On the south side of a typically leafy, well-lived-in street in Flagstaff’s lovely Cheshire neighborhood sits a house whose inhabitants make their political positions clear right there in the front yard.
“Black Lives Matter,” one sign reads.
“Trump Lies Matter,” reads another.
“Coexist,” declares a bumper sticker on a green Honda in the driveway.
Directly across the street, on the north side, a resident has staked out his polar opposite political positions with a series of signs and flags (the Gasden “Don’t Tread On Me;” the Betsy Ross 13 stars in a circle) and slogans.
“Trump: Keep America Great 2020,” one sign reads.
“No Socialism,” reads another.
“We Support Law Enforcement Officers,” declares yet another nailed to a fence post.
In this divisive, polarizing presidential campaign, in which the country seems riven by animus and rancor on both sides of the political spectrum, the dueling yard signs on a quiet street in the shadows of the San Francisco Peaks could be viewed as an unfortunate microcosm of the current state of incivility sweeping across the land.
But there’s a refreshing twist in the narrative, one that shatters the assumption of superficial sloganeering and political posturing and actually gives some hope that, despite differences, people can get along.
At both houses, affixed to each mailbox facing the street, is another sign:
“Please don’t vandalize my neighbor’s signs, flags, or yard.”
These neighbors, though wildly divergent in ideology, have banded together to protect each other’s property from acts of theft and vandalism that have befallen both in recent weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election.
Dee and Joe Wegwert, who live on the south side of the street and identify as liberal, have had two flags attached to their garage stolen — a rainbow flag and a Black Lives Matter flag — have awakened some mornings to trash and dog feces bags strewn across their yard and have had a BLM sign pilfered.
Their north-side neighbor Nick, who identifies as conservative and declined to give his last name for fear of retribution, has had pro-Trump signs stolen or defaced three times since July. His mailbox also has been tampered with. He has installed three surveillance cameras and has video showing five masked people (“Like the Purge films, not medical masks,” he said) ransacking his yard, one wielding a foot-long machete.
Both families denounce the destruction of their neighbor’s property. Nick has offered to turn his cameras toward the Wegwert’s house to try to catch the scofflaws, an offer the Wegwerts politely declined. And the Wegwerts, in a show of unity, offered Nick the sign asking people not to vandalize the property, which he politely accepted.
They may abhor each other’s politics, but they respect the other’s right to express their views. Free speech is not a one-way street, after all. And while the Wegwerts and Nick are by no means close and do not socialize together, they are friendly and exchange waves and small talk in the way many townsfolk do.
“We have been heartened,” Joe said, “that our neighbor has shown concern for our safety.”
“He and his family are great people,” Nick said, “and I’m glad to have them as neighbors.”
Ordinarily, this would not be news. Neighbors who get along! Film at 11! But these are not ordinary times.
“It’s strange that peaceful disagreement has become so uncommon that it’s newsworthy,” Dee said. “I grew up thinking peaceful disagreement was the standard in our culture. We have gotten to the point where peaceful disagreement is the exception and, quite frankly, I think we should be worried about that.”
On that, if little else, Nick agrees.
“Politically, I’m sure we disagree about most things,” Nick said. “However, neither of us choose our politics as our master status. Identity politics is a poison. Joe and his family are my neighbors first, my fellow Americans first. Their right to free speech is as important to me as my own right.”
Reaction from neighbors on this sleepy street has ranged from bemusement to amusement, with some safety concerns creeping in.
Chuck Roth, who lives about five houses east on the street, said he often walks his dogs past the two residences and has noted the “progression of politics” at play in the front yard but is heartened by the mutual show of support about the vandalism.
“I know it’s a bad pun, but I think they are the poster people for what America should be,” Roth said. “To me, it’s the way it should be. You don’t have to respect them, but you respect their right to an opinion. It shows there are people of good spirit out there.”
Neither the Wegwerts nor Nick want so-called credit for tolerance in reaching across the political chasm. They consider civility simply part of the social contract.
Some people on the block, Dee said with a smile, call them the “Hatfields and McCoys,” the legendary feuding families.
“People assume we don’t get along,” Joe said, shaking his head.
“In fact,” Dee added, “sometimes people stop and assume we are willing to speak disparagingly (about Nick). We don’t go down that road.”
Joe is an associate professor of education in the department of teaching and learning at Northern Arizona University; before that, he spent years as a social studies teacher in middle school and high school in the Midwest. His doctoral thesis examined citizenship. So, civility, or lack thereof, is something to which he’s given considerable thought.
“I don’t believe personal property is sanctified; there are times historically, when there’s been destruction of personal property can be justified,” Joe said. “But in this context — not another context, just this context — it seems not right. We’ve gotten to the point where peaceful disagreement is so uncommon that you’re sitting here in the driveway speaking to us.”
When asked whether the fact that Nick flies both the Gasden and Betsy Ross flags — both linked to the nation’s history of slavery, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center — and sports smaller signs such as “I am Q,” referencing the widely debunked far right QAnon conspiracy, troubles him, Joe paused and then said he’d not noticed the QAnon sign.
Choosing words carefully, Joe reiterated that he and Dee hold polar opposite views than Nick. But …
“Other than the fact that I disagree with them (the signs), there’s nothing there that scares me,” he said. “And, in fact, one of the things that I appreciate about him in the very brief time we’ve talked, is that he’s very concerned with security, but at the same time, he expresses that concern on (our) behalf.”
Joe added, though, that free expression doesn’t give people cart blanche to “express horrible, horrible things” and that “we have obligations to consider the impact of our expression.”
Nick, for his part, feels under siege by those who have defaced or stolen his signs. Showing a bit of humor, he now has hammered his Trump signs to plywood and set the posts in concrete “to secure my constitutional right to free speech.” Underneath the affixed Trump signs, he added a wry note to potential vandals he theorizes may be Antifa members: “When you try to steal this … don’t get an Anti-Hernia.”
Nick has lived in Flagstaff 31 years and said the city has changed, and not for the better.
“Too many people have moved here from out-of-state and brought their big city blue state problems and attitudes with them,” he said. “In fact, I would bet the vandals and thieves of late have lived fewer years than I have (in Flagstaff) and for that matter paid less in total income and property taxes than I have.”
Neighbors other than the Wegwerts have not been supportive to his freedom of expression, Nick said.
“One neighbor down the street who always rides his bike gives me or my property the finger religiously every day,” he said. “I think hate has become the left’s religion, somehow justifying in their minds that violence and destruction are now OK if done against Trump supporters.”
The Wegwerts, too, said they felt their free speech rights were violated when vandals stole their BLM and rainbow flags. At the time, the couple’s son and girlfriend, who is African-American, were living with them. Joe and Dee asked the young woman if she comfortable with them putting up a BLM sign, and they said she was. After it got stolen, “that felt pretty personal,” Dee said.
Joe does not regret putting up the signs and stands behind the decision.
“I pressed for this because — well, this was before John Lewis died — but it was a way to make 'Good Trouble.’”
Nick remains troubled by the wider reaction to his signs, though heartened by Joe and Dee’s support.
“… There’s a lot better things to talk about with our neighbors and community members than politics,” he said. “We live in the greatest country on this planet. Let’s celebrate that. Those who hate it are free to leave.”
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