Business owner’s Facebook comments ignite firestorm

Larry

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Larry Heafner is the majority owner of the Coffee Tavern in downtown Billings. It was supposed to open this week, but that has been postponed as Heafner deals with a controversy touched off by his Facebook comments.

The owner of a new downtown coffee shop, facing threats of a boycott over his hate-filled racist and sexist rants on Facebook, apologized Sunday, calling his comments “the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.”

“I completely apologize,” Larry Heafner said. “It was the dumbest thing I ever did. … I’m not going to sit and try to excuse my derogatory or negative comments, because it was ridiculous. I do want to say, I’m not racist by no means, and I’m not a woman hater.”

Heafner is the majority owner of the Coffee Tavern at 2828 Second Ave. N., which was supposed to open this week. In light of the rapidly growing controversy over his Facebook posts, he said, the opening date has been indefinitely postponed.

The whole thing started on Friday, when Billings resident Josh Schleining, reacting to the election of Donald Trump, posted a montage of Facebook posts, some from people in Billings, about being the target of racist comments or actions.

In the midst of those remarks, Schleining also posted a comment from Heafner’s Facebook page, based on a screenshot a friend sent to Schleining. In it, in reference to a video of a white man being beaten by a group of black people, Heafner said, “These fucking monkeys would be hanging if I saw this shit!” In a follow-up comment, he said, “You don’t see white people doing this shit!”

Someone else shared Schleining’s post, tagging Heafner, which led to an exchange of Facebook messages between Schleining and Heafner, who had known each other for years because of their mutual involvement in the local music scene.

At one point, Heafner posted a status update saying he’d been “under attack” by Schleining all day. “I wish this little punk mother fucker would come run his mouth to my face! But I’m sure that won’t happen because I would kick his pussy fucking ass!”

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Friends of Schleining picked up on the dispute, went to Heafner’s Facebook page and started saving and posting screen shots of various other comments and shared posts that Heafner had put up.

Before last week’s election, Heafner shared an image of Trump in the White House, with a caption that read, “If Trump wins the election, it’ll be the first time in history that a billionaire moves into public housing vacated by a black family.”

In an earlier post about Hillary Clinton, he wrote, “She needs fucked with a bat! Right up her liberal fucking ass!”

The day before the election, when Heafner apparently thought Trump was going to lose, he posted this message: “The Coffee Tavern will never recognize a murdering whore for president!! Don’t like it, keep the fuck out!! We don’t tolerate scum!!!”

“That,” he said in an interview on Sunday, “was my stupidest comment.”

Schleining said that it was never his intention to do any harm to Heafner, and that he didn’t think “people should try to destroy his business over it.”

“Part of me feels bad for him,” Schleining added, “but people do need to know where their money’s going.”

That view was seconded by Connie Dillon, a Billings resident who belongs to the local chapter of Pant Suit Nation, a group founded to celebrate the presumed election of Clinton and now something of a support group and a forum for continued political activism.

Coffee

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The Coffee Tavern is located at 2828 Second Ave. N., kitty-corner from the former Wendy’s restaurant.

“When he actually attached his business to his personal code of ethics, I said, ‘OK, we’re done,'” Dillon said. Although she hasn’t heard of an organized boycott or any other direct action, Dillon said, when she posted Heafner’s comments on the Pant Suit Nation Facebook page, lots of commenters were calling for a boycott.

Liz Welch, a Billings resident who works for the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she hadn’t heard of any organized protests or boycotts either, but she reposted Heafner’s comments and hopes people take action.

“This community needs to stop it, now, before somebody else is emboldened by it,” she said. “This thing has gone far and wide. I’ve had people call from New York saying, what’s going on in your home town?”

Heafner said he owns most of the Coffee Tavern business, along with Matt Ryan—who is also opening a recording studio next door—and several silent partners. He said all of them are determined to push forward with opening the new business and moving past the controversy engendered by Heafner’s remarks.

“I’ve got way too much money in this to back out of it,” Heafner said. “I’m not going to back down. I might step down as the CEO and have a couple of other partners take over operations of the business, but I’ve got way too much invested in this, and we’re not going to back down because social media is hammering us right now.”

He has shut down his own and the coffee shop’s Facebook pages. He said he is through with Facebook and through with insults.

“I will never be a name caller again because of this,” he said. “I have learned that lesson.”

Page

Here is one screen shot saved from Heafner’s now-defunct Facebook page.

Like a lot of other people, he said, he was inflamed by events of the recent election season and got caught up in some of the hateful language and crude remarks. He said he still despises Clinton, but he realizes that some of the things he said about her were over the top.

What really distresses him, he said, is the idea that people will now consider him a racist. He said that he has been married to a Sioux Indian woman for 30 years and that 90 percent of the laborers who have worked for his construction business were Native Americans.

He said he also has “tons” of black friends, many of whom he’s talked to in recent days about his Facebook comments, and “they laughed it off,” knowing that he sometimes says stupid things but also knowing he is not racist. He said he has also hired several minorities to work at the Coffee Tavern, including an African American he spoke with after the firestorm over his Facebook posts erupted. That employee is still planning to work for him, Heafner said.

“The people that know me know I’m not like that,” he said. “I just hope that this community can overlook the stupid comments I made.”

He said he is also looking for help, having reached out to some “influential people” in town to advise him how he can move forward, and how he can show people who he really is.

David Cleaves, a local musician who has been donating his time to help Heafner get the Coffee Tavern going, said he is a liberal and has always known that Heafner was deeply conservative, but they generally got along. And although he said there is no defending Heafner’s Facebook comments, he doesn’t want to abandon him.

“He needs people in his life who don’t agree with him and can talk to him about what he does,” Cleaves said. Heafner has been over to his house when people of color were there, Cleaves said, and Heafner didn’t display any racism, during the visit or in his remarks afterward.

“What I see is, Larry’s Facebook doesn’t reflect Larry very well,” Cleaves said. “I know Larry and I know that he genuinely has a big heart.”

Schleining said he used to be Facebook friends with Heafner and finally blocked him a couple of years ago because of a constant stream of racist, homophobic comments. And when he posted Heafner’s comment about the video, Schleining said, Heafner accused him of taking his comments out of context.

“In my humble opinion,” Schleining said, “there is no acceptable context for hate speech.”

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