Stolen Northampton yard sign depicting MAGA-BLM hug sets off Facebook firestorm

  • A picture of the sign that was taken from Billy Park’s yard in Northampton. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • This painting, commissioned by Billy Park from artist J. Pierre, was the source of the image on the sign that was taken from Park’s yard in Northampton. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Billy Park stands in the yard of his Northampton home with artwork he commissioned for his mission to “promote finding humanity with those we disagree with.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Billy Park stands in the yard of his Northampton home with artwork he commissioned for his mission to “promote finding humanity with those we disagree with.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/15/2020 5:17:34 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The theft of a Northampton activist’s lawn sign has stirred up a firestorm online centering on ethics, free speech and race.

Billy Park noticed June 6 that a lawn sign he had displayed in his front yard on Crescent Street — depicting a hug between a white man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and a black person wearing a “Black Lives Matter” shirt — had gone missing.

“I thought somebody took it because they wanted it,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of positivity from the sign.”

A former branding company owner, Park is now a full-time activist who started a “hug mission” to shrink the national divide “one hug at a time,” according to one of his websites. He said he gave hugs to people in 23 states last year. Then came the coronavirus, and with it stay-at-home and social distancing protocols. 

The sign is a reprint of part of a painting that Park commissioned from his friend, the New Orleans-based artist J. Pierre. Park is white, and Pierre is black. Park and Pierre are selling T-shirts featuring the image online; those profits will go to charity.

Park responded to the disappearance of his sign by posting about it on the Northampton, MA Facebook group page asking for its return. He also said that he’d made 100 signs featuring the artwork that people were welcome to take at no charge on the condition that they be displayed in their yards.

On Wednesday, Zahra Ashe-Simmer of Northampton posted on Facebook that she was the person who had removed Park’s sign. The following day, the same post appeared on the Northampton group page.

“I found it incredibly distasteful and problematic for reasons outlined here by multiple people,” she wrote.

That the artist is black didn’t change its “disturbing message,” Ashe-Simmer added.

“Anyone can make simpering, white-idolizing media like this, regardless (of) identity, and the artist is not a representative of all black people or black politics,” she wrote.

She said that she would be more than happy to replace the sign with something “less blatantly racist” made by a black artist, or to discuss with Park why the sign is offensive.

“I would strongly urge you NOT to make more prints and consider why a town full of white people with MAGA-sympathizing iconography in their front yards isn’t the move,” Ashe-Simmer concluded.

Ashe-Simmer, who is white and lives in Northampton, said that a friend who is a person of color, but not black, had pointed out the sign to her. She said that they’d discussed knocking on Park’s door or sending a letter but that she ultimately decided she’d remove the sign herself.

“It felt like my responsibility to do,” said Ashe-Simmer, who is a graduate of Northampton High School and now attends Wesleyan University. 

As for the fate of the stolen sign, she said, it’s been recycled. 

Park said he’s upset that Ashe-Simmer bragged on social media about squelching his free speech and taking his stuff.

“The audacity to do that is just beyond me,” he said.

Park said he’s “not a Trump supporter in any shape or fashion,” but he feels it’s unfair to demonize all supporters of President Donald Trump.

He currently runs an internet radio program, “Hug It Out America,” where he interviews people from around the country.

“My goal in life is to find humanity in people we disagree with,” Park said.

Ashe-Simmer said she chose to post about taking the sign because she wanted people to know her reasons behind the action. 

“I’m glad that there was discussion around it,” she said.

Her post generated more than 900 comments on the Northampton group page before commenting on it was closed. 

“We were getting an unprecedented number of complaints,” said Jonathon Podolsky, the page moderator who turned off comments on the post. 

Many of the commenters condemned the taking of the sign, some applauded Ashe-Simmer’s action and others expressed criticism of the artwork.

Howard Bryant, a staffer with ESPN, sports correspondent with NPR and the author of “Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field,” commented on the matter on Twitter.

Bryant, who is black and a Northampton resident, told the Gazette that he and some of his black friends who know Northampton have referred to it as the “most Northampton of Northampton things.”

“We all had a bit of a laugh about it,” he said.

Bryant is no fan of the artwork, but he also thinks the sign should be returned. 

“Taking his sign has now produced 100 more of these atrocities,” he said. “No good deed goes unpunished.”

He also noted his “huge respect” for those who have protested outside of the Northampton police station this month. 

Park said that he has provided a sign to one person who is currently displaying it and that about 50 other people have requested them. However, he wants to have a conversation with Pierre before giving more out to the public.

Park said the whole experience has been upsetting to his wife and two children. He also said that he has asked the police to charge Ashe-Simmer with larceny after he asked her to return the sign and she refused.

He said he doesn’t want Ashe-Simmer to go to jail but would like to see her do community service.

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said the matter is under investigation and that no one has been charged or arrested.

Ashe-Simmer said that the Northampton Police Department asked her to come into the station and that, after she refused, she was told she’d be charged with larceny. She said she has not been arrested or received a summons on this matter yet.

On Park’s decision to involve the police, Ashe-Simmer said that, “I think it’s pretty telling of where he’s at right now.”

Ashe-Simmer said she’s interested in having a conversation with Park, but she said he has refused, saying that he wants his sign returned first. 

“I would really love to,” she said about finding a time to talk. “Those are the conversations right now that are really important.”

This story has been updated.

Bera Dunau can be  reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.


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