Every day on his way to work, Shawn Gilman walks down River Street and is disgusted with what he sees.
Hanging on the side of a building is a political sign which he believes insults his heritage.
The sign reads: “Re-Elect Scott Brown. Lt. Col. US Army. Not an Indian.”
“I believe the sign is highly offensive,” said Gilman, who is half Cherokee. “I’m proud of my culture. I don’t want to have to see it (the sign).”
John Caruso, who owns the multi-family building at 173 River St. where the sign hangs, paid for the sign to be printed and placed it on the outside of the structure. He said the sign will stay right where it is.
“I don’t believe the sign is offensive,” Caruso said. “There is nothing there that is derogatory to anyone other than Elizabeth Warren. It just is saying that he’s (Brown) not Native American. I’ve had people knock on my door and say thank you for saying that.”
The sign refers to a hotly contested issue in the U.S. Senate race in which Republican Brown accused his opponent, Democrat Warren, of using her Native American heritage to receive preferential treatment. Brown has been a member of the National Guard since 1978 and was recently promoted to the rank of full colonel in August.
Gilman said he has contacted the city’s Police Department, the mayor’s office and the Brown campaign in an effort to get the sign taken down. Each time he was told the same thing.
“It’s freedom of speech,” Gilman said. “But I believe freedom of speech becomes void when it is hate speech.”
He said he had no plans to speak to Caruso about the sign.
“I don’t believe that meeting would have gone well,” Gilman said.
Caruso said he has received much feedback about the sign, including from three Native American friends who said the sign wasn’t offensive.
“I’ve had many comments about the sign from people who have walked by,” Caruso said. “Eighty to 90 percent of the comments I got were positive.”
He said he does hear criticism about the sign as well.
“I tell them thank you and that they are entitled to their opinion,” he said. “I’m not trying to start a fight. I’m just expressing my view.”
Caruso said he did get negative feedback from the Brown campaign, however. He said a representative contacted him and requested that the sign be taken down, but Caruso decided to keep the sign up.
“I felt the comments were appropriate,” Caruso said. “I’ve noticed that he’s continued to run advertisements with the same message.”
Dan Speers of Haverhill, who is also of Cherokee heritage, believes that comparing Native Americans to military members is peculiar.
“That combination of saying he’s not an Indian and a Lt. Col is truly offensive,” Speers said. “Native Americans have served honorably in all wars in the last 100 years. They’ve won many medals, including three congressional medals of honor. American Indians have contributed to the defense and freedom of this country. It’s particularly offensive because he’s denigrating Native Americans and the military. (Caruso) has the freedom to say what he’s saying, but American Indians helped give him that freedom.”
Mayor James Fiorentini said his office received several phone calls about the sign and he agreed with Gilman that the sign is offensive. He also said it is not the government’s responsibility to control the content of political signs.
“This is America,” Fiorentini said. “It’s not government’s job to regulate signs. People have a right to put up things even if they are offensive and obnoxious.”
Fiorentini said he had not seen the sign. He mentioned that the only control he has over signs is an ordinance that limits their size.
Gilman said he understands Fiorentini does not have control over the sign, but he wishes he got more support from the local government.
“I’m disappointed that the mayor’s office or police didn’t talk to him (Caruso) and say, ‘You don’t have to take it down, but we would like it removed,’” Gilman said.
Caruso has had other signs on his building in the past which have caused controversy. A sign which read “One Nation Under God” was torn down by vandals. Another sign which read “Why do we have to dial 1 to speak English in the USA?” has also been on the building. That sign will go back up after the election, he said.
“People come and toot their horns at my signs all the time,” Caruso said. “I do it intentionally to promote my opinion, which happens to be a silent majority.”