on file at the City Clerk’s office. Scally answered and we talked for about a half hour. He was polite and contrite throughout the conversation, and willingly answered all my questions on the record.
“I’m sorry if I offended anybody,” Scally told me. “I don’t really understand how [Facebook] works.” (That line’s an early contender for Understatement of the Year.) Scally claimed to have shared some of the offensive memes on his page “by accident,” and said others were posted to his page by other people without his knowledge or consent.
Scally said he doesn’t hate Muslims, but is “against Muslims coming over here and creating hatred and war.” He said Muhammad Ali is his biggest hero, in part because Ali famously refused to fight in Vietnam, and said he has “issues with Obama playing golf while soldiers are coming back missing arms and legs.” Scally also said one of his two children is black (like the child’s mother) and black families in Portland are among his oldest friends.
One of those friends is Andre Hicks Sr., a rapper better known as Dray Sr., of the racially mixed hip-hop group The Yeti, who’s about the last person you’d expect to pal around with bigots. Dray Sr. doesn’t judge people based on Facebook posts. “I go by who I know,” he told me, and Scally “is not hateful of black people and Muslims.”
I believe that, but I don’t believe Scally posted those memes by mistake. I think Scally is ignorant about politics (he admits as much) and insensitive to racist rhetoric (which he also concedes), but is not a hateful person or someone I would consider a racist.
That said, I believe James was right to bring those memes to the community’s attention, and people certainly have the right to criticize Scally for the posts and refuse to eat his pizza. But had this matter ended there on Facebook, Portland would be a more divided and dangerous place as a result. There’d be more hatred, less understanding, and no opportunity for an apology or forgiveness. If we’re going to keep the real racists at bay (and out of the White House), we’ll need to do more reaching out than flipping out.