June 7, 2020
By: Tiffany Razano
TAMPA – Protestors allege that staff at James Joyce Irish Pub in Ybor City threatened them with a paintball gun Friday night.
The Students for a Democratic Society had organized a late afternoon protest of George Floyd’s death and police brutality in the area, planning to meet at Centennial Park, just across the street from the James Joyce. The event was canceled due to rain, but several SDS members, including Joseph Brown, Rose Katerina Cvarak, and Noah Wilbur, remained at the park to alert attendees to the change of plans and to direct them to other demonstrations happening in Tampa, Brown said.
While news of the change reached many SDS members and supporters, it didn’t reach all of them, and a small group still gathered at the park. They decided to protest anyway, even though only about seven people showed up, he said. “Our plan was to keep everything organized and peaceful for those who wanted to stay and actually protest.”
Around 5 p.m., the group walked along Eighth Avenue towards Centro Ybor, passing the James Joyce, Brown said. Prior to this, he noticed two homeless men “being accosted by the staff outside of the pub.”
Brown added, “I wasn’t too focused on what was being yelled at them, but there was aggression on the faces of whoever was yelling at them.”
By the time they passed the pub, the homeless men had moved on, and the staff began making comments that appeared to be directed at their group of protestors, Brown said.
“Anti-protest, anti-(Black Lives Matter) stuff,” Brown said. “Half of our group was black at this point, so it was racist. We weren’t antagonizing them. We weren’t even protesting at that point. We were just a group of people walking down the sidewalk.”
When they were about 10 feet past the pub, a staff member started shooting a paintball gun into the side staff parking lot, Brown said. “I can’t confirm whether it was loaded or not, but the gun had the tank on it for paintballs and had a cow cartridge in it, which may have been making the noise if no balls were fired. He then proceeded to be holding it in one hand with both arms open, facing and staring at us in a kind of ‘what are you going to do about it’ stance.”
Cvarak added, “We were a small group of peaceful protestors walking by the establishment when the man, presumably the owner, definitely an employee, was outside of the empty bar and shot his paintball gun multiple times away from us while talking s***. I wasn’t entirely sure what he was saying, though it was clear he wasn’t happy about us.”
Wilbur said they were shooting blanks, but it was clear “they were there to intimidate.”
The group ignored the staff members and kept walking, Brown said, adding that he felt threatened by their actions.
“I wouldn’t say there was any verbal threatening, just a bunch of rude and racist things,” he said. “But I can’t see firing off a paintball gun being anything other than a threat. An empty threat, but still a threat.”
An hour or two after the group began protesting in Centro Ybor, Wilbur said he and a woman attending the protest, whom he had never met before, walked back to Centennial Park to see if anyone else had arrived for the demonstration. He “wanted to have safety in numbers,” he said.
As they passed the James Joyce a second time, the pub’s owner, Ryan Gougeon, holding a paintball gun, shouted at them from the front patio. Wilbur said he called them “f****** losers” and “a couple of sad-sack protestors” several times.
While he didn’t respond to Gougeon, he said the woman he was with, whose name he didn’t provide, yelled back, “Not as sad as George Floyd’s family.”
When Wilbur went home after the protest, he told his brother, Nick Wilbur, what had happened. Nick posted a one-star review to the business’ Google page. He wrote, “Unfriendly and verbally abusive to peaceful protestors. Wielded paintball guns and insulted passersby.”
The owner responded to the review with: “Yep, paintball guns fired by patriots…and we heckled your sad protest. At no time did we threaten you. A lil (sic) rain and you ran for cover in an epic act of cowardice. The best part? You were terrified in person and had nothing to say. Maybe you are angry you have the body of an 8th grade girl and are an impotent half-a-man.”
Brown provided a screenshot of Nick’s review and Gougeon’s response to The Free Press, though both have since been removed by Google.
He also provided a copy of a text message Gougeon sent to customers signed up to receive messages from the James Joyce. The text message reads: “We r (sic) open! An epic d-tuck by the c.ommies! (sic) cone (sic) out and support our staff! SHOW THIS TEXT and get a free pint of Guinness! SHOWCODE:DTUCKLISERSSCAREDOFSOMERAIN.”
Gougeon confirmed that he wrote the response to Nick’s review and sent that text message to customers, but said the incident never actually happened. In a text message to The Free Press, he said that when he wrote the Google review, he was “more than likely trolling (Nick) back.”
In an interview with TFP, he said he never threatened or heckled anyone. In fact, he added, “There was no protest. We didn’t see protestors. We saw maybe two people with signs, but they looked like they were going somewhere.”
Gougeon said the allegations are “extremely offensive” because he’s married to a Malaysian woman, Janice Goh, who is also part owner of the pub.
“That is absolutely everything I am against,” he said. “Basically, someone is targeting us.”
The pub was “dead” that evening, he said. “It was slow.” So, he and staff members decided to have some “fun” playing with a paintball gun he kept in the back of his truck. While “drinking heavily,” they fired off paintball rounds at empty kegs on the James Joyce property.
“No one was threatened,” Gougeon added. “Apparently, someone saw us doing it and thought it was a show of force. It was just a couple of drunk buddies firing off a paintball gun. Nothing happened except a couple of drunk jackasses shooting off paint. I’m guilty of being a loudmouth jackass.”
He also said he was angered when he saw Nick’s review on Google, so he responded.
“I had a little bit of demon rum and I lashed out at people. I was angry,” he said. “I exercised poor judgment, but at no time was people’s right to a peaceful protest interrupted. At no time was police called. At no point did anybody threaten them.”
The text message to customers was also sent out of anger, he said. “I was furious. I saw we were being attacked online. I said it. I regret saying it. I think it was something that was uncalled for and I feel bad about it, but after being attacked for two straight months for not voting the way some people want me to vote, it builds up and, I guess, it boils over.”
Gougeon also owns RyGuy’s Chicken & Waffles and ruffled some feathers early in the COVID-19 pandemic when he posted his frustration about having to close his restaurants on social media.
“I guess saving a few old geezers is worth tanking the world economy and encouraging civil unrest and violence,” he wrote. “Want a real crisis? Starve 500,000 hospitality workers in florida (sic) for a month and see what happens.”
As for the alleged incident with SDS protestors, Gougeon said he sat on the patio of the James Joyce most of Friday evening and didn’t notice anyone confronting his staff.
After Nick’s review, the business’ Google, Yelp and Facebook pages were inundated with one-star and bad reviews. Since then, Gougeon has taken down his Facebook page and closed the pub starting Saturday at noon because he has received numerous calls threatening him and the James Joyce.
“We’re closed for the foreseeable future. Obviously, the threats coming in are quite credible. I have a duty to protect my staff and customers,” he said.
He added that the “so-called, alleged, fabricated incident” is “fake news.”
“There were no protestors. This was fake news. This was a fake story,” Gougeon said. “This is a very coordinated attack on me and my business. It’s crazy.”
Because of the negative attention, he said he plans to step down as owner and retire after 25 years in the hospitality business. Goh will become majority owner of the James Joyce at that point, he said, adding that they are “not on the same page” following the incident.”
James, who works nearby and requested that his last name not be published, said he saw the incident between the bar’s staff and the homeless men as well as the protestors. He doesn’t know any of the parties involved, he added.
He said he saw one of the homeless men “being crazy, punching at cars” on another block. The man eventually passed the James Joyce, where he was confronted by at least five staff members, including the owner, he said.
“They were holding under their shirts like they had guns and said they would ‘shoot him dead’ and ‘murder him,’ making gestures,” he said. “It was a pretty serious threat…it was a little excessive.”
After arguing for a few minutes, another homeless man walked over to the pub and convinced his friend to leave, James said. “He completely diffused the situation.”
Not long after they left the scene, “a group of around eight kids, they looked like college students, were walking going past James Joyce,” he said. “They weren’t protesting, but they had signs.”
Once they were about 100 yards past the pub, “one of the guys, obviously high up in the organization, ran to his car and pulled out a paintball gun and ran out and started shooting him.”
He added, “I thought, ‘You’ve got to be f****** kidding me. Talk about a really mean thing to provoke somebody. The kids were scared. They were literally doing nothing.”
The group kept walking and staff began shooting at items on the pub’s property, James said.
Gougeon said that the homeless man was “a psychiatric patient” and “an addict” who has been making threats to him and his staff for several months. He said he spoke with the man Friday afternoon and “it was not an issue.”
He said the man accused them of trying to film and take pictures of him, but he spoke with him and explained that wasn’t true. “We fist bumped,” he said. “I diffused that quickly. That was not an issue.”
He also said he has dozens of witnesses who saw the small group of protestors pass by the James Joyce with no confrontation.
“They’re terrified of speaking up. They’re terrified of being cancelled,” he said. “There was no malice. There was no anger. No one said anything to anyone. There just wasn’t a protest.”
He said a member of the Tampa Police Department saw the review about the negative review of the James Joyce being circulated and reached out to him.
“I can’t share what he said, but I believe they’re aware of the situation and we’re not the only business being targeted down (in Ybor City,)” Gougeon said.
He also wonders why the protestors didn’t call the police if there was an issue.
Brown said that he said he saw cops at the pub earlier in the day, waiting for their protest, which was eventually cancelled, to start.
“I kind of figured calling the police would do absolutely nothing,” he said.
Noah said he didn’t contact TPD “not because (he) didn’t want to. (He’s) just never had a positive experience trying to file a report with the police. I probably should have, but I think their actions will hurt their business enough.”
Gougeon also said that as much as he’s worried about his business, he’s also thinking about the bigger picture of a nation divided by politics.
“I’m just beside myself right now trying to figure out how we move forward. What’s next? Not just my business, but how do we, as a people, move forward when there’s so much division,” he said.