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Military-themed brewery wants to open in a big Navy town. An ex-SEAL is getting in the way

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Military-themed brewery wants to open in a big Navy town. An ex-SEAL is getting in the way
AP
BEN FINLEY
December 09, 2023

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A former U.S. Navy SEAL who says he shot Osama bin Laden is at the center of a much different fight in Virginia, where plans for a military-themed brewery are drawing opposition over his alleged racist and homophobic remarks.

Robert J. O'Neill has a small ownership stake in Armed Forces Brewing Company and has served as its brand ambassador. His recent social media complaint about a Navy sailor who performs as a drag queen and a police report alleging he used a racial slur are fueling efforts to stop the brewery from opening in military-friendly Norfolk.

The company, which markets itself with politically conservative ads, has dismissed claims of bigotry and toned down O'Neill's public-facing role. But last month, Norfolk’s planning commission recommended the City Council deny permits for the planned taproom and distribution center, which would be only a few miles (kilometers) from the nation’s largest Navy base.

The nonbinding 4-to-2 vote came after nearly 800 public comments were filed, many of which opposed the venture. The brewery also failed to get the support of the local neighborhood association, which serves the largely Black community of Park Place.

The City Council could vote as soon as Tuesday on the brewery's conditional use permits. The company has warned it will sue if the application is rejected.

In a letter to Norfolk's attorney, brewery lawyer Tim Anderson said the planning commission's vote was based on the owners' political views.

“What is 100% clear to me is that if my client was an activist brewery positively engaged in promoting LGBTQ ideas — the application would have sailed through planning,” Anderson said.

In some ways, the matter resembles an inverse, if miniature, version of the uproar over Bud Light sending a commemorative can to transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Sales of the brand plunged amid a conservative backlash, although Bud Light’s parent Anheuser-Busch also angered supporters of transgender rights who believed the company later abandoned Mulvaney.

Opponents say Armed Forces Brewing would be a glaringly bad fit for the city of about 230,000 people on the Chesapeake Bay. They argue its ownership doesn't reflect the diversity of the U.S. military, veterans or liberal-leaning Norfolk.

Robert Bracknell, an attorney and former Marine, said the company made no effort to win over surrounding neighborhoods while relying on conservative identity politics for its branding. Community opposition is not anti-military but “anti-intolerance and anti-hate,” he said.

“These guys are not the Navy,” said Bracknell, who lives less than 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the proposed taproom. “They’re a really small sliver of a veteran community that doesn’t represent the rest of us.”

Opponents cited O’Neill’s August arrest in Frisco, Texas, in which police said he assaulted a hotel security officer while intoxicated and used a racial slur. O’Neill, who faces misdemeanor assault and public intoxication charges, later posted on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter: “I categorically deny ever using this horrible language recently reported.”

In response to news that an active-duty sailor who moonlights as a drag queen was helping Navy recruitment efforts, O'Neill posted on X in May: “Alright. The U.S. Navy is now using an enlisted sailor Drag Queen as a recruiter. I’m done. China is going to destroy us. YOU GOT THIS NAVY. I can’t believe I fought for this bull.”

O'Neill, who is now a public speaker and podcaster, did not respond to a request for comment sent through his website, LinkedIn profile or Facebook page.

Brewery opponents also focused on shareholder and advisor Gretchen Smith. The Air Force veteran posted on X that Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of killing George Floyd, was innocent.

Another Smith post cited the “Great Reset,” a conspiracy theory that the Anti-Defamation League said can have antisemitic overtones, although she voiced support for Israel in other posts.

The company's promotional videos also drew criticism. Some involve the firing of lots of guns. And a tongue-in-cheek ad for investors warned off anyone who has ever watched “The View” television show or loves "taking your 5-year-old child to drag shows.”

In response to efforts to get comment from Smith, Armed Forces Brewing said she was out of the country. But the company said in an email: “Gretchen is disliked by the vocal minority because she holds political views that tens of millions of conservative Americans hold — and which she has the First Amendment right to express on her personal social media.”

Planning commissioner Kim Sudderth voted against the brewery, citing reservations about antisemitism and violent hate speech.

“I’m genuinely concerned that you may not comply with city conditions and partner successfully with the community,” Sudderth said at a meeting last month.

Alan Beal, Armed Forces Brewing's CEO, told the commission that O’Neill and Smith aren't part of daily operations. Although O'Neill still sits on its board, he is no longer the brewery's director of military services, Beal said, noting that O'Neill recently sought treatment in Mexico for post-traumatic stress.

“Despite the rumors that the opposition is spreading around town, no one is running around the brewing facility with AR-15s or guns and there’s no barbed wire up on the fence,” Beal told the commission last month. “The military is diverse. And yes, everyone is welcome at Armed Forces Brewing Company.”

In a promotional video, Beal said the goal is to brew beer for the military community while employing veterans and supporting their causes.

Anderson, the brewery's attorney, told the planning commission that the business needs to open for people to realize it's not the “boogeyman."

“This is not going to be some place that’s going to hold rallies against the LGBTQ community or anything distasteful,” Anderson said. “Everything’s going to calm down.”

Jeff Ryder, president of Hampton Roads Pride, is skeptical. He said the community will continue raising concerns while trying to establish a relationship with the brewery.

"But they haven’t really given me any indication they want that,” Ryder said.

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