The first time someone defaced the "Black Lives Matter" sign that Sue Dersch put up in front of her house in Columbia, Illinois, last week, it was kind of cute. Not cute like a baby rabbit or a kitten maybe, but at least cutesy
— the unknown vandals covered "Black" with the word "All" over and over again and hearts and stars in bright colors. It looked like the work of a slightly nutty kindergarten teacher.
But Dersch had thought maybe something like this would happen — Columbia is just across the river from south St. Louis County, and just as white. When she'd bought her "Black Lives Matter" sign at Left Bank Books, she bought four, just in case. "I figured I might need to replace them," she says. "Everybody's run into something — there are a lot of people taking these signs." Confronted instead with vandalism, she shrugged and put up another sign.
But the vandals struck again. This time they cut out the word "black" so the sign read simply "Lives Matter."
Dersch put up a third sign.
And again, the vandals visited. On this occasion, they inked out the "v" in "Lives" so the sign read, instead, "Black Lies
That's when Dersch took more aggressive action. She wrote a letter to the responsible parties, hanging it on the baby gate on her front porch so that anyone who wanted to read it would have to get super-close.
"Dear neighbor," her letter read. "Rather than vandalize our sign, we invite you to have a conversation with us about what Black Lives Matter means to us and why we feel it is important to display this message publicly. You can choose to vandalize our sign or you can choose to be neighborly and knock on our door and talk. We are all in this together and it is through conversation that we can be hopefully more connected." Dersch added a little note at the bottom, after some asterisks: "Please note that if you choose vandalism instead of conversation we will have to consider turning in our surveillance tape of this crime to the police."
They chose vandalism. The letter itself was spray-painted black. And so on Sunday Dersch called the police.
She was impressed with the officer who came to take a report. "They took it surprisingly seriously," she says. "He made it clear he might not put a sign in his yard, but it was 100 percent clear that it's our message, it's our yard, and we should be able to put a sign there and not have it vandalized." In fact, police followed up later that day and asked if they could install a surveillance camera on the porch. Dersch said yes.
There was no more vandalism of the sign as Sunday turned to Monday. But on Monday morning, in the side yard where the Dersches' home faces an alley-like side street, Dersch and her husband discovered that someone had deposited not only trash, but a dead possum.
They'd found the occasional piece of rubbish there before, but nothing like this — "no dead animals." They called the police to make another report. "We didn't feel threatened at first," she says. "But that dead animal is troubling."
A nurse at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Dersch has a very personal reason for caring about the Black Lives movement — her two adopted sons are black, and her sister also has three African-American children who are adopted. Beyond that, she believes that no one should find its message threatening.
"I don't harbor a lot of anger and ill will towards the person doing this," she says. "White people are told and programmed that not only are we the gold standard, but that our stature is precarious — that something could happen where we lose the status that we have." But, she says, it's not a zero sum game: "It's a win-win. Everyone can matter. And no one loses in that."
She has no intention of letting the vandalism — or even a dead possum — get to her.
"Whatever this person's impetus is for doing it, it doesn't change that I believe in this message and I will continue to put forth this message." Never mind that she's now on her last of four signs. "I just have to go to Left Bank and buy some more!"
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