By APRIL EHRLICH Oregon Public Broadcasting
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — It’s hard to miss Epilogue Kitchen and Cocktails while strolling through downtown Salem. Tons of panels are stuck to its windows, some of them handmade. They read: ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘No Place For Hate’.
There are large portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and in chalk marker the names of dozens of other people killed by police in recent years.
There is also a small cardboard sign that says: “VACCINES REQUIRED FOR SEATED DINNER”.
Despite this sign, and despite a reservation at another restaurant in Salem, Naomi Wolf walked into Epilogue at the end of June and had a long argument with the staff about their indoor dining rule.
“So she walked by, saw our signs — she decided that meant she needed to cause a scene,” co-owner Jonathan Jones said.
Wolf was once a well-known feminist author – she wrote the 1990 bestseller ‘The Beauty Myth’ and advised Bill Clinton and Al Gore – who in recent years have come to attention online for spreading false information about the coronavirus. Her Twitter account has been deactivated, but she continues to use other social media alternatives, including one aimed at US conservatives called Gettr.
It was there that she posted two videos of her late-June encounter with the Epilogue staff. In one, two employees repeatedly ask Wolf to leave. One of them points to the sign that vaccines are mandatory and they ask why Wolf decided to violate that limit by walking in and arguing with the staff anyway.
“Well, I mean, first of all, a lot of people in the history of this nation have pushed the envelope like that,” Wolf says in the video. “And it turned out to be the right thing to do.”
Speaking to one of Epilogue’s black employees, Wolf goes on to say that the indoor dining rule is “absolutely discriminatory.” (According to the law, discrimination is bias or bias against a protected class of people with respect to their race, age, gender, sexual preference, or disability status. Legally speaking, COVID-19 vaccine status 19 does not place someone in a protected class of persons.)
Epilogue also offers outdoor seating for people who cannot provide proof of vaccination.
Another video shows Jones telling Wolf that she was banned from the restaurant because of the way she treated her staff.
“You’ve been officially 86′d. If you ever come back, you’ll be an intrusion,” Jones says.
Wolf responds, “Well, I’m only intruding if I walk in,” while appearing to stand on the sidewalk outside Epilogue’s front doors, near its outdoor seating area.
Wolf did not respond to OPB’s requests for comment.
Wolf’s videos on Gettr have hundreds of comments from people coming together to harass the restaurant. Several of them mock Jones’ appearance and call for violence against him. And many others are calling on the crowd to leave negative reviews on the site’s various online profiles. That’s when his Google and Yelp ratings plummeted.
“We had over 150 fake one-star reviews,” Jones said a week after the incident. “Most of them sink into racism pretty quickly. Pretty unbridled, crass racism.
Jones said around 75 bogus reservations were booked online in a week – under names such as “Let’s go Brandon”, a conservative code for an insult to President Joe Biden. Epilogue received hundreds of outlandish phone calls and hateful voicemails; Jones said he needed to tell the staff to stop answering the phone so only he would have to bear the brunt of the hate.
“I will never eat at your restaurant now, later,” a woman says in a voicemail that has become typical of the type flooding the restaurant’s inbox. “I hope your business will sink.”
Like many callers, the woman in voicemail seemed to equate Epilogue’s policy of requiring vaccines to be served indoors with racism. She went on to say that the food in Epilogue “probably tasted like segregation.”
Jones, who is black, said the menu draws inspiration from the black diaspora. You can get fried duck leg coated in apple butter and fig and chilli vinegar, or jerk spice flavored rabbit confit.
Jones said he and his wife opened the restaurant about 12 years ago to express themselves creatively through food and art.
“Everything we do is designed to somehow show the marks of our hands; to be a piece of our soul, of our heart, of our spirit,” he said.
Part of that is not being afraid to show what they believe in, he said, even if it can attract unwanted — and sometimes scary — attention.
“If you sit here long enough, you’ll only see unbridled hatred directed at the restaurant,” Jones said. “Every day people come by. They push us away, they shout “All lives matter”.
Since its debut, Jones said, Epilogue has suffered racist graffiti and violent attacks. Much of this was recorded on a restaurant security camera and posted to Epilogue’s Instagram account.
In one video, a man and woman appear to draw a white power symbol in front of the camera, then walk away. In another video, a man appears to be trying to break glass front doors, slamming them repeatedly. Jones said the incident cracked the glass.
Chris Young, a regular customer and friend of Jones, said racist incidents seem to have become more frequent in Salem since the 2020 racial justice protests, but city leaders haven’t acknowledged it much.
“Once in a while you’ll have a councilman who will have harsh words in the middle of a meeting or something like that,” he said. “But as far as anything tangible going on, anything specific to address this issue, you very rarely, if ever, hear about it.”
Salem Mayor Chuck Bennet and Councilman Chris Hoy, who is expected to become the next mayor, did not respond to requests for comment.
Jones said he had gone to Salem police in the past but didn’t feel heard, so he didn’t report the Wolf incident or the harassment that followed.
According to him, those driven to violence against his restaurant are angered by his very existence.
“Local hatred comes from the fact that we dare to say what we think; we dare to create spaces and challenge the status quo of a historically white utopia,” Jones said. “And we’re also great at the products and the service that we offer, and that absolutely pushes them up a wall.”
But while it might draw some people’s hate, others seem to like Epilogue twice as much. Epilogue staff member Madalena Martin said the restaurant has become a gathering place for people who may feel mismatched because of their race, gender or political ideals, especially in an area that tends to be conservative.
“Now I’m here and I’m surrounded by other activists and other people who are focused on disrupting oppression in our society… It’s just healing,” Martin said.
Jones – who is originally from the Philadelphia area – said no matter what, Salem is his community now, and no amount of harassment or violence will scare him off.
“They can break our windows, they can threaten my life,” Jones said. “…I will always be the excellent person that I am.”