“The Dana Show” interviewing Crystal O’Connor, one of the proprietors of Indiana’s Memories Pizza.
The idea first surfaced before an interview with the owner of an Indiana pizza shop excoriated online last week after she said she wouldn’t cater a gay wedding. Members of the staff of “The Dana Show” — which airs on the Blaze, a news network owned by conservative talk show host Glenn Beck — wondered what they could to help a family they viewed as victims of the liberal establishment.
“We have an obligation to stand up for freedom,” Lawrence B. Jones III, a “Dana Show” contributor, told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “It’s not a gay or a straight issue. We love our gay brothers and sisters. … We’re sick of being regulated when it comes to free enterprise. What better way to speak out than giving your own personal money?”
The idea quickly turned into reality: a crowdfunding Web page set up through the site GoFundMe to benefit Memories Pizza of Walkerton, Ind. Jones said he set it up before the interview and surprised the family with the news.
“I set up the GoFundMe account,” Jones said. “We selectively decided we wanted to help this family.”
Jones said that the original goal — $25,000 — was raised in the first hour. Within 12 hours, that number doubled — and when Jones closed the account after four days, the GoFundMe account had secured $842,592 for the O’Connor family.
“It all goes to them,” Jones said. (Jones wasn’t sure how much GoFundMe keeps — the service’s Web site says GoFundMe gets 7.9 percent of money donated plus 30 cents per donation. He also said the site has only stopped accepting donations because “Dana Show” host Dana Loesch announced a time limit on the air.)
For some, the colossal amount of money raised in such a short time — what some speculated to be many times what Memories, in small-town Walkerton, would earn in many years — spoke to the power of Christian values as the nation debated Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Criticism of RFRA by those who thought it could be used to discriminate against gays led Gov. Mike Pence (R) to sign a revised version of the bill. But if more than $800,000 could be gleaned from more than 29,000 donations in four days, was Pence working against the will of the people? Especially since, according to Jones, “these weren’t big donations”?
“Over $634,000 now,” one Twitter user messaged The Post as the grand total mounted higher and higher. Referencing reports that an Indiana high-school coach threatened to burn down Memories, the user wrote: “The wannabe-arsonist lynch mob struck a nerve.”
But when rumors began to circulate that Jones, a newsman affiliated with Glenn Beck and conservative gadfly James O’Keefe, was behind what many thought was an outpouring of populist support for Memories, some — particularly liberals — cried foul.
“While the outrage toward their announcement was certainly legitimate, the GoFundMe campaign that was launched to support Memories Pizza and has currently raised over half a million dollars is about as genuine as a three dollar bill,” read a piece posted at forwardprogressives.com, a liberal Web site, headlined “The Indiana Memories Pizza Fundraiser Is A Conservative Media Scam.”
The piece continued: “Conservatives who support the religious freedom laws that have become popular in red states across the country ahead of the Supreme Court’s expected ruling have poured their money into this campaign, but the sad fact is that they’ve wasted their funds once again on another publicity stunt designed to gin up the conservative base. … This isn’t an organic campaign to help out a business that decided to become a political martyr; it’s a publicity stunt by The Blaze and a financial windfall for the owners of Memories Pizza.”
Visitors to the GoFundMe page had some reason to be confused. Though “Lawrence Billy Jones III” was listed as the Web page’s creator as early as April 2, the GoFundMe site lacked any explicit affiliation with “The Dana Show” or the Blaze for those who might not be familiar with Jones as a commentator. Now, the page is flush with links.
Jones said that more information about the fundraising campaign was posted after GoFundMe — because of the large amounts coming into the account — asked for verification.
“They asked for it, we may as well just put it on the site,” he said.
Reached for comment, GoFundMe e-mailed this statement to The Post: “GoFundMe is home to many LGBT-related campaigns, including hundreds for same-sex weddings. GoFundMe is, and will continue to be, a safe space for LGBT campaigns. The ‘Support Memories Pizza’ campaign is raising funds to aid a business. As such, it is not in violation of our Terms & Conditions. With millions of campaigns on GoFundMe, visitors should not expect to agree with every campaign that they encounter.”
Jones also said the backlash that befell Memories — reportedly forced to close its doors — has come to his doorstep.
“We’ve had to increase security,” Jones told Indiana’s WNDU. “They were sending death threats towards me and my mother. All of our hosts were getting threats. This stuff has really gotten ridiculous. Just from us responding and saying, ‘Let’s just create the account.’ The backlash has been unbelievable.”
Faced with allegations the GoFundMe page is misleading, Jones denied them.
“ENOUGH!” he tweeted. “@gofundme has a process in place. Guess what? We got approved! So stop this fraud nonsense.”
Talking to The Post, Jones emphasized that crowdfunding was an authentic outlet for people to express their support for Memories.
“It’s just strange,” he said. “There were rumors that this was funded by the Koch brothers … These were average, everyday people giving, and they still want to give.”