So a group of people armed with Proud Boys swag walk into a West Philly bar.
Among the string of events that happened next: a boycott, a meltdown in online review sections, an interview on conservative talk radio, a projectile through a window, a complaint about Antifa, and a karaoke master who says he’ll never return.
It’s been a long couple of weeks for the Millcreek Tavern.
The West Philadelphia dive bar has been under fire and called a haven for hate by both longtime patrons and people who have never set foot in the place since Nov. 15. That’s when a group maybe affiliated with the Proud Boys, a far-right organization designated as a hate group, showed up for the weekly karaoke night and left their branded materials — including a mouse pad and fliers — lying around.
It wasn’t the first time the Millcreek Tavern and its owner, Jack Gillespie, have made headlines. In 2017, the bar was in the news for apparently booking a metal band known for its anti-Semitic lyrics. Once folks caught wind of the concert, they flooded the bar with phone calls and the show was canceled — Gillespie says it was a big misunderstanding.
He took a similar tack this time around, posting on Millcreek’s Facebook page three days after the incident that he had no idea who the Proud Boys were when there were concerns they were inside his bar. Then he wrote that the group wasn’t actually the Proud Boys at all, but from Turning Point USA, a conservative student organization.
Philadelphia Proud Boys’ only response to The Inquirer was to say “Lol boycotting?” via email and point out that someone threw something through the Millcreek window. TPUSA’s local chapter didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Gillespie, for his part, said he acted in good faith and doesn’t know what he’d do if the Proud Boys came back. He said that he might ask them to drink somewhere else, but also that he’s “not going to discriminate” and believes in their First Amendment rights.
The Proud Boys are self-identified “Western chauvinists” and designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “general hate” group. Its male-only members have espoused anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric.
Some of the group’s members have been aligned with extremists and appeared at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., that promoted white supremacy and neo-Nazism and resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. Two of the group’s members were convicted earlier this year of attempted gang assault for taking part in a violent brawl in New York, while others reportedly made a threatening late-night visit to the Philadelphia home of a critic.
Gillespie said the bar got a phone call on Nov. 15 from someone claiming they wanted to bring in a group of Republicans to partake in karaoke. No problem, Gillespie said. He was in the bar starting at about 9:30 p.m. and saw two groups, each of about 10 people, that he didn’t recognize. They were “well-behaved,” he said, and drank, ate, and did karaoke. He noticed there was “a Proud Boy file” and “a Proud Boy logo” on one of his tables, but said he hadn’t heard of the group and thought nothing of it.
Gillespie said he went to bed around 1 a.m. and the night was without incident.
Others at the Millcreek that night remember it differently, including Vashti Bandy, a writer and liberal activist who lives in South Philly. She’s faithfully sung karaoke at Millcreek every Friday for at least six years. In 2017, Bandy gave Gillespie the benefit of the doubt and publicly defended Millcreek during the anti-Semitic-metal-band debacle.
Her loyalty was for the same reasons that made this whole incident sort of unexpected: The bar attracts a crowd that’s diverse in every way imaginable. It’s a stone’s throw from the yoga studios and vegan snack shops on Baltimore Avenue. And this is West Philly we’re talking about — Gillespie, on a radio show, called it a “bastion of liberalism,” and few would argue.
Bandy was in the bar with a group of friends and regulars when they spotted the literature. Among the materials on one table: a folder with fliers and a mouse pad that said “Philadelphia Proud Boys.” On an adjacent table were signs and stickers with TPUSA literature, including stickers and buttons with slogans like “Socialism Sucks" and “Yay for 2a," a reference to the Second Amendment.
Then Bandy saw a group of about 10 white men clad in golf shirts and khaki pants. They stuck out like sore thumbs. The normal Friday-night crowd is “a mixed group,” Bandy said, “but they’re not generally the khaki-pants-golf type.”
Bandy, 40, said she then got on stage and, into the microphone while Gillespie was nearby, dedicated Lily Allen’s “F— You” to “the Proud Boys” and said something to the effect of: “We know who you are. Get out of the bar.” The group went upstairs.
Meanwhile, regular patrons alerted bar employees that there was a possible hate group in the house, and conferred with Stanley Gravitt, a karaoke administrator who’s been running the Friday-night show at Millcreek for six or seven years. Gravitt, who said he was fearful partly because he is black, said he felt unsafe and uncomfortable all night long.
And that night was only the beginning.
Gravitt, 39, said he won’t be returning. Ditto for some of the Friday-night regulars. Bandy said she can’t support a business “that at best cannot be bothered to have basic respect for regular clientele to do a minimum level of vetting to make sure you’re not bringing in hate groups.”
Online mobs on both sides flooded Millcreek’s Facebook and Yelp pages with reviews, leading to arguments in the comments. Yelp temporarily disabled posts to Millcreek’s page due to “unusual activity.”
And a few days after the incident, Gillespie woke to find someone had thrown something heavy and metal through the front window of the bar. Police confirmed a report of vandalism was filed on Nov. 20.
Without proof, Gillespie has blamed Antifa, a loosely defined, leftist, antifascist organization that’s a frequent presence at protests in Philadelphia. Antifa has before engaged in physical confrontations with people it believes are fascists or Nazis. (SPLC says it doesn’t consider Antifa a hate group because it doesn’t “promote hatred based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.”)
And then Gillespie stoked more outrage when he appeared a week after the incident on “The Dean Malik Show,” a local conservative talk radio program on Talk 860 WWDB-AM, and didn’t apologize or condemn the Proud Boys.
Malik defended the Proud Boys, saying organizations like the SPLC have “started supporting the cause of the progressive left.” To end the segment, he encouraged listeners to go to the Millcreek Tavern “and have a big, big, tall glass of freedom while you’re there.”
Bandy said she and her friends will be having their glasses of freedom elsewhere.
“This was not some random death metal band that no one has ever heard of,” she said. “Charlottesville made it abundantly clear to me who the Proud Boys are and what they are about.”