Comet Ping Pong kicked off lunch Friday with a line out the door and a couple dozen police and reporters. Supporters came to rally behind the pizzeria after a gunman, who showed up to investigate online conspiracy theories of a child sex trafficking ring, fired off a rifle inside the establishment Sunday. He was arrested and no one was hurt, but for weeks, the restaurant and neighboring businesses have been harassed and threatened by anonymous callers and internet trolls obsessed with the fake news story they call “pizzagate.”
Erick Sanchez, a political consultant who’s organized a number of viral campaigns, created the “Stand With Comet” event on Facebook after seeing Sunday’s news. After thousands of people RSVPed, he coordinated with Comet Ping Pong to expand the event throughout the entire weekend and asked supporters to visit other businesses on the block too.
“It would be great for them to turn this tragedy into something positive,” Sanchez says. “And I hope this helps.”
Two policeman were stationed at the door of Comet Ping Pong earlier today, and at least one uniformed officer monitored the dining room. Outside, people had posted signs that read “STOP THE HATRED” and “FAKE NEWS IS NOT OK.” Inside, the place was packed with people of all ages, and many stopped to sign their names among the hundreds already filling a “We Stand With Comet” poster. Owner James Alefantis stuck to the kitchen as pizza orders piled up.
“This is very personal for me because I grew up two blocks from here,” says Woodley Park resident Deborah Lewis, who brought her 17-year-old son Levi Dayan to Comet for pizzas. “We’re hearing about a lot of violence and harassment and ugly incidents around the country, and this felt like it happened at home. It’s scary, but we’re not scared.”
Dayan goes to shows at Comet, and he and his mom regularly frequent businesses on the block. “It’s a community that accepts all people, which is why it’s such a tragedy that it’s being targeted,” he says.
Dayan says he’s hopeful that people will move on from harassing Comet. Lewis adds: “My feeling is as long as they’re harassing the businesses on this block, we’re going to come here and spend our money.”
Meanwhile, statistician Emily Madden was picking up a stack of pizzas to bring back to her colleagues at the US Department of Health and Human Services. More specifically, she works in the Administration of Children and Families. “I work in a job where we really do protect children, and we’re tired of fake stuff ruining everything,” she says.
Neighboring businesses were also getting a boost from the Stand With Comet campaign. “The whole block and the parking lot is bedlam, but in a good way,” says Little Red Fox owner Matt Carr. “Lots of hugs.”
Throughout the week, neighbors have been stopping by to offer legal services or counseling. One guy offered to do a free tai chi class for the staff. “Sounds good—meditative,” Carr says. “He gave us some tips about how balancing on your toes releases more cortisol in your blood stream.”
Besta Pizza, which has also been getting hundreds of harassing calls, got a bump as well, says employee Vilal Bakhti. “We got a lot of support today. People are asking us about the business,” he says.
Not everyone was a supporter though. Waiting for a pizza at Besta, a man from Silver Spring said he wasn’t convinced that pizzagate was fake or that Sunday’s shooting was real. “I think there are dots to uncover,” says Kavi, who asked that his last name not be used. After explaining some of the theories, he added, “I’m sure I sound like a nut to you, and that’s fine. It is a crazy theory. It is.”
Kavi had a half-day at work, and so he came to scope out the block. Earlier, he’d been inside Comet Ping Pong: “I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. I wasn’t there to bother anyone. I just wanted to know what that was like… I don’t harass. I’m not here to cause any trouble. Absolutely not.”
Kavi says he condemns the harassment that Comet Ping Pong and others have received, but not necessarily for the same reasons others condemn it. “If there is something going on, the workers here aren’t going to know anything about it. That’s just a waste of time,” he says. “Whatever truth there is, if there is any, [the online harassers] are just making it look bad.”
While at Comet, Kavi says he didn’t order anything. The wait was too long.