Spokane coffee business owners spark controversy over online posts

Spokane coffee business owners spark controversy over online posts

As the community and nation struggle with deadly encounters with police, protests and the politics of division, two Spokane coffee business owners learned this week how controversial social media posts can hurt or boost their clientele.

Gary Tom Sawyer, owner of Tom Sawyer Country Coffee in Spokane, shared someone else’s post on June 9 that was titled: “White Lives Matter: Lets see how long it takes Facebook to take this down.”

The reaction was swift. My Fresh Basket, a grocery store 1030 W. Summit Pkwy., removed all Tom Sawyer coffee products from its shelves on Wednesday.

“We have just learned of the situation and are discussing appropriate measures to address situations that are contrary to the store’s beliefs and those of our customers,” the store posted on its Facebook page. “Racism and any discriminatory acts are not tolerated, period. At this time we have decided to pull the individuals inventory.”

Sawyer, 78, who also shared another message earlier this month that said the NFL had become a “stage for a bunch of thugs & racists to insult our flag” confirmed that My Fresh Basket had canceled his account, along with a few other accounts.

He said he wishes he would have handled the Facebook posts differently.

“Posting something on there is giving people something to think about. If I post something that people don’t agree with, I accept that. But, come down and discuss it with me,” he said. “I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended. That’s all I can say, other than I will never make another post again as long as I live.”

Another coffee company, Wake Up Call, got caught up in a similar controversy after co-owner Christi Walsh reposted several other controversial posts that prompted several customers to claim they would no longer patronize Wake Up Call’s several Spokane-area locations.

On June 14, Walsh reposted a message about why she would no longer “grieve for George Floyd,” a 46-year-old black man who was killed May 25 in Minneapolis during an arrest .

Walsh’s post mostly documented how “terrorists” responded to Floyd’s killing by burning businesses, cars, and set fire to a church in Washington, D.C.

“82 black people shot and 19 dead in Chicago this past weekend, and no one cares,” the post reads in part. “No, I no longer grieve for Mr. George Floyd. I grieve for AMERICA. And, right now, terrorists have their knee on the throat of AMERICA. And WE THE PEOPLE can’t breathe. Wake up America.”

A day earlier, Walsh reposted another message questioning why only “Whites are racists, and no other race is.”

“You call me ‘White boy, ‘Cracker,’ ‘Honkey,’ ‘Whitey,’ ‘Caveman’ …. And that’s OK,” the post reads in part. “You say that whites commit a lot of violence against you … So why are ghettos the most dangerous places to live?”

Walsh’s and Sawyer’s Facebook accounts were disabled or no longer visible to the public after a firestorm of online response.

In what appears to be her last post, Walsh wrote an apology.

“Wake Up Call does not believe in nor condone racism of any sort,” Walsh wrote, in part. “We stand for unity. We stand for freedom. And … we stand with our fellow humans by promoting their dignity and value in everything we say or do.”

Curtis Walsh, who identified himself as a family member, defended Christi Walsh and criticized those who wrote online opposition to her posts as “self righteous children.”

“My family has its flaws, but calling Christi Walsh a racist bigot completely denudes the term of all its emotional weight,” Curtis Walsh wrote. “My family, as a whole, including Christi, have done more for this city than many of you will ever know.”

Efforts to reach Curtis and Christi Walsh were unsuccessful Thursday.

Sawyer, said reaction to his posts also caused him more harm than just the Fresh Basket account.

“We’ve had a few accounts that felt it was necessary to drop us,” Sawyer said. “But we have three new accounts today.”

Sawyer said he had not taken the time to research the underlying meaning of Black Lives Matter, but said he understands the concept. He said if he could have a replay, he would have written “All Lives Matter” instead of reposting “White Lives Matter.”

Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said that comment clearly shows that Sawyer does not know what Black Lives Matter is about.

“The knee-jerk reaction is, ‘Duh. All lives matter.’ But the reality is that people like him refuse to understand that historically, black lives have never mattered as much as their lives,” Robinson said. “For them to shortcut that and say, ‘All lives matter,’ just speaks to the place of privilege and denial and bias that they operate in.”

The purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement is to own the fact that persons of color have been treated as less-than human or less-than deserving, he said.

“America will never be the country that we need it to be until we own the fact that it has never been what it was supposed to be in the first place,” Robinson said. “That’s why Black Lives Matter is critical to maintaining the soul of our community and the best ideals of our founding fathers.”

Despite the online backlash, Sawyer said he had one of his busiest days in recent weeks. He estimated about 250 customers come through the business at 608 N. Maple St. At about 10 a.m. Thursday, all the tables were full, including one that had three uniformed Spokane police officers.

Sawyer said he has enjoyed the support from the SPD. Just two weeks ago, he handed out about 640 gift cards to local officers.

On Thursday, he said about 50 officers came to his business. Asked if he thought they were coming in to cash in the gift cards, Sawyer said no. “It was total support for this.”

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