On June 19, when the Bronx Brewery announced the release of a new beer, the team anticipated a reaction from their fans and followers. What they did not expect was a week marked by threats of violence via social media, phone calls, and letters.
The beer called Defund the Police was meant to support “a reduction in police budget to fund a flourishing of community-based growth efforts and a general rethinking of how we police ourselves as a society,” according to the brewery’s announcement. Defund the Police was scheduled to be brewed in July and released in cans later that month, and the brewery pledged a $1,000 donation to the nonprofit Communities United for Police Reform. Additionally at the time of the release announcement, the brewery was identifying social justice non-profits that would receive proceeds from the beer.
“From almost the minute we put the post up last friday, we received an endless barrage of calls, voicemails, emails, and DMs,” says Damian Brown, co-founder and head brewer at the Port Morris-based brewery. “I actually got my first piece of physical hate mail in the mail today in an envelope, the old fashioned way.”
And although the brewery received plenty of support for their socially conscious initiative, the comments from those on the other side rang substantially louder. Reactions were swift and incendiary—both on the brewery’s social media accounts as well as other forums.
Among more than 5,200 Facebook comments included ones that hoped the brewery would get “looted by your so-called protesters and zero police respond,” while others suggested the brewery “stick to beer.” According to Brown, “[The release] directed a lot of hate and threats of physical violence at the team, individual members of the team, the building—just the entirety of what the Bronx Brewery is.”
Safety concerns ultimately caused the brewery to cancel the release. Late Wednesday evening, the Bronx Brewery posted a statement saying, "Our team has received violent threats to our lives and our families' at all hours of the day. They’ve been constant, they’ve been all-consuming and they’ve been, frankly, terrifying.” It goes on to say, “It has become clear that the way we chose to join this conversation wasn’t encouraging the dialogue needed to promote positive change. A beer by that name was not going to drive a greater understanding of the opportunity at hand.”
Even though the brewery decided to pull the beer, it remained steadfast in expressing the principles that spurred its concept. Far from being just an announcement about the cancellation of the can release, the statement further defines what Defund the Police means to the Bronx Brewery team: primarily, a reallocation of funding from NYPD and nationwide police budgets to community programs, leaving mental health and homelessness issues to professionals other than armed police officers, and moving funds to counter the disproportionate numbers of Black and Latinx New Yorkers struck by COVID-19, among other policies.
It’s very much in line with the history of the Bronx Brewery, where activism is nothing new. As COVID-19 cases spiked across New York City and were disproportionately affecting The Bronx, Brown and the Bronx Brewery team started #cheerstoheroes, in which team members distributed pallets of beer to first responders and medical professionals across the borough. Brooklyn Brewery and Sixpoint Brewing Co. joined the Bronx Brewery for its final push to put 10,000 beers in the hands of those on the front lines of the pandemic across the city.
The brewery also partnered with Brooklyn’s Kings County Distillery to manufacture hand sanitizer, distributing bottles at fire stations and hospitals as well as offering them for free at the brewery. As Black Lives Matter protests moved across the city, the brewery even offered a first beer on the house for those who were arrested for protesting after Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s citywide curfew hours went into effect and published messages of support as well as resources across its site and social media accounts.
Ultimately, Defund the Police wasn’t able to make the mark that the brewery’s past initiatives had.
“The big lesson learned here is to make sure that the statement matches the desirable result,” Brown says. “We weren't looking to throw out a lightning rod or drop a bomb. We really wanted people to understand what this concept was all about, why it matters to our team so much, and why it matters to The Bronx.”
Defund the Police’s label mockups included another statement that received much less attention from detractors: Fund The Bronx. Bronx Brewery remains committed to that message. Port Morris, the neighborhood the brewery has called home since 2011, was one of the Bronx neighborhoods hit hardest by redlining and landlord-led arson. Getting to the brewery from the subway requires a walk under the Bruckner Expressway, one of several highways designed by Robert Moses in the 1940s that, in total, displaced more than 60,000 Bronx residents due to their construction.
“Our name is the Bronx Brewery—it’s not 136th Street Brewery, or anything else. It’s intentionally chosen. If that’s going to be our name, we owe it to our community to do everything we can to make it a better place,” Brown says. The brewery still plans to “make our planned donation [from Defund the Police], while working to create long-term partnerships with organizations that fight racism and encourage community development in the Bronx.”
This experience provided perspectives for a brewery that has not shied away from using its platform to advocate for causes its team believes in.
“We learned that the first step in having a conversation is listening and acknowledging that the other person is entitled to their own perspective and opinion,” Brown says. “If you’re going to find common ground, you have to understand that. You can’t immediately polarize the conversation.”