Sign stealing a sign of the timesNov 02, 2020 02:20PM ● By Zak Sonntag
Yard signs, both political and rights based, or in the case of this photo, a declaration, have been stolen in Holladay neighborhoods. (Kari Sullivan/Unsplash)
By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]
Tensions are ratcheting up across the country as the nation bears down on a pivotal presidential election, which has (little surprise) unearthed to polarized status of American public opinion. Most of the crossfire gets channeled through social media, in snarky Facebook posts and anonymous derogatory jabs in the comment section beneath YouTube videos. But the battle for ideological influence has moved beyond the exchange of words in the City of Holladay where the theft of political signs is disconcertingly commonplace.
“This is theft and destruction of private property. It’s an attempt to suppress speech and the vote. It’s confusing because that’s exactly what both parties say they want to protect,” said Paul Draper, third-generation Holladay resident who had his “Vote Democrat” sign run over by motor vehicles—twice—only to be later stolen. “I don’t think anyone of any party should condone theft of any kind.”
The problem has been building slowly since spring, when complaints about flag and sign stealing started to trickle through social media sites, including Next Door. The phenomenon now appears commonplace, and it continues to provoke a gamut of emotions in residents who are left feeling confused, scared, saddened and angry.
“It’s unbelievable what the political climate is like right now. My wife and I were mostly angry, because we’re big supporters of LGBTQ issues and our pride flag was stolen right off our house. They had to tear it down and they actually ripped down one of our wood panels in the process,” said Bill DeBirk, a commercial and residential inspector who has lived in Holladay for the past five years. “So we decided we needed to install a Ring security camera.”
Sign bandits have left no political-leaning untouched. Endorsements for both liberal and conservative issues have been tampered with or taken, and there is concern it may chill political speech as some residents have expressed on social media a new fearfulness of placing signs on their property. The issue has also sparked distrust, “disgust” and accusations, with posts on Next Door inveighing against the “scummy” behavior and “cowards” perpetrating it.
Still, most victims of theft have not stood down and have even become emboldened.
“After our pride flag was stolen, we put a “Co-exist” sign back up within a day, and another Pride flag out on lawn by the street,” DeBirk said. “We have two teenage daughters, and we wanted to show them that we don’t need to be scared, and if someone tries to intimidate us then we hit back with a positive message and a positive force.”
Draper, who studied political rhetoric, believes “they’re not getting what they want by stealing the signs.” Draper now works as an internationally recognized magician, so he’s never had difficultly making things reappear. “I put signs right back up. All this has made me do is spend more money on the Biden campaign to get more signs, so clearly they haven’t achieved what they want,” Draper said.
Anecdotal accounts suggest this year has seen a greater abundance of yard signs as political topics have become more mainstream in an age of technological connection. One of the most displayed signs this year has been “Black Lives Matter.”
Last June, following the upheaval over the death of George Floyd, an African American killed by police in Minneapolis, a Holladay resident named Alex Pedersen decided to print Black Lives Matter signs to distribute at cost.
“They were so popular I quickly ran out, and so I did an additional printing and those went fast too,” Pedersen told the Holladay Journal last June. “I think the signs were popular because this issue cuts across the political spectrum.”
Although, it didn’t unify the entire spectrum, as one man arrived to purchase a sign and admitted, “This is going to piss my neighbor off really well.”
It appears that the man’s neighbor was not the only one to disapprove, because Pedersen has since received calls for sign replacements. Pedersen spoke with the Journal again in October.
“It’s an identity politics thing and it’s getting worse. I’m frustrated, but at the same time it’s understandable considering the political climate we live in,” said Pedersen, who first became involved with political issues in Utah County, where he started a chapter of Food Not Bombs, a volunteer movement that helps recover discarded food to be distributed to the hungry.
Despite how widespread the issue appears, the Holladay police have received only a “handful” of complaints.
“We just aren’t getting many reports on this. Maybe people think, ‘Oh, it’s just a yard sign.’ Maybe there’s more sentimental value than cost value so they decide not to report it. But if we don’t get the calls, how are we supposed to investigate it? And if it’s an ongoing issue we want to investigate it,” said Chief Justin Hoyal of the Holladay precinct.
Draper said, “I called the police, but I think it’s a cat-up-a-tree call. They did everything they were supposed to do. They listened to the full story. They took footage from my security camera. But in the end I think it’ll be just another data point.”
One curious trend in social media discussions is the call for vigilante-style recourse, whereby community members suggest dealing with the thieves by booby-trapping signs using, for instance, glitter, which would stick to thieves and betray them, like the “dye-pack” in bank vaults. Some commentors took the vigilante recommendations further.
“I was surprised how nasty people were on Next Door. They were saying you should put razor blades on signs. Use electricity. But I’m not going to hurt another human being to protect a sign. That’s silly.”
“The big thing that we would always encourage is that if people are having an issue, they call us and let us deal with us—we don’t want to see anybody to get hurt,” said Chief Hoyal. “We want them to call us when this happens, otherwise we can’t help.”
The state of political discourse
During election years, we’re left with the impression that civil discourse and respectful politics has become an endangered phenomenon. In some neighborhoods, sign targeting, which has become endemic in certain neighborhoods, only seems to deepen the sense that our politics are getting uglier. Still, in many regards, this year seems to have brought our communities closer together. Our local leaders believe so.
In his October Mayoral address, Robert Dahle expressed frustration over the state of political discourse, but also felt encouraged by what he saw in the streets.
“I expect the negative tenor and frequency of political advertising to increase exponentially through Nov. 3. Each year the vitriol seems to ramp up,” the Mayor wrote. Yet he believes the national tenor “seems completely in contrast to what I witness out in the community every day.”
“I’m no psychologist, I do not understand how we can be so persuaded by hate and fear, yet act out of compassion and care for those most in need…[but I believe] it’s how we continue to serve one another that reveals our true character,” the Mayor explained, and cited the widespread community service he’s witnessed around tree cleanup and the general hardship of 2020.
Alex Pedersen, volunteer community member, also said he’s seen it both ways.
“It’s upsetting to see the polarization in a lot of these social media threads. But the truth is I’ve also seen so many people striving to find things in common. Everyone agreed we should respect property and speech. That was encouraging, and it’s important to find common ground in your community. After all, we all share the same space. So let’s start with what we agree on,” Pedersen said.
With the presidential election nearly behind us, there is hope—though no guarantee—that the tone and intensity of political speech will pare down, even if yard signs become a permanent feature of landscape design.
Draper, the professional magician and third-generation resident, has a new sign that declares: “Make America Kind Again.”
Now wouldn’t that be magical.