Following a social media firestorm and threatened protests, the Broadway Theatre in Pitman has canceled a controversial event about race relations that its organizers said was aimed at “combating racism, violence, and authoritarianism.”
The one-day conference, sponsored by Minds.com, a cryptocurrency social networking site, had been scheduled for Aug. 31 at the nearly century-old theater, where Bob Hope and Bing Crosby once played. The lineup included 20 speakers, most of them white, and organizers said it was designed “to bring together a diverse group of people with differing viewpoints.” An after-party was also planned at another venue. The event organizers said they hope to hold the forum at another location in the region.
In recent days, controversy surrounding the event escalated, and its planners said they had received threats of violence from anti-fascist protesters known as antifa. No Hate NJ launched a telephone and social media campaign urging the theater to cancel the event. The venue’s Twitter account was hacked for several hours Friday and a message was posted that it had been taken over. A theater official said Tuesday it was not known who was responsible for the hacking.
“We had a discussion with the event organizer over the weekend,” Darrell Blood, the theater’s business manager, said Tuesday. “It was mutually decided that the Broadway Theatre would no longer hold the event.”
Blood declined further comment on why the event was scrapped. Mayor Russ Johnson also confirmed that the gathering would not be held at the theater, located in the borough’s revitalized downtown district.
Johnson said he was working with the police department amid threats of violence and protests, including one to burn down the theater. “That’s the stuff I won’t tolerate,” he said.
Bill Ottman, a co-founder of Minds, based in Wilton, Conn., said planners were considering their legal options to force the theater to live up to its agreement to host the gathering. A party at the Human Village Brewing Co. in Pitman will go on as planned on Aug. 31, he said.
Ottman said he is also searching for an alternate venue nearby for the conference. He said the invited speakers represent a broad spectrum of political views.
“I totally respect and understand if people disagree with some of the people’s ideas,” Ottman said. “No one is endorsing anyone’s views.”
Daryle L. Jenkins, executive director of One People’s Project, an activist group based in New Brunswick, N.J., called the lineup of speakers “the worst of the worst.” Holding such an event, he said, “is like picking a fight.”
Among the announced speakers, some of whom come from Canada and Australia, are Tim Pool, who became known for coverage of Occupy in 2011 but now describes himself as a “disaffected liberal” on Twitter; Lauren Chen, a contributor to conservative websites; and Josephine Mathias, the only black speaker on the agenda, who has posted against the Philadelphia LGBTQ flag, saying sexual orientation does not equal race or ethnicity.
Another speaker, conservative writer Andy Ngo, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in July that he suffered a brain hemorrhage after being beaten at an antifa demonstration in Portland, Ore.
“New Jersey doesn’t tolerate this kind of activity,” Jenkins said of the conference, which he said promotes intolerence. “These are not the ideals that are beneficial to our society."
Other civil rights and community groups also denounced plans for the gathering, saying it would promote hate and violence against minorities and gays
Minds.com was launched in protest of Facebook and has been sponsoring events it says are intended to create dialogue among those on the left and right.
“We don’t want South Jersey being used as a platform for these far-right extremists," said Adam Sheridan of Cooper River Indivisible, a community group that helped lead the campaign against the event. ”For us this is about community self-defense.”
Ottman blamed the controversy on what he called misconceptions about Minds, which was started in 2011. In July, the company was the only social media platform invited by President Donald Trump to a social media summit that excluded Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
“I know what our mission is. We haven’t done anything wrong,” Ottman said. “The focus on the event is ending hate.”
The event thrust Pitman, a community of about 9,800 residents, into the middle of a debate over free speech for a second time recently. Last year, the theater hosted an appearance by conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter that drew protesters on both sides.
Johnson said he supports the right to free speech for both sides, but said the latest event blemished his 2.3-square-mile town, about 17 miles southeast of Philadelphia. Ottman said Minds chose the Gloucester County community because a member lives in nearby Deptford.
“We’re a small town. We have other things to deal with,” Johnson said Tuesday.
The Broadway Theatre opened in 1926 as a movie and vaudeville theater with more than 1,000 seats, a balcony and eight boxes. It fell on hard times and was sold at a sheriff’s sale in 2006. Peter Slack reopened it later that year. Today, it hosts live performances, concerts, special events and movies.