A social-media firestorm that started Saturday night with a local music promoter's Facebook post mocking anti-police-brutality protesters has led to the resignation of the new kitchen manager at Altar Bar, calls for a boycott and the cancelation of February's Anti-Flag show at the venue.
It has also led to plans, however, for events to be held with the promoter's support, including a town-hall meeting on community-police relations, and a benefit for a local victim of police violence.
On Saturday night, Brian Drusky, president of Drusky Entertainment, posted a series of status updates on his personal Facebook page making reference to protests in which participants lay down on local streets, a tactic activists call a "die-in," to call attention to lives lost at the hands of police.
One post read: "Man i got pulled over last week and got a ticket because I was speeding. I'm going to go lay down in the middle of giant eagle as a protest! just just just because!" Another made reference to lying down in protest over a botched McDonald's order, and another to a Steelers loss.
Drusky Entertainment promotes shows at Altar Bar as well as a number of other local venues, including the Smiling Moose and Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead.
A barrage of criticism began on Facebook and Twitter after Elizabeth Kivowitz, a local music manager and publicist who was Facebook friends with Drusky, screen-captured the comments and spread them to artists and activists.
"His comments made it seem like he was making fun of Eric Garner, a black man who got killed," says Kivowitz. "And he's equating it with McDonald's. I don't think he should be able to profit from the people he's demeaning."
"I do hip-hop shows and I care very much about the hip-hop community, so I wanted them to see what they're dealing with," she adds "This isn't funny to a lot of people."
Drusky Entertainment promotes hip-hop shows on a regular basis at Altar Bar and occasionally at the Smiling Moose, and recently co-promoted the three-night Wiz Khalifa concert event at Mr. Small's Theatre.
By about 9 p.m. Sunday, Drusky had issued an apology and scheduled a meeting with Davon Magwood, a local comedian who has been active in recent protests and who was vocal in promoting the Drusky boycott on Twitter.
"I was just frustrated" at the time of the original posts, Drusky later told City Paper. "I made a couple of comments." He says he realized what waves he had made when he saw that Twitter was abuzz about his comments. "There was a lot of Twitter movement and people talking about it. I was like, ‘Wow, I didn't realize what I did.'"
In his lengthy apology posted to Facebook and promoted on Twitter, Drusky wrote: "My remarks were an attempt to be funny. However, they were not funny to a lot of people because I made light of something that I didn't understand fully. [...] I am getting a crash course today in why my words were taken as comments that people did not like or were very offended by. I can't apologize enough."
Magwood says he was exasperated when he read the Facebook comments.
"It's really frustrating," he says. "There's so much ignorance going on; it's scary how people in Pittsburgh have no idea what it's like to be black in Pittsburgh."
Calls to boycott Drusky events continued through Sunday, with supporters of the boycott using the hashtag #BoycottDrusky on social sites. On Facebook, a "Boycott Drusky" event page got more than 800 RSVPs, and a "Boycott Drusky Entertainment" page grew to more than 700 likes.
On Sunday evening, Justin Strong, former owner of Shadow Lounge and AVA, who had recently taken over kitchen service at Altar Bar, announced he would no longer be working at Drusky's flagship venue because of his discomfort over Drusky's comments. He first spoke with Drusky directly about the comments.
"He didn't understand the scope" of the protests and what they — and specifically the "die-in" action Drusky referenced in the posts — stood for, Strong told City Paper. The reason for lying down in protest "is not equivalent to your McDonald's order getting messed up, or the Steelers losing." Strong says Drusky told him he had been stuck in traffic as a result of protests Friday night, and was airing his frustration in the Facebook posts the next day.
After the meeting Monday afternoon, Magwood told CP he felt that Drusky was genuine in wanting to advance a discussion about police violence and race in Pittsburgh. Magwood said the two had begun to plan events including a town-hall meeting — which Strong had first suggested to Drusky, to take place at a neutral site — and a benefit event for Leon Ford, the East Liberty man paralyzed after being shot by police during a traffic stop in Highland Park in 2012. Via phone Monday afternoon, Drusky confirmed those plans to City Paper.
While Magwood said he's no longer pursuing a boycott of Drusky Entertainment — in part because of the progress made at the meeting, and in part out of concern for the other employees of Drusky Entertainment who would be affected by a boycott — some acts have canceled their participation in Drusky shows in the wake of the controversy.
Pittsburgh-based, internationally recognized political punk band Anti-Flag, known for vocally opposing police brutality, canceled a show planned for February in which it was to play its album The Terror State in its entirety at Altar Bar.
"While we believe in people's ability to change and become educated, there must be consequences for the things that he said," Anti-Flag wrote in a statement. "This is an instance where we can exercise our power by not working with Brian Drusky."
Local singer-songwriter Roger Harvey also announced late in the afternoon Monday that he would pull out of the Strip District Music Festival, a Drusky event scheduled for January, in the wake of the comments. (Full disclosure: City Paper is a sponsor of the festival.)
Others with ties to the Pittsburgh arts community also aren't ready to accept Drusky's apology. Artist Christina Springer, a former Pittsburgher who now lives in San Jose, Calif., says that even though there is a long history of activism in the music industry, Drusky's comments were unsurprising.
"His comments dismissed and demeaned and make frivolous the death of real people and not just one real person, but a continuous, repetitive, unrelenting list of real people," Springer says. "I believe Mr. Drusky can make a change."
Despite the apology and planned outreach, there is still reluctance by some to call off the boycott.
"Actions speak louder than words, and whether his apology is sincere or not, depends on his actions," says activist Julia Johnson. "I want people to boycott any company and any business that perpetuates the inequality and oppression we are experiencing today."
For his part, Strong says he truly believes Drusky is genuine in his desire to make amends, and he doesn't necessarily call for a full-out boycott. But, Strong says, he won't be returning to work at Altar.
"My business caught some shrapnel," he says, "but this is about more than business."