The Online Lynching of a Lynn, Mass. Coffeehouse

Get it?: Sophie? White Rose? Nazis?
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While a bit less vaunted in American public esteem than the military, the police forces are also held in the highest of regards. Though this may be contested among some in the minority community, and on the far left and the social libertarian right, the desire for security in a spuriously-perceived dangerous world elevates police to such a prominent status. Unlike the military, the contested status of the police has reached mainstream culture through Black Lives Matter protests in the recent years and some journalists’ questioning their legal untouchability.

Nevertheless, one recent instance in a Boston North suburb has been illustrative of the extreme adulation that mainstream American culture still displays towards cops.

The now defunct White Rose Coffeehouse in Lynn, Massachusetts had offered a space for the city’s poor, often minority youth, to engage with the arts, through offering open mics and featuring local artists’ works on the walls. In an economically-struggling community, the coffeehouse was an uplifting force. It also was frequented by artists and musicians from nearby communities, including several patrons from the more middle class and artsy, college city of Salem. However, the café’s fortunes would soon take a downward spiral.

Owner Kato Mele had recently decided to have her café engage in the national ‘Coffee With a Cop’ event, likely because she felt the important of bridging the community she served with the police. In response, her daughter and café manager ‘Sophie CK’ issued a Facebook post on the White Rose FB page in opposition to her mother’s decision, saying she would never allow the event to take place. Her reasoning was that, “at best” police collect “legal slaves” for the state and are “at worst, murderers.”  Before long, this post went viral.

In turn, the coffeehouse was attacked for being anti-police and the manager Kato Mele released a statement that she had fired her daughter and did not condone her Facebook post. Defenders of police deluged online reviews of White Rose with 1-star reviews, denigrating the café in every conceivable way. The post-controversy reviews by pro-police Internet trolls could hardly be more antithetical to the shining reviews of patrons prior to the controversy. For example, one reviewer writes, following Sophie CK’s post, “Absolutely the worse customer service I’ve had in the past years. Staff was rude and the coffee tasted strong of bleach. I will not be back.”

Yet most of these pro-police Internet warriors masked the real reason they disparaged the coffeehouse. Reviewer Adam Gold offered no such masking, “The owner’s daughter is a disgusting human being and is very anti police. She needs to be educated on the errors of her ways and learn that she has been baited to think that way.” In contrast, the Google ‘local guide’ Samantha Brand wrote in a review, over a month before the controversy,

“Great coffee, swift service, quiet jazzy atmosphere, and art for sale on the walls. During the day, it’s quiet and cozy, perfect for reading a good book with a hot cappuccino, at night there’s live intimate performances and spoken word poetry readings, great for have a [likely alcoholic] drink with friends or colleagues and enjoying some natural nightlife.”

Prior to the controversy, the latter review had been the mainstay.

Following her daughter’s post, Mele had written a letter of apology to the Lynn police department explaining that she had fired her daughter for her “hateful” and “biased” post. She invited Lynn police to come to her café and have a conversation with her, to help ease their mind that the establishment was not anti-police. There was no police response. In the coming days, Mele received several death threats and several media inquiries requesting interviews. The next week, death threats and other harassment had accumulated to the point where to escape them, Mele closed her coffeehouse.

The White Rose controversy is inundated with a vast array of contemporary issues, including viral social media posts, free speech, Internet behavior and the unprofessional nature of a public service sector, the police. Most striking, though, is the high status of the police on American society’s hierarchical totem pole. When they were lambasted on a private business’ Facebook page, some of those who ‘liked’ the page came to the police’s defense. The first couple FB responses offered civil criticism to her post; in this sense had it remained as such, it would have been an embrace of free speech and social discourse.

However, much the opposite occurred. Sophie CK and her mother were issued death threats and other harassment and the café was severely belittled by Internet warrior trolls. When the owner issued an apology to the community, it did little to cool the temper the police-worshipping Internet trolls. Additionally, Mele’s letter of apology and request for dialogue with the police fell on deaf ears; despite their duty as public employees to engage with community members upon request, whether the police personally liked them or their (and/or their daughters’) political views. Death threats and harassment continued to the point where the only remedy for Mele was to close the café. According to a friend of mine who is her acquaintance, Kato Mele recently sold her condo within a day after putting it on the market, changed her name and went into hiding. Thus, the briefly-contested pedestal on which police sit was restored and a community-minded coffee shop, which helped bring the arts to a poor, minority-majority community, was snuffed out of existence. And a woman who tried to bring the arts to a less fortunate community now lives like a witness to a mob hit.

The implications for the national community at large may indeed be more than the exalted, unassailable status of the police. It may suggest two other social phenomena: Poor, minority-majority communities should not have/do not need an arts space where creativity can be fostered. It also highlights the general military/police esteem structure, and a militarism deeply embedded in present-day American culture, that hold little regard for the arts.

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Peter Crowley is an independent writer and scholar with a M.S. in Conflict Resolution, Global Studies from Northeastern University. He works as Content Specialist/Production Coordinator for a prominent library science company. For fun, he plays in bluesy rock band around the Boston/NYC area. His writings can be found in Boston Literary Magazine, Mondoweiss, Mint Press News, (several publications in) Wilderness House Literary Review, Counterpunch, Foreign Policy Journal, Truthout, Green Fuse Press, Antiwar.com, Rhinocerotic, Peace Studies Journal, Ethnic Studies Review (forthcoming), Inquiries Journal and a periodical publication of the Brookline, MA Historical Society.