East Moline, Illinois
We were drinking outside St. Giuseppe’s Heavenly Pizza when we heard the gunshots. Five of them, in rapid succession, about four blocks away. I was armed only with a cigarette, but Joe Schilling was packing real heat — ready for any looters who might come our way.
That possibility was very real for Schilling, whose pizza place in the past few months has become the center of several conflicts in his Western Illinois city. The first is his position on masks. Schilling doesn’t wear them and won’t force his customers or employees to wear them either. At home, he jokes that he’s “anti-COVID.”
The second conflict is Schilling’s support for the police. When protests and riots broke out following the death of George Floyd, Schilling pushed back against increasingly violent calls for police disbandment by posting patriotic content on his company’s page and giving free pizzas to the East Moline police department. Some people loved it. Others called Schilling a racist and threatened him and his business. Schilling’s dad, Bobby, a former Tea Party congressman for the district, sighed that his son had “kicked the hornet’s nest.”
But that’s just what Schilling loves to do. About half an hour after we heard the shots, no looters showed up — though they had ravaged the nearby city of Davenport, Iowa, the night before — so he fired off a taunt online.
“I forgot all you Antifa have bedtimes,” he wrote, before going to sleep himself.
Over the next week, Schilling continued to fight his two-front war: fending off corona hawks trying to get state health inspectors to shut him down and pushing back against Antifa partisans threatening to vandalize his restaurant. Schilling also kept his fans entertained with videos of himself making pizza, skateboarding around his empty dining room, and playing guitar songs he’s written.
The good humor only upset his critics even more. At one point, an angry keyboard warrior posted on the company’s page that Schilling’s pizza “tasted like ass.”
Schilling quickly shot back: “I don’t know what ass tastes like, but it must be delicious if it tastes like our pizza.”
The comment was a hit with Schilling’s customers, some of whom said it gave them a moment of levity as they go stir-crazy under Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker’s prolonged stay-at-home order. When people pick up pizzas, they often mention Schilling’s war with the pro-Coviders or the hordes of Antifa hacks who flood the company page. And the increased exposure is good for business, which surged 115 percent in the week after Schilling became outspoken about the violence during the Floyd protests.
But Schilling says he’s not just speaking out for the sake of provocation or driving up sales.
“Ever since the beginning of all of this, it’s been my goal to provide the community with as much normalcy as possible,” he tells me. “I know what it’s like to fear. I used to have a huge problem with that.”
But now, with a loyal customer base behind him, Schilling doesn’t fear anything. He has actually become even more outspoken, starting a “Feed the Police” fundraiser and offering special deals to parents who bring their kids into St. Giuseppe’s. When the city on Tuesday sent him a cease and desist letter, he declared, “I’m not backing down: Shut me down!”
Schilling’s flippancy toward Covid and his anti-protester bravado makes a lot of people laugh, but what he’s doing is deadly serious.
It’s not pretty when the protesters win. Halfway across the state, in Chicago, another business owner spoke out — and was picketed and shut down.
Juan Riesco, the owner of Nini’s Deli, one of the top-rated restaurants in the city, faced a mob this weekend when he refused to post any Black Lives Matter content on his Instagram page. Like Schilling, Riesco has a fundamental disagreement with post-Floyd protesters, whom he says are trying to push an anti-Christian agenda on America.
“Black Lives Matter pushes a whole bunch of issues that have nothing to do with black lives,” he said. “They push abortion, they push LGBTQ issues — we know that they hate God.”
When he began receiving messages questioning why he was not publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement — as many other companies have done — Riesco said that he would not be beholden to its political whims: “Black lives matter because God created all lives in his image,” he said.
After Riesco made that statement, nearly everyone who had worked with him cut ties. He lost deals with Nike, Chicago’s professional soccer team, and the scores of local vendors who supply his business. Several hundred people over the weekend gathered outside his restaurant to call him a bigot.
Riesco’s life was ruined overnight. His business was wrecked. He now fears for the safety of his family. Even his church, Metropolitan Praise International, isn’t safe. It had already provoked controversy by flouting coronavirus shutdown orders. Now, with death threats sent to every member, it can only hold services with a police guard posted out front.
And why? Because an insatiable mob willed it.
“We were always dedicated to loving all people, despite gender, despite color,” Riesco said. “But this is what happened when we weren’t willing to bow down to the movement.”