As the November election gets closer, it’s not uncommon to see lawn signs announcing support for preferred political candidates across the state, but when a longtime Livonia resident was taking a drive through his neighborhood earlier this month, he was shocked at what he saw on a neighbor’s lawn. In addition to a sign supporting President Trump’s reelection, a house on Levan Road displayed hand-made signs with messages like: “Fags R Sicko” and “Fags R Evil See Gen. 18.20 Sodom & Gomorrah! If I catch you, I will kill you!”
It wasn’t long after that that Jeff, the concerned resident who chose not to disclose his last name, shared pictures of the signs on social media and called the police to complain. He said that the response from Livonia Police bothered him almost as much as the signs themselves.
“Obviously, I have the most issue with the signs — but the other issue that I had was when I called the police to report the signs there was no empathy at all from the officer. He didn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry that there’s nothing that can be done.’ He just said, ‘No, it’s on his lawn, it’s freedom of speech.’ Even to say that if he catches someone, he’ll kill them? He’s like, ‘Yeah, if it said a specific person then they could stop it, but because it’s a general statement there’s nothing we can do,'” Jeff said. “… My parents have lived in Livonia for 30-some years, and I’ve lived on-and-off, and it’s kind of hurtful.”
Livonia Mayor Maureen Miller Brosnan learned of Jeff’s complaints and the signs just last week. She called their messaging “ugly” and “hurtful.”
“Just in general, deconstructing prejudice is incredibly difficult work, and signs like those that were displayed at this home in our city don’t help us with that work at all,” Brosnan said. “The derogatory language, the outright slurs presented on those yard signs, they are an affront to our values, to our public decency. I know that the ugly, hurtful sentiments that were displayed, they don’t represent the Livonia that I serve.”
Brosnan confirmed that the resident who posted the signs is former Livonia mayoral candidate Leo Weber who earned 2 percent of the vote in 2015. Brosnan said that while the First Amendment protects Weber’s right to display the language on the signs, city officials have both called and sent letters notifying him that he is in violation of a city ordinance.
“We’re trying really hard to abide and to uphold the First Amendment, so we can’t enforce any kind of ordinance relevant to what the signs say, but the fact that we do have an ordinance that prohibits you from having an excess number of signs,” Brosnan said. “So, he was found to be in violation of the number of signs and I believe there are some that are hanging in a tree, and they violate our height ordinance.”
Brosnan even tried visiting Weber’s home herself to “engage in a dialogue,” but Weber did not answer his door. When asked about steps that Livonia is taking to create a more equitable environment in the city, Brosnan used the recently reinstated Livonia Human Relations Commission as an example, which aims to recommend policy regarding matters of diversity, inclusion and equity. Brosnan urged engaged community members to participate.
“The Human Relations Commission is definitely an opportunity for people to contribute, and the Commission reports directly to me,” she said. “City Council meetings are another opportunity. The online survey [created by the Commission to assess equality in the community] is a third opportunity for people to participate as well. And there’s always just office phone calls, emails and that type of thing. They’re always accepted and appreciated, really.”
She also recognized that while the city has taken positive steps, incidents like these are a reminder that there is a lot of work yet to be done.
“It’s going to require a lot of courage, a lot of patience, a lot of humility. And Livonia, while we remain really committed to the First Amendment, we do remain steadfast in our beliefs that there is no place in our city,” Brosnan said. “Again, it is not what we represent in Livonia. It’s not who we are.”
Jay Kaplan is the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan LGBT Project Staff Attorney. He said that the ACLU has plans to send a letter to city government next week, urging the Livonia Police Department to make a statement denouncing the language, too.
“Though they can’t make this gentleman necessarily remove the signs based on their message, they could also make it clear that any violence toward an LGBT person would be dealt with by law enforcement,” Kaplan said. “And just to make it clear that violence motivated by hate is not to be tolerated in the City of Livonia as well.”
The next step, Kaplan said, would be for the city to pass a specific nondiscrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
“That way they would be demonstrating their commitment to being a welcoming community that supports diversity,” he said.