If Brad Allison was a bully, he'd be one to hide from. At an inch shy of 6 feet, weighing in at 240 pounds, and counting weightlifting as his primary hobby, Allison is the sort of man you might find caricatured as one of the vintage bodybuilders on a "Blowoff" poster -- so much so, that he actually did serve as one of the poster models.
Despite his brawn, he's not one to pick fights. Even amid all the politics of the D.C. area, this Fair Oaks, Va., resident has never considered himself political, not one to join protests or rallies. At 35, his life's political high point may have been coming out to his mother as gay when he was in the eighth grade, back in his native North Carolina.
Until a recent Sunday afternoon, that is.
That day, April 19, he headed out to his local grocery store, the Safeway at Fairfax Towne Center off West Ox Road. Incredible bulk like Allison's takes work, and he needed some milk for his protein shakes. In essence, a perfectly routine Sunday -- except for the two men standing in front of the Safeway seeking donations for the Knights of Columbus.
"I'd read the 'Dishonor Roll,' and the name seemed familiar to me," Allison says, referring to the list maintained by Californians Against Hate that shows those groups and individuals making donations in excess of $5,000 to support California's Proposition 8. That successful November ballot measure gave that state a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages despite an earlier ruling by the California Supreme Court in favor of marriage equality.
But Allison wasn't certain, so he called a friend and asked him to check the Dishonor Roll. The Knights of Columbus, the "world's foremost Catholic fraternal benefit society," was on the list. At the top, actually, with $1,400,000 to support Proposition 8 coming from the New Haven, Conn., headquarters and another $25,000 from the California arm of the group.
"I don't consider myself an activist, but it's just that something snapped," says Allison. "I just got really mad. Having them standing outside my grocery store, where I live, really pissed me off. … I've been coming to this store for 13 years, and the last thing I want to see is a hate group."
Allison says he confronted the Knights of Columbus solicitors, asking them about the group's support for Proposition 8. The pair denied knowing anything about such support, explaining they were collecting money to help children and other good works. Indeed, there are good works, as the organization helps HIV-positive widows in Kenya, promotes volunteerism among members, funded Gulf Coast hurricane-relief efforts and so on.
But as Allison explained the basics of Proposition 8, he says the two collecting for the Knights of Columbus did have firm opinions regarding homosexuality, regardless of their collections pitch: It's unnatural. That view is largely sanctioned by the Knights of Columbus' Web site, where one can find, for example, a video produced by a New Jersey Knights with the support of the national group's "Supreme Council" that warns viewers about marriage equality, offering commentary arguing that laws allowing marriage equality would not have been supported by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; or a 2006 recap of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson's address to the group's leadership, during which he stated, "If homosexual marriage is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. … We will never accept the destruction of the institution of marriage."
After speaking with two Safeway managers, one of whom seemed sympathetic, he was told that once groups are cleared to use the storefront space by Safeway's management, an on-site store manager cannot ask them to leave. Allison says that did not prevent him, however, from purchasing some poster board and pens in the store and making his own statement by standing next to the Knights of Columbus with a sign reading "Please do not support H8." He also asked passerby to compare giving to the Knights of Columbus to giving to the Ku Klux Klan.
"It is a bit of an extreme point to be making, but I thought it was effective."
Whenever his Knights of Columbus counterpart made his plea to passerby on behalf of "needy children," Allison would counter that $1.4 million of the group's money did not go to help children, but to support Proposition 8. "This is an awareness issue. I think a lot of people who see Knights of Columbus are unaware of who they are, unaware that they were the No. 1 supporter of Proposition 8."
Greg Ten Eyck, director of Safeway's public affairs in the geographic division that includes the Fairfax store, says the company allows various nonprofit groups to use exterior frontage, though they must first apply for the privilege and be cleared. While the Knights of Columbus followed the procedure, Ten Eyck says that Allison could have been asked to end his protest and leave the property, as he had not received clearance through Safeway protocols.
Ten Eyck adds, "If someone has a conflict with an organization, they should contact the organization."
Eventually -- after being berated loudly and profanely by a young man for his protest, but with a list of Safeway corporate phone numbers from the sympathetic manager -- Allison called it a day and went home. That might have been the end of it, had he not remembered another errand that had him running back out to a CVS at a different plaza, Greenbriar Town Center, also in Fairfax, off of Lee Jackson Memorial Highway.
And again, in front of that plaza's Giant Foods, a member of the Knights of Columbus sought donations. Again, Allison went to the on-site manager.
"It worked at Giant," he reports. "They were asked to leave immediately."
Jamie Miller, public affairs manager of Landover-based Giant, a past Capital Pride sponsor, says that his company considers the exterior, storefront sidewalk to be public space, generally allowing nonprofit groups to occupy it as long as they're not disruptive.
"We don't advocate on behalf of these groups," he says, adding, "If customers have specific concerns, we'll listen to those concerns."
Regardless of what policies grocery-store chains apply, Fred Karger, the Los Angeles-based founder of Californians Against Hate, says he appreciates any actions that bring attention to the Knights of Columbus' Proposition 8 support.
"When they first started contributing, we identified them as the political arm of the Catholic Church, though they've always just been presented as a fraternal organization," he says. "I think the more attention we bring to these donors, the better off we are."
Meanwhile, Allison, has called corporate offices of both chains, and is taking his protest online, where, as an IT technician and a blogger for more than a decade, he's right at home.
"I'm going through corporate to let them know this is not acceptable," he says. "I'm getting the community out there, saying, 'If you agree with me, call and complain.' … I don't think [Knights of Columbus] should be able to stand outside my grocery store and collect money. If they just want to help children, fine. But if you're going to give money not to help children, but to hurt families, that's deceitful."
Brad Allison blogs at jackal.livejournal.com. Customer comments to Giant Food may be made through the company's consumer-affairs department at 888-469-4426 during regular business hours; and to Safeway at 877-723-3929. To see the full Californians Against Hate "Dishonor Roll," visit californiansagainsthate.com. For more about the Knights of Columbus, visit www.kofc.org.