Waffle House’s Right-Wing Politics: The Chikesia Clemons Controversy Follows Many Years of Supporting Reactionary Far-Right Republicans

Although Waffle House can be found in states ranging from Arizona to Ohio, most of its 2100 restaurants are in the Deep South.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time listening to southern hip-hop has no doubt heard of Waffle House. The restaurant chain has been mentioned in countless hip-hop and modern R&B recordings and has had plenty of black customers over the years. But following some racially troubling incidents in 2018, Dr. Bernice A. King—daughter of the late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—has urged African-Americans to boycott the restaurant chain, which has a strong connection to far-right politics and the Republican Party.

On May 10, King sent out a tweet saying, “Family, let’s stay out of @WaffleHouse until the corporate office legitimately and seriously commits to 1) discussion on racism, 2) employee training, and 3) other plans to change; and until they start to implement changes.” King’s tweet followed an incident at a Waffle House in Warsaw, North Carolina, where a video showed 22-year-old Anthony Wall being choked by a burly police officer. Wall had just attended his 16-year-old sister’s prom and got into an argument with Waffle House employees, who according to attorney Benjamin Crump, “used homophobic slurs” to insult him before calling the police. 

King has also tweeted about the arrest of Chikesia Clemons at a Waffle House in Saraland, Alabama near Mobile on April 22, when Waffle House employees called 911 after an argument with the 25-year-old African-American woman. Clemons’ friend, Canita Adams, filmed the arrest with her smartphone, and the video shows an officer grabbing Clemons and throwing her onto the floor.

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In the video, the officer is heard threatening to break Clemons’ arm. And Clemons’ breasts were exposed during the arrest.

Adams’ video quickly went viral, and she is being represented by Benjamin Crump—the same civil rights attorney who is representing Wall. According to Crump, Adams’ video clearly demonstrates that excessive force was used against Clemons. 

On Twitter, King asserted, “A @WaffleHouse employee called the police on #ChikesiaClemons after she asked for the number for the corporate office. Ms. Clemons was violated by police. Her breasts were exposed.” And the Rev. Al Sharpton has also been quite outspoken about Clemons’ arrest, holding a town hall at Bethel AME Church in Mobile with Crump on May 1 and helping to raise money on her behalf.   

The same day Clemons was arrested, a gunman went on a shooting spree at a Waffle House in Nashville and killed four people of color—and that event might have become even more tragic had James Shaw, Jr., a 29-year-old black man, not overpowered and disarmed the gunman. President Trump called Shaw 22 days later to thank him for his heroic actions, but Shaw described the conversation as “lackluster.” And Trump has been criticized for not calling Shaw sooner and being slow to address what appears to be a racially motivated hate crime and act of domestic terrorism.

Waffle House has defended the actions of its Saraland employees and the Saraland Police in Clemons’ arrest, which is not surprising given the chain’s decidedly hard-right politics. In 2012, Waffle House donated $100,000 to American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s political action committee, and another $50,000 to the pro-Mitt Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future. Waffle House’s Joe Rogers, Jr. (who was CEO at the time and is now chairman) was a strong supporterof Romney’s presidential campaign that year, and he had joined the finance team of Romney’s political action committee, Commonwealth Pac, in 2006. Rogers is the son of the late Joe Rogers, Sr., who founded Waffle House in 1955.

Waffle House also backed Georgia Republican Tom Price, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and went on to join the Trump Administration in 2017 as secretary of health and human services. Last year, Price helped lead GOP efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act of 2010, a.k.a. Obamacare, and deprive millions of Americans of health insurance.

Don Balfour, Waffle House’s vice president, is a Republican politician who served in Georgia’s state senate from 1992-2015. And during his youth, Balfour attended Bob Jones University—a far-right Christian fundamentalist college that once forbade interracial dating and had a long history of anti-Catholic statements. Balfour (who received a 100% rating from the Georgia chapter of the Koch brothers’ organization, Americans for Prosperity, in 2012) repeatedly supported abortion restrictions in Georgia—and in 2014, he sponsored the mean-spirited Georgia House Bill 772, which required drug testing for food stamp recipients.

Balfour also sponsored a bill that would have prohibited workers from picketing the homes of company executives. Balfour’s proposal was so blatantly anti-First Amendment that even the Atlanta Tea Party came out against it, leading to the bill’s death in Georgia’s state legislature.

Although Waffle House can be found in states ranging from Arizona to Ohio, most of its 2100 restaurants are in the Deep South. And Waffle House typifies the type of bad working conditions that southern right-to-work states are notorious for.

Employees of Waffle House are required to sign, as a condition of employment, an arbitration agreement that essentially forbids one employee from taking legal action against the chain with another employee. The purpose of the agreement is to prevent class-action lawsuits, which can be a formidable weapon against corporate abuses.

In 1994, Waffle House employee Eric Baker was fired after suffering two seizures that resulted from a change in medication. Baker, in response, complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, asserting that his firing was a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990—and Waffle House responded that the arbitration agreement forbade the EEOC from suing. But the case, EEOC v. Waffle House, Inc., went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2002, sided with the EEOC and ruled in a 6-3 vote that a private arbitration agreement could not prevent the EEOC from filing a court action and recovering monetary damages on behalf of an individual such as Baker.

King, Sharpton and Crump aren’t the only activists who have been critical of Waffle House in recent weeks: in a formal statement addressing Wall and Clemons’ experiences, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill declared, “Neither situation warranted police intervention, let alone such gratuitous use of force. Police officials are not a private security force for untrained Waffle House employees.” And given Waffle House’s long history of supporting reactionary far-right politics, this type of scrutiny is well deserved.

Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.