Political statement? Chair hanging from tree stirs neighbors' emotions

Political statement? Chair hanging from tree stirs neighbors' emotions

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by Mark Wiggins and John Gusky / KVUE.com

WCNC.com

Posted on September 21, 2012 at 9:34 AM

Updated Friday, Sep 21 at 10:23 AM

AUSTIN -- A metal folding chair with an American flag, tied with a rope and hanging from a tree in a Northwest Austin neighborhood has ignited a 24-hour controversy which has spread city-wide.
 
"I would suppose it's something political, but I don't know what it means," said one passerby.
 
Actor Clint Eastwood used an empty chair to stage a hypothetical conversation with President Barack Obama at the Republican National Convention in August. Since then, the empty chair has been used by many to refer symbolically to the president.

"To me, it's racist," said Robert Stephenson, an activist living nearby who stopped by to take pictures of the chair.

"It reminds me of when somebody's hanging something from a tree, and it reminds me of a noose hanging with a chair and I think it's very scary," said neighbor Grace Shemain.

On Thursday KVUE called homeowner Bud Johnson for his side of the story, and just before noon he came out to take the chair down.

While the cameras were rolling, Johnson removed the rope and placed the chair on the ground in the middle of his lawn.

Johnson said he didn't want to be interviewed. However he did answer a question about why he decided to remove the display.

"Because it's a misconception," Johnson said. "It has nothing to do with racism. Nothing."

"Lynching of course in America has a very sensitive history," said Nelson Linder.

Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, said Johnson's message is difficult to misinterpret.

"When you put up a chair in your lawn with a rope around it, you're sending a very powerful message," said Linder. "It's also very insensitive. Black folks know what that means. It happens in the workplace for example. Nooses in the workplaces are unacceptable. It's no different in your yard. Even though it's private property, it goes beyond individual expression."

Other neighbors declined to talk on camera and described Johnson as a "good guy," "very conservative" and a war hero.

After photographs of the hanging chair were posted online Wednesday evening, hundreds have posted comments or sent e-mails in response.

"I'm glad he took it down," said Stephenson. "I just hope he doesn't put it back up."

The right to free speech protects political displays and Austin police confirm there's nothing unlawful about Johnson's display.

In an election year already fueled by heated and often angry rhetoric from both sides of the political divide, neighbors say Johnson's latest contribution to the debate is not a constructive one.

"I don't think it's helpful," said Shemain. "I think putting a sign up is helpful, I think getting the word out is helpful. I think informing people is helpful, I think scaring people is not helpful."

"As Democrats, we are appalled by this kind of mean-spirited expression," Travis County Democratic Party Chair Andy Brown wrote in a statement Thursday. "We need civility in our political discourse. I call on my counterpart at the Travis County Republican Party to condemn this hateful act."

The Travis County Republican Party has not offered an official statement. Johnson has not been tied to active roles in any local political organization.

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