Black Swan Books in Richmond bills itself as a quaint, welcoming place — “where old books meet new friends!” — the type of local establishment where the most exciting thing to happen on any given day might be the acquisition of a rare hardcover.
On Saturday afternoon, however, the independent bookstore in Virginia’s capital became the next stop in the roving battle over civility in politics, after a customer spotted former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon inside and confronted him.
Nick Cooke, the owner of Black Swan Books, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that a woman in his store began verbally accosting Bannon when she saw him, including calling the former Trump adviser “a piece of trash.” Shortly afterward, Cooke said, he decided to call police.
“Steve Bannon was simply standing, looking at books, minding his own business,” Cooke told the newspaper. “I asked [the woman confronting Bannon] to leave, and she wouldn’t. And I said, ‘I’m going to call the police if you don’t,’ and I went to call the police and she left. And that’s the end of the story.”
The Richmond Police Department confirmed to the Times-Dispatch that a 911 call was made Saturday afternoon but said it was canceled before officers responded.
Cooke did not elaborate on Bannon’s history or relationship with the store.
“We are a bookshop,” Cooke told the Times-Dispatch. “Bookshops are all about ideas and tolerating different opinions and not about verbally assaulting somebody, which is what was happening.”
Cooke did not respond to an interview request Sunday, and repeated calls to the bookstore went unanswered or to voice mail. A Facebook page for Black Swan Books, visible Sunday morning, appeared to have been deleted or hidden from public view by Sunday afternoon.
Bannon, a prominent far-right figure and former executive chairman of Breitbart News Network, joined Trump’s presidential campaign a few months before the 2016 election. During his time at Breitbart — which Bannon himself described as the platform for the alt-right, a far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state — published inflammatory headlines such as “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Race Culture,” “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Gay Rights Have Made Us Dumber, It’s Time to Get Back into the Closet,” as Newsweek pointed out in a recent roundup.
Within Trump’s inner circles, Bannon quickly rose in influence, ultimately becoming White House chief strategist and lasting in the post about a year before “a spectacular falling-out with President Trump and his allies” resulted in his ouster, as The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, Josh Dawsey and Robert Costa reported.
Since then, Bannon has continued to push his populist and nationalist agenda in speeches across Europe.
“Let them call you racists,” he said in an address to France’s far-right National Front party in March. “Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists.”
Bannon was unavailable for comment Sunday. But as news of the bookstore confrontation — and the subsequent call to police — spread, people quickly jumped to defend or vilify Black Swan’s owner, seemingly dependent on their opinion of Bannon.
Online, people described the incident as “the opposite of the Red Hen,” referring to a June 22 incident in which White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a small restaurant in Lexington, Va., because of the restaurant owner and staff’s opposition to Trump and his policies. Soon, the restaurant and other establishments across the country also named the Red Hen were receiving hateful messages and even death threats.
On Saturday, the reaction to Black Swan Books was swift. Several vowed to boycott the bookstore; one woman accused the owner of turning “the store into a safe space for white nationalists.”
Philippe Reines, formerly a top aide in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, tweeted out contact information for the bookstore on Sunday afternoon, leading to criticism that he was encouraging people to bombard the store.
Still others disagreed with the woman, saying her confrontation would backfire because of how it would be interpreted by Bannon’s supporters and by conservatives. Others defended the bookstore owner, saying he had the right to protect his patrons from harassment inside his store.
The incident comes amid weeks of emotionally charged debate about how Trump administration officials should be treated in public.
In mid-June, an intern for a Democratic congresswoman yelled an obscenity at Trump as he walked through the Capitol. That intern was later suspended for one week because “her behavior violated the standards of our office about appropriate conduct,” according to the office of Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).
The same evening as the intern’s outburst, protesters from the Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America converged on a Mexican restaurant where Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was dining and heckled her with chants of “Shame! Shame!” and “End family separation!”
Days later, Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen. The restaurant’s owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, said she surveyed her kitchen staff, who believed “that Sanders worked in the service of an ‘inhumane and unethical’ administration,” as The Post’s Avi Selk and Sarah Murray reported.
At a rally last month, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) called for people opposed to Trump to harass Cabinet members if they see them in public. In response to her colleague’s remarks, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted that “Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that “are predictable but unacceptable” and urged restraint..
However, Trump soon responded with an impolite retort of his own, blasting Waters as “an extraordinarily low IQ person” and warning her of his many supporters.
“Be careful what you wish for Max!” the president tweeted.
In one of the most recent public confrontations, a teacher approached then-Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, her 2-year-old in hand, at a Washington cafe and urged him to resign “for what you’re doing to the environment in our country.” Pruitt, already mired in several ethics and public spending controversies, happened to step down from his role at the agency three days later.