Provocative Conservative Display In Goshen Becomes Microcosm For Political Tension
Goshen, Indiana, is a little blue dot in a mostly red, rural county. Its Main Street is a simple two-lane street, but gets a lot of traffic being one of the most direct ways in and out of town.
On one side of the street, a few blocks from where shops end and small houses begin, there's a yard that’s impossible to miss. It’s festooned with colorful hand-painted signs that say “Love Immigrants, Deport Illegals,” “Support ICE” and “BLM: Burn Loot Murder.” Trump and American flags sway in the breeze.
In the middle of it all, Lori Arnold sits on the sidewalk in a camping chair and waves at drivers.
“I’ve been called cheeky before,” Arnold said. “I love that, because I am."
Arnold began demonstrating in June as a sort of antithesis to the Black Lives Matter movement this summer. She’s had water thrown on her, her signs set on fire, and even suspects someone intentionally loosened the hubcaps on her truck. Some drivers honk and wave. Others slow down and yell obscenities and insults at her.
“Racist, homophobic – I mean, all of them,” Arnold said. “I get called that all the time. The racist thing especially. Which, I mean like, I'm not. How do you say I'm not racist? You know, I'm not racist. But that's the perception that you get automatically.
Jeremy Stutsman, mayor of Goshen, says he feels both Arnold's demonstration and the response it has evoked are representative of the larger political divisions in the country. He said the political tension existed long before, but it's been exacerbated with the stress and physical distancing brought on by the global pandemic.
"We are a community that's used to coming together and talking and working things out," he said. "So I think that's why this is – I don’t want to say a shock, but it's an attention getter right now."
In fact, Stutsman and Arnold met over coffee back in July to talk about her protest and complaints the city had been getting. Some were from pedestrians saying they didn't feel safe walking past Arnold's signs, although she makes a point to move her chair out of the way as people pass.
At that meeting, Stutsman says he asked her to move her signs away from the sidewalk and to keep them on the side her house sits on. He says he wants to protect Arnold’s right to demonstrate, but he’s also worried her display encourages politically-motivated violence.
“It’s definitely escalating," Stutsman said. "It went from arguments to harassment to there's a battery charge, and now there's arson. So we have a growing concern.”
For about a week in August, Arnold's block of Main Street was especially hard to ignore. Another Goshen resident, Lupita Romo, stood on the opposite sidewalk countering Arnold’s signs and flags with her own. She wants to be clear – she doesn’t condone any of the violence towards Arnold, but as a DACA-recipient she was angered.
"I was outraged," Romo said. "It almost hurt. It was just anger, like pure anger. I didn't think that people here in Goshen felt that way.”
Romo’s friends joined her. They stood on the other side of the street for days, draped in Mexican and Salvadoran flags. Romo saw it as a way to redirect some of the attention Arnold was getting towards an issue she felt strongly about: the death of 20-year-old soldier Vanessa Guillén at an Army base in Texas and the mishandling of sexual harassment in the military.
It seemed like the two sides of the street were at a political impasse. But then, things changed a little one day.
Lori was struggling to get the pole for an American flag in the ground. Romo crossed to help her out and the two started talking. They kept talking for over an hour and Romo says, to her surprise, the conversation was actually really pleasant. It turns out, they actually agreed on a lot of things like creating pathways to citizenship for immigrants and prioritizing deportation for those who committed crimes. Romo said it wasn't a lot, but it was a start.
"I could see a different side of Lori and not think that she was just crazy and like this racist lady, because I really don't–” Romo said and then paused. “I want to say that she's not racist.”
"It just means that I can agree that we have problems,” Arnold said about conversations she's had with people like Romo who have stopped to talk with her. “So instead of trying to knock me out and kill me over here, come talk. Let’s work on this stuff. Real talk – I think that’s the key.”
Arnold said she was never really interested in politics or protests before. But when she watched a video of George Floyd being killed by police, she felt the need to do something. But she was equally disturbed by cable news footage of destruction from protests across the country. So when local activists took to the streets with signs saying "Black Lives Matter" Arnold felt like it was time to pick a side.
“I would have been out protesting – not rioting, but protesting – police violence, you know ... but it got over it just got taken over by, hijacked or whatever by this Black Lives Matters," she said. "So instead of that, I’m now out protesting for the police.”
Arnold said her signs are intentionally provocative – she wants strong reactions to force people to talk.
"I know that I am being controversial maybe, with the way I word things sometimes," Arnold said. "You may not like it, but it causes you to stop and talk to me about it. I think that’s worth pissing a couple of people off."
But at least with Romo, the budding goodwill didn’t last. Arnold later posted a picture of Romo and her friends on Facebook calling them “goons.”
"That's when I was like, you know what, this isn't gonna work out," Romo said. "I'm just gonna go off of what you're doing in public ... there's nothing to really say or do about that.”
The result of that conversation is unfortunate, said Leah Nahimas. She puts together tough conversations for Indiana Humanities and said Arnold’s in-your-face approach may be getting reactions, but probably isn’t a good starting point for productive dialogue.
“It is to get a reaction from somebody, and a reaction is not the same as a conversation,” Nahimas said. “If you really want to have a conversation, don’t start with trying to provoke an emotional response.”
At the end of September, the city of Goshen's legal department sent Arnold a formal letter. It wrote: "Your display is attracting both good and bad attention. Since June 2, the Goshen Police Department has received 51 calls of service to your address."
Many of the calls were made by Arnold, reporting harassment or intimidation from people who stop. She said she's mad at the Goshen Police Department for not providing some sort of protection, or even a camera, when they know the threat to her safety.
The legal department said removing or at least moving the signs is "reasonable" and a way to "discourage future needs to call the Goshen Police Department." The letter ends by threatening that if the signs aren't moved across the sidewalk, further from the road, the city would take legal action.
"If someone is purposefully putting a target on their back for attention, there needs to be some serious ownership in that," said Goshen Mayor Stutsman. "If you know that changing how you're approaching something, changing the amount of signs or how you're acting to people, if you know that can help reduce [problems] – you know, that would be great."
Arnold, undeterred, said she’s not sure how long she’ll continue, but imagines she’ll keep going until at least the November election.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said one of Arnold's signs said "Love Immigrants, Not Illegals." That was incorrect. It has been changed to "Love Immigrants, Deport Illegals."