AUSTIN (KXAN) — Circuit of the Americas Chairman Bobby Epstein released a statement Monday saying COTA will cut financial ties with a group campaigning against Mayor Adler and the new MLS soccer stadium.
It’s over a little-known but controversial issue known as “Pepe the Frog.”
“I and everyone associated with COTA vehemently and unequivocally oppose the use of any and all hate speech against any person, group, or belief and will not tolerate this attack, whether it was intentional or unintentional,” wrote Epstein, “We have therefore withdrawn all financial support from IndyAustin.”
Epstein donated $24,000 to the group per the latest city finance report. The group IndyAustin is organized to oppose Mayor Steve Adler and get petition signatures to overrule a city council vote bringing a Major League Soccer stadium to North Austin at McKalla Place.
Mayor Steve Adler voted for the soccer deal. Epstein’s Circuit of the Americas recently unveiled plans to bring their own USL soccer team to Austin next year.
Over the weekend, Indy Austin released a 1-minute video called “Steve Adler’s Shell Game” in which it showed an image of “Pepe the Frog” being uncovered by a shell game.
The image was originally created by as a cartoon comic in the early 2000s. Since then, online hate groups, neo-Nazi groups, and the alt-right have used the image to create anti-Jewish and anti-minority internet images. It has since been described as a hate symbol by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
Mayor Adler is Jewish. This controversy comes days after a gunman shot and killed 11 in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
“I am troubled that a symbol used in anti-Semitic communications by members of the alt-right throughout the United States would now appear in an Austin campaign,” Mayor Adler said in a statement from his campaign, “And I’d like to know why it was featured in a video produced by a PAC that is attacking me.”
The group IndyAustin issued an apology on Monday saying it did not know the meaning behind the symbol and changed the video.
“We honestly thought it was a cartoon of a pea smoking a cigar, taken from a video online, not ours,” wrote the group in a press release,” again, our apologies.”
Later Monday evening, IndyAustin’s co-founder, Linda Curtis, told KXAN as soon as someone contacted her group, pointing out that the cartoon could be interpreted as hateful, the video was taken down and replaced with a new shell game video.
“We do agree with the mayor that there is no room for hate speech in Austin,” Curtis said. “It’s understandable that people would be sensitive about this, right now, especially, and so we very much apologize and did not mean to offend anybody.”
City documents show IndyAustin is also opposing the election of incumbent District 3 councilman Pio Renteria and Danielle Skidmore, who’s running against incumbent councilwoman Kathie Tovo.