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In Swampscott, a bar conversation becomes a townwide controversy

Mission on the Bay in Swampscott.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Erik Heilman was bartending at the upstairs patio at Mission on the Bay restaurant in Swampscott last Thursday when a group of four adults arrived.

Among them was Don Hause, a second-term Swampscott selectman.

While serving the group over the course of the next couple hours, Heilman said, he grew angered by a number of comments made by Hause, who according to Heilman called the Black Lives Matter movement “liberal b------t" and said that white privilege isn’t real.

Though Heilman didn’t say anything to the group at the time, on Sunday — compelled to share what he’d heard — he posted a five-paragraph description of the incident to a Swampscott Facebook discussion page.

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“It just rubbed me the wrong way,” said Heilman, 24, who lives in Salem, Mass. “Once I heard that, I felt I had the [chance] to do something about it.”

Within an hour, the post had garnered significant attention. And within two hours, Heilman says, his job at the restaurant had been terminated.

In an interview Monday, Hause called Heilman’s post “inaccurate” and said the conversation did not happen the way the bartender described it. Yes, Hause said, he and three other adult acquaintances spent an hour and a half or so at the restaurant last Thursday. And their conversation covered a number of topics.

But Heilman’s version of events, he said, were “inflammatory and untrue.”

“One of the things I did say was that, unfortunately, the lootings had taken away from the true spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement and somewhat hijacked their message,” said Hause, who is white. “But I didn’t say anything at all that was racist or inappropriate.”

Hause said that there were only two staff members working in the area of the restaurant that his group was in on Thursday, and that Heilman, who he didn’t previously know, was only intermittently in the group’s proximity.

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He said he was stunned Sunday night when he began receiving a barrage of text messages from friends alerting him to the post.

“I’ve come to realize, that with everything that’s happening today, these are very polarizing times and people feel the need to call out things they find inappropriate,” Hause said, who added that he’d drawn some criticism recently for a letter of support he’d written to local police in the local newspaper. “I’m certainly not criticizing him for his opinion, or for what he thought was right. But what he said isn’t accurate.”

“I’m a politician,” Hause added. “I need to be a little more judicious in what I say and how I say it. Sometimes I’m going to make a mistake, and if I made a mistake, I apologize.”

An employee who answered the phone at Mission on the Bay on Monday said that co-owner Wellington Augusto was unavailable.

Heilman said Monday that he knew when he made the post that it was possible it could cost him his job.

But since being terminated, he added, he has received an outpouring of support; within a day, he said, he’d already lined up another job at another area restaurant.

In a follow-up Facebook post Monday night — after the restaurant had received backlash online — Heilman said he had no ill will toward Mission on the Bay, and that he regretted bringing the establishment into the conversation. Though he believes his termination was handled incorrectly, he said, he understands why it was done.

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But Heilman also stood by his original post, saying he was glad that he shared what he did.

“I saw this as an opportunity to stand up, I guess,” said Heilman. “I didn’t know exactly where it was going to go, but I just figured wherever it went would be fine.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.