In the latest example of social-media fueled extremism, a heated confrontation over politics in a Palo Alto Starbucks on Monday has gone viral nationwide, leading to reported death threats and also calls for greater dialogue and empathy.
It began when Palo Alto resident Rebecca Parker Mankey attempted to shame an elderly white man wearing a red Make America Great Again hat as he sat in the coffeehouse — an encounter she later wrote about on social media. Calling him a "hater of brown people," Mankey said she yelled at him and addressed Starbucks customers and employees to join her in her effort. She said she left the store but soon returned and continued to yell at him. Mankey said she was "heartbroken" that other white people didn't stand up against the man sporting a slogan that was popularized by Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. She followed him out of the store to the parking lot, where she continued to berate and swear at him.
She called the man "Nazi scum" and threatened to post pictures of him on social media, which she then did, along with her version of the incident on her Facebook page and on Twitter. She asked the public for help finding him — "I want him to have nowhere to hide," she wrote -- a practice called "doxing," or posting personal contact information to encourage threats and harassment.
The incident has had repercussions not only for Mankey, who said on Tuesday she's received death threats and was fired from her job as an accountant, but also for her former employer, Gryphon Stringed Instruments. Staff at the store said they were inundated with angry phone calls and emails Monday and Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the 74-year-old Palo Alto man in the MAGA hat, who is Jewish, told the Palo Alto Weekly that he is not afraid of the woman. Rather, he said, her actions are an example of the lack of discourse in the country over differing viewpoints. He said he has seen her description of the incident and that it was accurate. (The man's name is being withheld as he did not harass anyone.)
Mankey, who is an appointed member of Palo Alto's North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan Working Group and co-chairs the Bayshore Progressive Democrats, a relatively new progressive club addressing social-justice issues, exhorted people to confront the man if they see him wearing the red cap.
"You do not want to be the person who didn't speak up as we slipped into fascism," she posted.
On Twitter, she said: "I am going to publicly shame him in town and try to get him fired and kicked out of every club he is in. I am going to go to his house march up and down carrying a sign that says he hates black people. I am going to organize protests where he works to make him feel as unsafe as he made every brown person he met today."
The postings drew criticism on right-wing and other websites, with comments coming from far away. A woman from the Midwest with the Twitter handle @RightHookUSA responded by contacting Mankey's husband's employer and the Palo Alto Police Department.
"I was extremely disturbed when I learned that an elderly man was being humiliated and harassed in public by a vicious bully," the woman, named Amy, said in an email to the Weekly. "I hope and pray that this incident leads to greater tolerance and respect among all Americans, instead of greater hatred and rage."
She declined to provide her last name because she said she received hateful messages for supporting the man.
Matt Lynch, retail manager at Gryphon Stringed Instruments, said the store has also been caught up in the politically fueled maelstrom. The business received many emails and phone calls Monday and Tuesday about Mankey's comments. People from all over the world have been posting negative Yelp reviews about the store — people who have never been customers, he added.
"It's been a tough day," he said, wearily. "What she said in no way reflects Gryphon or how the company feels." He added that "100 percent" of the calls have been against what Mankey said.
Mankey had worked for the company for four years. She is no longer employed there, he said.
"It's a big shock to us," he said.
In a statement posted on the Gryphon Facebook page, the company said:
"Gryphon does not believe anyone should be harassed or subject to hate speech no matter their beliefs. Music has historically been something that has brought people of diverse socio-political backgrounds together.
"We would like to make it clear that the opinions expressed and actions taken by the employee are not indicative of how we conduct ourselves at the shop and we hope we can continue to serve our customers across the country respectfully and universally as we have done for nearly 50 years."
Still exercising his free speech
The man in the MAGA hat told the Weekly that he goes to Starbucks every day. When Mankey, whom he did not know, approached and began questioning him about his hat, he thought she was going to talk to him about politics, a common occurrence, but instead, she lit into him right away.
He said he was not really cognizant that she had called him a "hater of brown people" or that she likened him to a Nazi. She was "raving," he said, and he wasn't focused on her words.
She told him she wanted him to call the police because then she would learn his name and where he lived, his wife's name and where his children had attended school, her Facebook post states.
He was surprised that no one said anything to stop the woman or come to his aid.
"It would've been touching," he said.
He wears the MAGA hat regularly, he said, but he never sees anyone else wearing one. Almost everyone who approaches him tells him they want to wear the hats but are worried about repercussions.
"There's a fear in the air," he said of people who support Trump. "I hope this doesn't start a trend of people getting in your face."
He denied that the hat, which for some people has come to symbolize hatred, racism and division, represents those ideas.
"Let me ask you: The phrase Make America Great — is there anything negative in it? In the 1952 election, people wore 'I Like Ike' buttons, but no one saw it as a threat," he said.
"Saying that a hat is pro-Trump or pro-American is absurd. There has always been a picture of the president and the postmaster in the post office. Are we saying now that putting a picture of this president up is considered a provocation?
"What's happened around here is that people get the idea that if you're for Trump you are an evil person," he said.
He bemoaned the loss of civil discourse over politics and says no one has approached him to have a reasonable debate.
"There is no intelligent dialogue. People watch right-wing websites and left-wing websites," he said of people gravitating to extremes. "There's no intelligent discussion at all. There used to be some sense of two political parties."
He said he would continue to wear his MAGA hat in public as an exercise of his freedom of speech — "until North Korea (or another totalitarian regime) takes over our government."
And he will continue to go out for his coffee.
"I'm joking, but I hope the next time at Starbucks there will be 30 people wearing red hats and like in the movies, they'll give me a slow clap."
Triggered by Trump
Mankey said in an email that she and her family are receiving death threats and other threats of harm. She declined to comment further.
Margaret Okuzumi, who co-chairs the Bayshore Progressive Democrats with Mankey, expressed concern for Mankey and her family, saying they were doxed Tuesday on right-wing social media and internet channels. (Doxing is illegal, and various message boards have taken down threads about the incident and warned that posters who dox will be banned.)
In a statement from the organization, Okuzumi said: "We live in highly polarized times due to nearly unprecedented levels of economic inequality and the struggles of many to obtain basic necessities of life such as housing or healthcare. The President of the U.S. has contributed to an atmosphere that encourages open hatred and scapegoating of brown people for this structural inequality, causing many to live in fear.
"Parker felt strongly that she wanted to use her privilege as a white woman to stand up for those who are living in fear because of the hateful atmosphere fostered by Trump. Unfortunately the manner in which she chose to stand up against a slogan that stands for racism led to an even stronger hateful response that has endangered her and her family."
She added that the organization encourages nonviolent engagement to change the minds of racists.
"Parker's actions did not follow these principles and do not reflect our organization's political philosophy and approach. We regret how her actions have further reverberated and sundered human connection in the community at-large. And we condemn those who have threatened her and her family with bodily harm.
"We call upon community members to learn from this incident, to study the principles of nonviolent resistance and to teach ways to call attention to injustice while also encouraging reconciliation. It is the only way that we will ultimately succeed in creating a world that works for everyone."
Update: On April 3, Mankey resigned as co-chair, officer and a member of the Bayshore Progressive Democrats.
Steven Lee, who serves on the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission, knows Mankey, calling her "beloved by many in our community for her progressive activism, myself included."
However, he said, he does not condone Mankey's behavior towards the man and believes it was completely unacceptable and that "we can and must do better."
In an email expressing his own opinion and not that of the commission, he recalled former First Lady Michelle Obama's warning not to be dragged down into the mud of bad behavior. "We've got to go high," Obama said.
"This week in Palo Alto," Lee said, "one of our neighbors ... allowed herself to be pulled down into that muck when she encountered a man wearing a MAGA hat at a Palo Alto Starbucks and chased him out of the store.
"Let me be clear. The MAGA hat at its best represents a distorted and inaccurate view of America, its history, and its place in the world, and, at its worst, is a symbol of hate and everything that is wrong with America today."
But, he added, "We must resist sinking down to their level. We must hold out our hand and help pull them out of the muck."
He added that people must be both vigilant and civil.
"That is the hardest, most courageous form of resistance -- the resistance of Ghandi, of Dr. King -- a resistance based in empathy and committed not to a duel between our lesser demons but rather a meeting of our better angels. That is the resistance we must strive for and the one I know we have within us."
When asked for comment Tuesday, the manager of the Starbucks refused to speak with a reporter.
In regards to whether Mankey would remain on the North Ventura Coordinated Area Plan Working Group, city of Palo Alto spokeswoman Claudia Keith responded in an email, "We are aware (of the incident), but don’t have any comment at this point."