In the heart of Trump country, a group of progressive activists are making themselves heard through what might be the nation's longest-running current protest.
When the noon bells chime on a summer Saturday in Mount Vernon and the purveyors of peanut brittle and fresh squash at the weekly farmers market fold up their canopies and leave the public square, another group begins drifting in, carrying cardboard placards. They fan out along the edges of the square and raise their signs, facing the street. Ron Meharry, a retired paramedic, holds a “Black Lives Matter” sign. Joan Slonczewski, a microbiologist, has a sign that says, “Our Planet Matters—We Can’t Breathe.”
On this day, group members, numbering about a dozen, are dressed for a summer pandemic, in sun hats and face masks. But on past Saturdays, they’ve occupied the same space wearing winter parkas, rain ponchos or fall sweaters. Save for a few Saturdays during Gov. DeWine’s stay-at-home order in the spring, they’ve been here every week since the election in November 2016. Their numbers, once as high as 50, have been fewer since the arrival of the coronavirus. But they are always here. They’ve been called—although it’s hard to verify—the nation’s longest-running current protest.
Many of the participants, however, don’t call it a protest. They call it “witnessing.” While they began showing up as a reaction to Donald Trump’s election, their signs focus mainly on issues, not on individual politicians. Health care. Climate change. Corruption. Racial justice. They don’t chant. They don’t preach. They stay only 30 minutes each week.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
“We try to be informative, rather than: ‘you dirty rats,’” says Jill Grubb, a 75-year-old retired schoolteacher from Mount Gilead. “There are so many outrageous things.”
The purpose of the weekly event, says Slonczewski, who is one of the original organizers and a consistent participant, is simply to “reveal the presence of a progressive voice” in the area. They call themselves Signs on the Square.
“People just take it for granted they need to be conservative here,” says Franklin Brown, 77, a retired architect who has been coming since 2016. He’s carrying a sign that reads “Justice for Police and Black Americans.” “If they see there are other choices, I think it’s a very positive thing for everybody.”
It’s no surprise that the conservative voice predominates here: Mount Vernon is the seat of Knox County, where Donald J. Trump garnered 66 percent of the vote in 2016; where the last Democrat to win a majority in a presidential election was Lyndon Johnson in 1964; where a local elementary school is named for Dan Emmett, the founder of the country’s first blackface minstrelsy troupe; and where the population in 2010 was less than 1 percent Black.
The spot the activists occupy is notable, too. At the center of the public square is a statue of a Union soldier. But in 1863, a crowd of 10,000 gathered here for a fiery speech by Clement Vallandigham, the founder of the “Copperhead” faction of the Democratic Party, opposing the Civil War as a violation of states’ rights. He was found guilty of treason and banished to the South.
While they would have disagreed with his ideas, the Signs on the Square group likely would have defended Vallandigham’s right to speak. Until the coronavirus put the kibosh on singing, they wrapped up their event each week with a familiar song, with lyrics revised by co-organizer Jeanne Griggs:
“This square is your square, this square is my square.
We come from all around to show that we care.
From local issues to the national welfare,
This square has signs for you and me.”
On a Saturday in late July, the group was drawing a range of reactions. Passing motorcyclists revved their engines aggressively, while others honked in support. A hand emerged from a minivan’s sunroof holding a hand-lettered sign on a scrap of cardboard: “Black lives matter.” Ten minutes later, a man yelled from a truck, “All lives matter, s***head!”
The presence of progressives in the community became more apparent June 1 when a reported 700 demonstrators marched around the square, protesting the death of George Floyd. The large turnout—which did not include nearby Kenyon students, Slonczewski points out, as the college was not in session—was a surprise to many locals.
But the backlash against them has grown louder, too. Anna Long, 24, who began showing up for Signs on the Square after she marched in the June protest, received a series of threatening text messages using violent, racist language, telling her to stop
protesting. While the texter claimed to be a stranger associated with national hate groups, Long believes it’s someone she knows, trying to get under her skin. She’s still protesting.
Since mid-August, the group has been joined in the square by a small, conservative counter-protest led by Jeff Cline, a local car dealer who once ran for school board on a creationist platform. He stands on the roof of a truck with a bullhorn, proclaiming that Democrats are evil. On Sept. 5, a third group showed up, carrying pro-Trump signs and banners and, in some cases, guns.
Cline plans to return every week until the election. But Slonczewski says Signs on the Square won’t stop after November, no matter the outcome of the presidential election. “There are hurricanes. Greenland is melting. There are fires. We have a lot to do. We’ll still be out here.”