More than 40 people gathered at the former site of a defaced billboard along Duluth’s Sixth Avenue East on Sunday to condemn what some called an act of terrorism, but also to express concern over the billboard’s original message and location.
The group held hands, sang songs and pledged to work harder to end the kind of racism in the community that spurred someone to paint a Confederate flag and a racial slur on a billboard originally intended to combat racism.
“It’s disturbing,” said Janet Haynes, Duluth community activist and University of Minnesota Duluth professor, of the racist graffiti. “But we live with it every day.”
Haynes said the billboard defacing wasn’t simply a teenager causing trouble but an act of “terror” against people of color, and she asked those gathered to raise money to offer a reward to find the person or people responsible.
A new U.S. Marine Corps recruiting billboard already has replaced the Un-Fair Campaign billboard that last week carried the message “Racism: Ignore it and it won’t go away.” To that, someone added, in red, the racial slur “No naggers” and the flag.
Blair Moses of Duluth, who lives within sight of the billboard, said the group’s gathering was a “visible response … to show that this kind of racism is not OK. To say that this is wrong.”
Moses said for someone to feel bold enough to deface the billboard with such a violent message in one of the city’s busiest areas, with no one reporting the crime, was itself concerning.
But others at Sunday’s rally also questioned some of the tactics of the Un-Fair Campaign, saying the effort to educate white people about racism may need to better consider how any reaction affects people of color.
Gabriel Peltier of Duluth said the Un-Fair Campaign needs to rethink its strategic planning to be ready for angry responses the advertising might draw out and that organizers of the campaign need to ask themselves “do we have the right people at the table?”
Haynes said the concept of white people educating white people about white privilege makes sense, “but the backfire is not coming toward white people.” She said the campaign needs to be ready with an active plan to respond as its message draws angry responses.
“When the backlash comes, you need to step forward and take a stand with us,” Haynes said, aimed at Un-Fair organizers at Sunday’s rally.
There also was concern expressed over the billboard’s location in a neighborhood with many people of color.
Ellen O’Neill, executive director of the Duluth YWCA, speaking on behalf of the 18 partners of the Un-Fair Campaign, said campaign organizers will meet “soon” to discuss the billboard situation and the campaign’s response. She said the campaign received the billboard at a discount rate from Lamar Co. and thus could not pick the original location. The billboard will go back up in another neighborhood soon, she noted.
“We’ll look at being more strategic,” O’Neill said of the campaign’s ongoing efforts.
Others defended the Un-Fair campaign strategy and the billboard, saying it has had people of color involved from the beginning and that the group is not insensitive to the racist response.
“It’s a difficult topic. But it’s always been about education, and we are united in keeping that message” said Allegra Henderson, a member of the Un-Fair Campaign committee. “Half the group representatives (on the committee) are people of color.”
O’Neill had been critical of media coverage of the racist graffiti saying it just perpetuated the problem. But others said the message of “ignore it and it won’t go away” applied to this situation as well.
Photos of the vandalized billboard needed to be shown in the media “for people who still believe Duluth doesn’t have a problem,” Haynes said.
The Un-Fair Campaign began in January with a goal of bringing people together to talk about the effects of racism. The main message has focused on white privilege with the line “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.”
But the campaign also has ignited backlash, with some people saying the campaign itself is racist and alienating in its efforts. A white supremacist rally was held in Duluth in March in direct response to the campaign.
A new video sharing the campaign’s message was rolled out last month. It resulted in more backlash, this time from one of its partners. The University of Minnesota Duluth called the video’s message “divisive” based on complaints at UMD and the main campus of the university. Complaints have come from outside and within university walls, UMD Chancellor Lynn Black said this week. The message in the video was described by O’Neill as the same as before, but in a new format.