ALEXANDRIA, VA -Since when is barbeque a threat to civil rights?
An Alexandria, Virginia attorney seems to think it is. Ed Ablard filed a lawsuit to halt the opening of a barbeque restaurant in the Washington, D.C. suburb where he lives and works. Ablard is claiming contaminants from the restaurant’s smoker will violate civil rights.
As civil rights activists risked life and limb in marches and sit-ins decades ago, could they possibly have considered that their struggle for equality would be invoked in 2010 as a means of blocking award-winning barbeque?
Ablard, it’s sorry to say, is not alone. His sentiments mirror those of other NIMBY neighbors who insist smoke from Pork Barrel BBQ will endanger the community’s air quality and overall environment. “No smoker is smokeless and no wood smoke is harmless,” wrote toxicologist Patricia Hilgard in an email to the city’s planning commission. Hilgard, trying to play on environmental sentiment, continued, “[g]iven the much-ballyhooed commitment to air quality and the environment, this seems to me to be the perfect time for the city to put its words into action.”
To appease critics, the sympathetic owners of Pork Barrel BBQ switched from plans for a wood-fired smoker to one fueled by gas that uses wood only for flavor. This hybrid gas smoker, specifically made for high-density urban areas, cost an additional $40,000 and was done at the risk of losing customers who think gas-fueled smokers produce inferior barbeque. An extra ventilation filter and dilution fan was also added to reduce exhaust.
In a posting on the Pork Barrel BBQ blog, the owners insisted “we’re going to try to do it right from the start” to create “another family friendly meeting place.”
But it’s not just the smell of brisket, however, that enflames Ablard’s civil rights sensibilities. It’s his fear of who will be meeting at that place.
Because the founders of Pork Barrel BBQ once worked for a Republican senator, and one still works for the conservative Heritage Foundation, Ablard assumes in his complaint that the yet-to-open restaurant will “provide a clubhouse for conservative persons to gather to drink until late hours and thereby form a barrier against the encroachment of persons of color.”
Ablard, a white man, is acting as “representative of a class of persons who are persons with colored skin, persons whose ancestry stems from the importation of slaves and free emigration to the United States,” apparently based on his membership in the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black History and NAACP.
Part-owner Michael Anderson, by the way, already owns another Alexandria restaurant that is not known as a discriminatory conservative clubhouse. Furthermore, if Ablard is assuming the establishment would discriminate just because some of its owners are known to be Republicans, he must have forgotten that it was Southern Democrats — not Republicans — who were the impediment to passing civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
On one hand, there are small businessmen trying to invest in and work with a community. On the other is a zero-tolerance critic willing to impugn the character of these entrepreneurs on an assumption to keep them from achieving their dream.
Ablard’s lawsuit and other residents’ overblown environmental fears epitomize the toxic nature and grinding process small businesses now face when attempting to open shop. Not only does such local resistance erect roadblocks for entrepreneurs, it imperils a community’s economic prosperity. Prospective investors may conclude that frivolous lawsuits and unrelenting opposition from area residents – under the guise of protecting minorities and the environment – is not worth the trouble and make them look elsewhere.
Even if Pork Barrel BBQ is allowed to open, all this shows how an absurd claim, a frivolous lawsuit, a misrepresentation of civil rights and an affront to private property rights creates a bitter stew that’s bad for economic development. Surely, a slab of smoky ribs is much more palatable.