An empty chair hung from a tree outside a Camas couple’s home in protest of President Barack Obama is drawing criticism from diversity advocates as an example of racial insensitivity against America’s first black president.
The plastic patio chair outside the home of George and Kathryn Maxwell is missing a leg, has the word “No-Bama” scrawled on it and once had two American flags taped to its back. The couple that hung the chair said they were inspired to put the empty chair in their yard after watching Clint Eastwood’s speech at this summer’s Republican National Convention.
In one of the convention’s most memorable moments, Eastwood spoke to an empty chair that was meant to symbolize Obama and his policies. The speech went viral, prompting people to take photos of themselves with empty chairs and to pretend as if they were interacting with the president.
To the horror of many civil rights activists across the country, however, some Obama opponents took the analogy one step further by hanging empty chairs from trees. The so-called “chair lynchings” have made headlines in Texas and Virginia.
“It is problematic, considering our unique history in the United States of America with lynching,” Clark College’s diversity adviser, Sirius Bonner, said in response to the hanging chair in Camas. “You can’t escape that this has a racially charged element to it because of our American history.”
Effigies of other U.S. presidents have been hung in the past, but those presidents were white. Even so much as hanging an item from a tree that happens to represent a black man harkens back to a painful period in America’s past, Bonner said.
Kathryn Maxwell said her husband, George, is the one who decided to hang the chair from the tree. He was out of town on a hunting trip when she was contacted by a reporter.
“Oh dear,” Kathryn Maxwell said upon receiving a call from The Columbian. “The reason we hung it up was because people kept stealing it. … We just have to take extra precautions.”
At first, the chair was on the ground, Maxwell said.
Underneath the chair is a blackboard set up to face the street. Written in chalk are the words: “Are you better off now than 4 yrs ago? The king is a joke.”
In smaller letters off to the side, someone also wrote: “Leave my board alone.”
The couple, both retired, set up the display at the intersection of Northeast 244th Avenue and 28th Street. Maxwell said they have experienced vandalism to their chalk board.
After Clark County GOP Chairwoman Stephanie McClintock was made aware of the hanging chair in Camas, she issued a statement denouncing the political display.
“Clint Eastwood used an empty chair during his speech at the Republican Convention to represent the emptiness of Obama and his policies, but hanging a chair in a tree is bad taste and something the Republican Party does not support or condone,” McClintock wrote on Wednesday.
Bonner called the display “unfortunate” and said Clark College does not support that type of behavior. She also said that sometimes people don’t realize their actions might be perceived as offensive to certain groups.
“I think it just speaks to a lack of awareness and knowledge around some of our history,” Bonner said. “It’s definitely an opportunity to educate and hopefully change people’s perspectives.”
Even after the Maxwells’ display was called into question, it did not sound as if the couple planned to take the chair down.
“There’s a Constitution,” Maxwell said, pointing out her First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of expression. “Some people forget that.”
As for her own political leanings, Maxwell said she’s not jazzed about GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, but she sees him as the lesser of two evils in this fall’s presidential election. She liked Tea Party darling Michelle Bachmann more, but acknowledged that Bachmann didn’t have a chance in securing the Republican presidential nomination.