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Forum: free speech or upsetting?

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:46 AM

The planned community conversation, arranged by the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and the Grand Haven school district, began in earnest almost two hours after the start of the forum.

The main question addressed at the forum was how the issue impacts our community, said the alliance’s Andre Daley.

Ken and Judy David hung two lawn chairs in the trees of the frontyard of their home, 15896 Comstock St. in Grand Haven Township, on Sept. 24. They also have some political signs in the yard, including one that reads “Take back our country in November.”

Chair hanging displays have popped up around the country since Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair — that he said represented President Barack Obama — during the Republican National Convention in August.

David, who says he is on the board of the Ottawa County Republican Party, claims he is expressing his freedom of speech rights and denies that there is anything racist about the display.

On Thursday afternoon, David walked back and forth near the intersection of Washington Avenue and Beacon Boulevard in Grand Haven, holding a sign that read, “Liberty is not negotiable.”

He said the chairs are still hanging in his yard and he has added some new banners.

David did not attend Thursday’s forum. He said he had not been formally invited and he had already planned to attend a forum in Fremont that evening.

Gail Harrison, executive director of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance, said her organization became involved in the chair controversy after they received a call from Peach Plains Principal Kate Drake. Drake said she had fielded many questions from parents and school staff wondering what to say to the children when they asked about the chair display.

Drake was one of about 17 people who addressed Thursday’s forum before the comment time was shut down and a dozen people stayed to participate in the conversation.

While some people said they agreed with David’s right to create the display, others said they were offended by it. One mother said it scared her children.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding about an empty chair,” said Brett Tompkins. “Before this Clint Eastwood thing, nobody would have thought this was racial.”

Many people commenting on the story on the Tribune’s website have said the chair represents President Obama and hanging the chair represents lynching him.

David denied that it was an attack on Obama, who is African-American, or anyone else.

“It’s a decoration,” he said.

“We teach our children for years to have positive communications about different issues,” Grand Haven school board member Joanne Query said. “Here’s a couple who could teach a wonderful lesson. Instead, it’s upsetting.”

See more of this story in the print and e-edition of today's Tribune.

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