By Mat Weir and Jacob Pierce
Last month’s revelations of O’mei owner Roger Grigsby’s support for former KKK leader David Duke sent a chill down the spines of the Chinese restaurant’s biggest fans. Even more so, the news seemed to be a wake-up call to many stunned locals that the kind of racist politics seen in Charlottesville could exist here, within the liberal bubble of Santa Cruz.
After all, there aren’t many places boasting more fading Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders bumper stickers than decidedly left-leaning Santa Cruz, and according to voter registrations, our enclave is the third-most Democrat and the fourth-least Republican county in California. But financial support for the U.S. Senate campaign of outspoken racist Duke crossed a line that filled locals of all political persuasions with a boiling anger that soon exploded on social media.
Talk of an organized boycott had barely begun to foment before the restaurant’s wait staff apparently walked out—according to an interview Grigsby gave to the Santa Cruz Sentinel—prompting the restaurant to shut down suddenly, and the city to heave a collective sigh of relief. After all, white supremacy isn’t something that is tolerated in this city, right?
But for all of the outrage directed at Grigsby, there is another high-profile local who regularly spews Duke-like views that many would find just as morally repugnant—one who seems to have so far been immune from the same massive backlash that shut down O’Mei.
And no one has to go digging through public records to find her.
That’s local KSCO talk show host Georgia “Peach” Beardslee, who routinely asks questions, like “Why is it that only black people loot in a crisis?”—as she did shortly after Hurricane Harvey on Wednesday, Aug. 30. During that same broadcast, she compared Santa Cruz’s Beach Flats community, a predominantly Latino, low-income neighborhood, to a “third-world country.” She accused Santa Cruz’s entire city government of being run by communists and wished UCSC a “nasty, fast death” for being a “communist school.”
She opened the show by decrying a “white genocide” that she claims many Americans have been simultaneously ignoring and perpetuating.
“Some of you don’t care about your future, the future of your children, the future of this country,” she mused in her opening remarks that afternoon, particularly upset over O’mei’s closure. “Our president is fighting these battles every day, and all you do is demonize him. You don’t seem to care that white people are being replaced. After all, we’re all Americans, so it doesn’t matter that other races will dominate this country built by white Europeans. Everything you enjoy in this world was given to you by the whites, starting with the light bulb. But let’s not honor that. Let’s get rid of that, along with all the statues and monuments that represent white history. In the future, no one will ever know whites walked the earth. And you defend this? You people of other ethnicities defend this because you feel victimized for being born in poor countries, so everything is owed to you? Why don’t you stay or go to your own countries and make them great, instead of sucking off the American people and their hard work, while you turn your country into a third-world hell hole, like the one you ran from.”
Michael Zwerling, owner of right-leaning KSCO (1080 AM), says he sees no problem with Beardslee’s broadcasts, declining to get into the specifics and deferring instead to the Constitution’s First Amendment protections. “Who’s going to be the arbiter of what’s acceptable speech?” he asks.
Columnist Bruce Bratton, who Beardslee calls part of “the Santa Cruz media wing of Antifa,” had never listened to the twice-weekly broadcast before GT called him up. After hearing her Aug. 30 show, Bratton felt troubled—not so much by her personal attacks, as by the worldview that she’s sharing with listeners around the Monterey Bay. “Good Lordy, Lordy,” he says.
“The ethnic-racial divide is something that she’s perpetuating over and over and over again, and talking about how David Duke is such a wonderful-thinking person. And this is someone who is anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish, and was the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. When she stands up for someone like David Duke, that’s really something,” Bratton says.
In the age of fake news, Beardslee and her colleagues have earned a reputation for playing fast and loose with the facts. While defending Duke’s talk of white separatism, for example, she could not say what position the former Klan leader had been running for, just “some seat in the government.” (He was running for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana.) Her co-host Sam Quinten claimed later that week that Grigsby’s donation was made “many, many years ago.” (It was actually made in August of 2016.) Beardslee spreads falsehoods about everything from the history of slavery in America to the antifascist movement.
Zwerling says the station, where all shows are archived on KSCO.com, and its staff don’t have time to fact-check everything, and errors are bound to slip through. Although Beardslee’s critics see something more toxic, Zwerling thinks certain talk shows should not be taken as news commentary, but instead as opinion, like Rush Limbaugh—a format bordering closer to pure entertainment, he says.
Zwerling says he actually used to be friends with Grigsby, before eventually blocking Grigsby’s phone number after an inundation of messages from the O’mei owner linking to anti-Jewish literature. Zwerling, who’s Jewish himself, says he couldn’t maintain the friendship, and he admits it may sound puzzling that he would go out of his way to defend Grigsby, as he’s done—especially given the restaurateur support for Duke, a Holocaust denier. But Zwerling doesn’t think the owner’s beliefs should get in the way of his business.
Grigsby could not be reached for comment.
These days, the state of American discourse may indeed be in bad shape, according to KSCO station manager Michael Olson, if the station’s callers are any indication. “Instead of picking up their phones, calling in and saying, ‘Look here, Bub, I don’t agree with you because of this and this and this, they shout you down. Which, to me, is the most frightening thing on Earth,” Olson says.
But on the topic of speaking freely, Beardslee, who declined to be interviewed, has a knack for shouting over people, too, sometimes hanging up on people she declares to be “communists” on air.
Freedom of speech has remained one of Beardslee’s favorite talking points, though. It was part of the defense she made of Grigsby last month, in one of her impassioned rants. She later told GT via email that the reasons behind her segments were nuanced.
“It is not just a freedom of speech issue. It is about the rights of American citizens. The right to privacy, the right to donate, the right to have political views,” writes Beardslee, whose show airs every Wednesday and Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. (Grigsby’s donation and address were public record, per federal election guidelines.)
Beardslee became so fired up over the O’mei issue that she informally quit while on the air. She was out of the studio for the next show on Friday, Sept. 1, but back the following week—after what she later called a misunderstanding between herself and Zwerling.
Beardslee’s show is hardly the only one on KSCO that stirs up controversy. The station is also the local home of Limbaugh and Dr. David Biles’ weekly “Perspectives” show, for instance, where the local dentist shares views about chemtrails and his distaste for vaccinations. KSCO has plenty of other local programs too, among them Olson’s own “Food Chain Radio,” as well as Rachel Goodman and Joe Jordan’s environmentally focused “Planet Watch.”
For KSCO’s attempts at diversity, there have been signs of strain on the airwaves, as hosts like Charlie Freedman and Beardslee have recently criticized their colleagues over the microphones. Beardslee even criticized Zwerling and Olson for not denouncing the “communists” that she thinks run UCSC.
Zwerling, whose family has owned KSCO since 1991, says the station is losing roughly $40,000 a month, as reported by the Santa Cruz Sentinel in July, although he says KSCO operating on a deficit is “nothing new.”
Amid the station’s apparent financial insecurity, the on-air tension at KSCO has, at times, felt almost palpable, as when Zwerling joined Freedman, a longtime talk show host, on his Thursday, Aug. 31 show. Zwerling was sitting in to discuss O’mei’s closure, a topic that seemed to rattle him harder than it did Freedman. At one point Freedman briefly turned down Zwerling’s microphone to get a word in, which prompted Zwerling to yell that he wanted it turned back up—before the station owner realized that he could turn it back up himself.
“Don’t ever turn my mic down. I’m the reason you’re here!” Zwerling yelled, after taking the controls. “Get it? Don’t ever, ever, ever turn my mic down. Ever again. Ever again! Do you understand?”
That same afternoon, Zwerling criticized staffers for not better promoting the station and even hinted that the station’s days may be numbered. “I guess it’s only a matter of time before KSCO has to close its doors like O’mei did, because you’re a Trump supporter and because I’m a Trump supporter,” Zwerling told Freedman.
Zwerling and Beardslee have both warned that they think the Santa Cruz left could get its way and shut down KSCO—not that anyone actually seems to be trying—just as the two believe that liberals supposedly did with O’mei. But, since the two of them keep bringing it up, we can’t help wondering whether such a shakeup—which, again, is 100 percent hypothetical—is really their worst nightmare, or more of an exit strategy for themselves and for KSCO.
After all, at a station that’s troubled by infighting and financial struggles, liberals sound like an ideal scapegoat for KSCO’s conservative fans, while perhaps even seeming—at least on the surface—to match Beardslee’s narratives of liberals shutting down everything they disagree with.
Bratton—who Beardslee blames for creating a communist conspiracy to shut down O’mei— tells GT that he already boycotts KSCO anyway, and has for 40 years, since long before Zwerling bought the station. “I don’t listen to stuff I don’t agree with, naturally,” he says.
So, was O’mei really closed down by anyone attacking free speech, as Beardslee suggests?
Brenda Griffin, president of the Santa Cruz County NAACP, doesn’t see it that way. She notes that the First Amendment was written to protect people’s speech from government interference and censorship, not from other individuals, who are also allowed to speak their minds and even vote with their dollars.
“In my mind, unless folks physically went there and boarded up the restaurant or vandalized it,” she says, “I don’t see people not supporting [O’mei] as censorship.”
Update 09/13/17 11:36 a.m.: This story has been changed to reflect KSCO host Georgia Beardslee’s full name.