- (Photo: Courtesy Black Squirrel)
"I feel like a person who's sitting there with a cigar that's blown up in their face," says Tom Knott, co-owner of Adams Morgan watering hole The Black Squirrel. "And that's not a feeling I particularly enjoy."
Knott, a former sports and metro columnist for The Washington Times who's become a full-time small business owner since being laid off a little over a year ago, is spending his Thursday running interference. He's fielded phone calls from at least four reporters this day, he says, thanks to a sudden spate of controversy over a months-old blog item he published on The Black Squirrel's website.
The topic of the post, an attempt to paint Stephen Colbert's September testimony before Congress in his Colbert Report persona as insensitive to the death of Chandra Levy at the hands of illegal immigrant Ingmar Guandique, isn't at all surprising if you're familiar with Knott's previous work. Up until December of 2009, when he wasn't philosophizing on March Madness or calling out Lebron James, Knott made his living opining on local issues, his resolute disdain for illegal immigrants a common theme in his columns.
"Now, if I were born in Mexico or in one of the Central American countries and came here illegally, I could shout all day about my rights and there would be a pencil-neck lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union to take up my cause," Knott wrote in 2007 in a column about Ward 5 D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas, Jr.'s proposal for a day laborer center at the Rhode Island Avenue Home Depot.
If a lot of Adams Morgan residents had no idea that Knott was the same man who co-owns The Black Squirrel (along with his wife, Amy Bowman, and chef Gene Sohn), they do now. The whole thing got started on Tuesday, when a neighbor suddenly stumbled upon Knott's undated, unbylined Colbert screed (which had in fact been there since October) on The Black Squirrel's blog and posted it to the Adams Morgan neighborhood email list, under the subject, "Wow! I am surprised and disappointed."
"Don't like their opinion? Then do not patronize this establishment. I wonder how many 'illegals' work there? Amazes me that a business with this ill-informed and limited perspective would even set up shop in a neighborhood like Adams Morgan," wrote someone posting under the name Todd.
That e-mail touched off a chain of responses ranging from promises to never patronize the bar again to a debate about the quality of the pub's burgers. But then Wonkette picked up the item, and all hell broke loose on Twitter. "Dear Black Squirrel, you're a bar. I come to you for good beer, not to support political grandstanding," wrote @consciousstream.
So here Knott sits on a sofa in his upstairs bar, pondering the wisdom of publishing politically charged blog posts on his restaurant's website. A slender man with white hair sporting a well-worn Georgetown sweatshirt, he looks more like an overworked tavern owner than a rabble-rouser.
"If you're in this industry, you have to like people of all persuasions," Knott says.
Initially, the idea behind maintaining a blog on the site was just to drive more traffic to it. Knott's web designer had suggested he use his writing background to do something a little different, so he added an Associated Press news feed and started writing occasional posts, mostly about sports but sometimes on local issues. It was "never intended to open up this can of worms," he says.
Apart from the blog, there's nothing particularly political about The Black Squirrel. With its exposed brick and framed copies of Sports Illustrated, it looks like a regular old bar from Anytown, USA. Its respectable list of craft beers on tap has earned it a loyal following over the last four years, and while Knott jokes that he's now the "bad guy," he also laments that he may have alienated some of his neighbors, who he says make up the bulk of his weekday customers.
"I'm mortified," he says. "If I had to do it all over again, obviously the blog was the worst idea ever."
Still, he doesn't plan to take down the post in question, in which he wrote that illegal immigrants "are a menace who eat up tax dollars and terrorize neighborhoods." Even after everything that's happened, he stands by his words.
"It was just about this person who was charged with a heinous crime, and it's not a laughing matter," says Knott. "I don't know how that can be debated."