Rival groups contest free speech in Huntington

  • Huntington Country Store.

  • Scott Merzbach—

  • Protesters line up across from the Huntington Country Store on Sunday. One group was protesting what they saw as racist and xenophobic language on the store’s website, while others came to support the store. STAFF PHOTO/GRETA JOCHEM

Staff Writer
Published: 8/30/2020 6:38:33 PM

HUNTINGTON — It was “freedom of speech day” on Sunday at the Huntington Country Store and owners Randy and Becky Butler were offering a deal: one scoop of ice cream at half price.

But when a group of protesters tried to go into the store to get ice cream and deliver a letter taking issue with the store’s use of the term “China coronavirus” on its website, four police officers stood between them and the door. Nearby, a woman in an American flag T-shirt shouted at them, saying they were not welcome.

No formal trespass orders had been served, said Aaren Hawley, an officer with the Huntington Police. But, he said, the store is private property and the store’s owners told the police department they would issue trespass notices to the protesters if they came inside the shop.

About 40 people came to protest the store’s use of the term “China coronavirus,” multiple times on its website, on the grounds that it is racist and xenophobic. Around the country, Asian American people have reported coronavirus-related discrimination and harassment, and protest organizers said the store’s language feeds into that.

Organizer Ali Wicks-Lim said she and others contacted the store and left messages, but never heard back from the owners. “They would not take our calls,” she said before the protest. “It just became clear they were unwilling to hear any of our concerns.”

In reaction to “No Hate in Huntington,” another protest, “Stand with the Huntington Country Store!” was planned and more than 50 people showed up.

The person listed as the organizer on the Facebook event did not reply to a message, and she posted on the Facebook event saying she could not attend because she was going to Boston to rally against the mandatory flu vaccine for students.

At around noon on Sunday, the two groups stood on a narrow strip of sidewalk outside the store. “Don’t sell hate anymore,” yelled several dozen people, and nearly immediately, counterprotesters shouted over them, saying “Free speech.” One man yelled “China virus.”

Those supporting the store held signs with messages like “Censorship is fatal to our republic,” and some held American flags. Some wore face coverings, while others didn’t. They cheered when a van pulling a trailer with a Trump 2020 flag, a “Dont Tread on Me” flag, and an American flag drove by the store several times.

Protesters who wanted the store’s language changed wore face coverings and held signs like “Your words hurt my family,” “Make America brown again!” and “Hilltowners against hate.”

On Sunday, Randy Butler stood at the store’s entrance letting in a limited amount of customers at a time. He declined to answer questions and directed the Gazette to a statement on the store’s website.

In a post titled “Rebutting the Gazette’s news article and defending Free Speech,” the store’s website says Randy and Becky Butler take issue with how the coronavirus was first handled by Chinese government. “It’s my way of saying NO to the China Communist Regime,” the statement concludes.

“Could there be another reason why someone would call COVID-19 the China Coronavirus?” the statement asks. “I’ll give you hint. Location on a map. I’ll repeat this again, location on a map!”

The pandemic has been a difficult period for the businesses, they wrote, and “being forced to deal with an anti-First Amendment group doesn’t help.”

Protesters took issue with this line of argument.

“A lot is being said on their side about their First Amendment rights,” Wicks-Lim said. “My position is that just because you can something doesn’t mean you should say something that’s going to harm other people.”

Many there in support of the store declined to speak to the Gazette, but those who did emphasized freedom of speech.

“It’s just a freedom of speech thing,” said Ed Parr, of Easthampton, who was wearing a pro-Trump hat. He said he likes the store. “I’d like to stand with them.”

The language is harmful, said “No hate in Huntington” organizers. “The rise of racist attacks, verbal and physical assaults on Asians and Asian Americans and the rise of racist rhetoric describing our current pandemic is not a coincidence,” Vira Douangmany Cage, one of the event’s organizers who also serves as chairwoman of the state’s Asian American Commission, said in a statement.

“As an Asian American, I know what it’s like to be attacked,” said Jeannette Wicks-Lim. She’s been called slurs and told to go back to China — though she’s actually Korean-American.

“It’s one thing to see all this hatred through a screen,” said protester and Amherst-Regional High School student Monica Cage. In person, she said, it was different. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Huntington resident Amanda Reynolds was unable to attend Sunday’s protest but said she is disappointed with the store’s reaction and won’t be going to there anymore.

“I think instead of ignoring those that wanted the language changed on the website, there could have been more of an understanding and listening and conversation as opposed to reacting in an aggressive way,” she said.

“This could have been a moment for them to gather more community to create the store to be a safe place for all.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy