MOUNT VERNON — The message on Sandi Dunphy’s sign is clear: Wear a mask to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and don’t vote for Donald Trump.
Fifty yards from her, but really an entire universe away, Jeff Cline had a different take: The virus is a hoax, Bill Gates is one of Satan’s imps, and non-white races or non-Christian religions aren’t to be trusted.
“Islam, the Muslims, they’re pedophiles,” Cline said in an interview. “They’re perverts. Did you know they have sex with boys underneath the age of puberty? Look all that up.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate groups often falsely accusing the religion of sanctioning pedophilia.
Dunphy arrived Saturday, as she does every Saturday, for “Signs on the Square.” The weekly tradition consists of 20 to 30 liberals, mostly past middle aged, holding issue-based signs centered on a weekly theme like women’s reproductive health, student loan policy, or the federal government’s COVID-19 response.
They avoid explicit candidate endorsements but acknowledge it’s clear who they’re voting for president. The Signs on the Square tradition began shortly after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Cline said after the first few Saturday events in 2017, he and some friends began coming out to “bring some truth” back to the public square at the center of Mount Vernon, population 16,700. He wanted to make clear that homosexuality is a sin, abortion is murder and evolution is a “false religion.”
In interviews, the Signs on the Square crowd expressed disgust with Cline.
“We try to ignore him,” Dunphy said.
Trump won the historically Republican Knox County with about 66% of the vote in 2016, and Dunphy and company say he’ll likely win big there again.
But Kim Boner, a regular Saturday sign waver, said she thinks they’ve raised awareness that you can be a Democrat in Knox County, and you won’t get shouted down.
“I think being visual with your beliefs helps, especially in a place like this,” she said. “So many people, like I used to feel, think you’re the only one in the whole county, because no one else talks about it because you’re afraid to get shouted down or physically harmed.”
The relationship between Cline and the Signs on the Square bunch has been “testy” at times, according to local Police Chief Robert Morgan. He said there have been a few minor incidents between Cline and company and the sign group from time to time, though no one has been charged.
While the sign group has a permit, Cline does not. Morgan said Cline sought a permit at the same time as the other group, which was denied. Cline wasn’t interested in a permit later in the day, so he simply comes out anyways.
Recently, a more explicitly partisan group has come out to stand across the street from the square and are keener to confront Cline’s rhetoric. Franklin Brown, one of the Signs on the Square founders, called them “Johnny Come Latelies.”
On Saturday, no guns were apparent. But in Mount Vernon, and much of Ohio during a year of pandemic-induced turbulence, that’s not always the case.
Town Mayor Matthew Starr, a Republican, said he knows some people choose to bring and openly carry their guns to the protest. He called the practice “unnecessary” and said it concerns him, but he said it’s legal so there’s not much he can do.
“I think they are incendiary,” he said.
“The one thing that impresses me about the signs on the square people is the way they maintain their poise through the whole thing,” he said.
Saturday went like any other. Cline arrived with Alan Hoyle, who said he’s from North Carolina. He drove up to the square in a beaten-up truck covered in signs warning that “Vaccines Gives You the Virus” and “Bill Gates Population Control Truth.” A comparatively modest Trump-Pence sign hangs on the back.
Hoyle insisted that Joe Biden has dementia and has a “bug in his ear telling him what to say and what to do.” Of course, this isn’t true, but if you challenge him, Hoyle insists “it’s been proven” and instructs you to look it up.
Brown doesn’t put much stock into the guys who like to “get up on a truck and proselytize people.”
Hoyle and Brown are alike in that they both insist they’re telling the truth. For Hoyle, that truth is steeped in racist conspiracy theories — on Saturday he repeated the debunked claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.
For Brown, the truth is that Trump bungled the U.S. response to COVID-19 and it cost some Americans their lives.
What to make of a political arena with no shared set of facts to underpin it?
“We definitely are under the impression that what we’re saying is grounded in the truth,” Brown said. “I don’t see any way that they could, deep down in their heart, believe that what they’re saying is grounded in the truth in any way. I have to believe that they know they’re lying.”