Less than 24 hours before a gunman would walk into Comet Ping Pong, there were no empty chairs in the restaurant, except the ones vacated by children who were squeezing in a game of ping pong before their dinners.
A banner reading “We stand with Comet,” signed with hundreds of names, was the only sign that Comet Ping Pong is anything other than a kooky, hipster haunt.
Still, the shrill ringtone of the landline phone cut through the din of friendly chatter and the clinking of glasses with some frequency. A “caller unavailable” ID reminded the staff of the people from all corners of the globe accusing them of involvement in a child trafficking sex ring – false accusations that grew out of conspiracy theories in hacked emails.
After the regular diners left and music lovers took to their barstool perches in the dark, only the opening band, Nox, made a passing comment about the events of the past month and their continued support of the venue.
“The people here could not be better. We just wanted to say thank you, forever,” drummer Claire Lewis said.
The next day, Edgar Welch, 26, of North Carolina, walked into the pizza parlor and concert venue carrying a rifle, pistol and handgun to see if the claims of child cruelty spread by online conspiracy theorists on websites like 4chan and Reddit were true.
Shortly after he entered the kitchen and fired at least one round, an employee contacted the police, and Welch’s attempt to “self-investigate” came to a halt before anyone was injured.
James Alefantis, the co-founder and owner of Comet Ping Pong, has since upped security. After shutting down the Wi-fi server and adding a security guard before the gunman walked through the doors, the restaurant has since moved a show featuring the bands Eskimeaux, Japanese Breakfast and Keeper to Rock and Roll Hotel. It could not be confirmed if the show was moved for safety reasons or if any other shows are being moved.
When Wikileaks released emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta last month, users of 4chan, an open online forum, found Alefantis’ name in an email about a Clinton fundraiser. From there, they looked into the art and flyers in his restaurant and claimed they had found symbols associated with a child sex ring. The spiral of confusion and accusations became known as “Pizzagate.”
While supporters of the Pizzagate movement said that Alefantis was selling children for sex out of the restaurant’s basement, Alefantis said children are the ones who love the restaurant the most, making their parents bring them for the ping pong, foosball and pizza.
“My initial reaction was that this would all just be gone once the presidential election was over because everyone was so excited and hyped up about the election, so I thought it was reactionary to that,” Alefantis said.
Suspicious citizen investigators took it to the next level and found social media accounts of staff members and posted pictures of staff with their children, calling them victims of the ring.
Online commenters also dissected the hidden meanings of Comet’s art and concert flyers, claiming that they contained Satanic and pedophilic symbols.
James Huckenpahler, a lecturer of new media and new media lab technician at GW’s department of fine arts, has been working with the design team at Comet Ping Pong since it opened 10 years ago, and his logos have been a target of some of the claims.
He likened the claims about his designs to people taking the Rorschach inkblot test, and said he has never hidden messages in his designs.
“I did see the suggestion that ‘play eat drink’ on one of the graphics I had made could be interpreted as secret code to pedophiles,” Huckenpahler said. “But the truth is that it’s just a call out to our customers to play, eat and drink.”
Pizzagate perpetrators criticized “mainstream media” for dismissing the story as fake news. The accusations against Comet Ping Pong are widely considered part of the rise of fake news throughout this recent election cycle.
Steven Roberts, an endowed professor of media and public affairs and a member of The Hatchet’s board of directors, said he was greatly disturbed about the prevalence of “fake news,” like Pizzagate, as a journalist.
“Traditional gatekeepers, mainstream journalists, academics, researchers, scientists, who are devoted to defining and describing reality, all of us have been weakened by the ability of lies and frauds and hucksters to formulate fake information and spread it on their own networks,” Roberts said.
Although Clinton already had detractors, Comet Ping Pong served as a target for conspiracy theorists to direct their anger toward, Roberts said.
“There’s nothing new about the Comet story except that it happened to focus the anger and the conspiracy on a real place as opposed to some abstraction,” Roberts said.
Some conservatives also took up the call for an investigation into the restaurant, including the son of President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for National security advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. Michael Flynn Jr. has since been removed from the transition team.
Even after this weekend’s incident, Pizzagate “truthers” are insisting that Comet Ping Pong is investigated.
One such believer, Lauren Staff, whose Twitter handle is @DropThe_Micr, said the allegations against Alefantis are based in fact.
Staff said that although she hopes that the accusations will be proven incorrect, she believes the media is dismissing the facts that could lead to a child sex ring existing at Comet Ping Pong.
“This is about our public duty to be able to feel like we can put things together because they have zero trust in law enforcement right now, they have zero trust in government right now, and when they try, they’re told to shut up,” Staff said.
Though Staff said she is concerned about what is going on at Comet Ping Pong, she did not support the actions of the gunman, who she noted had a criminal record.
But community members are still demonstrating their continued belief in Comet Ping Pong’s innocence in the midst of chaos. Some D.C. residents organized an event called “Stand with Comet” for this Friday.
Erick Sanchez, an organizer of the event on Facebook, said in an email that he and the nearly 2,000 people who have said they will attend the event intend to make sure Comet Ping Pong remains a “safe space.”
“In any event, it’s not the place that fake news disseminators have portrayed and it’s one of our finest small businesses in Washington,” Sanchez said.