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POSTED: November 15, 2007 5:00 a.m.
Some people in upscale Madison, N.J., were screaming so loudly they couldn’t hear their neighbors. Worse, they couldn’t even hear themselves.
The fight was over a Halloween display Cheryl and David Maines put up outside their home that included a hanging figure wearing jeans, with its torso clad in a black shirt crisscrossed by ropes that looked like a slave’s chains of bondage and a black (though featureless) face.
To neighbor Millie Hazlewood, it looked like a depiction of a lynching. She asked the Maineses to take the effigy down, but they refused. She asked the police to force them to take it down, and they refused too.
After Mayor Ellwood Kerkeslager asked them, the Maineses brought the effigy inside. They also took down all the other Halloween decorations and put up a sign (misspelling their neighbor’s name and one other word) that read, “Thanks to the assitance of Mille Hazelwood & friends ... Halloween & Christmas will no longer be celebrated here!!”
Like Stephen Stills sang 40 years ago, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
Did the neighbor have cause to feel distress? Sure. Despite the Maineses’ insistence that it was just a Halloween decoration, one does not need to be black and have ancestors who were lynched to look at the figure and think of a black man hanging from a tree. Deliberate or not, that’s what the figure evokes; denying it’s legitimate to see it that way, as some defenders of the Maineses have done, is disingenuous.
Still, Millie Hazlewood overreacted by calling the cops. What the Maineses did has been likened to the hanging of a noose on the office door of a black professor at Columbia University, an incident that has New York lawmakers talking about stiffer penalties for using a noose to harass somebody. But the two cases have important differences.
At Columbia, an individual was singled out for harassment, and the offending symbol was placed on property that does not belong to the racist hooligan who left it there. In Madison, no person in particular was singled out, and the Maineses hung the noose from the chimney of their own house.
So even if the effigy was meant as some sort of sick statement (which the Maineses deny), it would have been a sick political statement, and therefore protected by the First Amendment. The local cops and county prosecutor did the right thing refusing to order the Maineses to remove it.
It became a contest about virtuous victimhood. Who can boast of the more righteous grievance, poor and oppressed “minorities” like Hazlewood, offended by yet another display of white racist supremacy but not too offended by the spectacle of American policemen telling an American citizen his political views are illegal? Or poor and oppressed whites like the Maineses, helplessly forced by political correctness to EVEN CANCEL CHRISTMAS!?
In the end, things turned out OK. The dummy at the center of the controversy got taken down — not because police trampled the Maineses’ right of free speech, but because the Maineses couldn’t take it when others used theirs.

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
 

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