“White Power!” a man yelled from a truck at Harper Beeland ’20 and myself as he drove past us at the Mount Vernon Public Square on Saturday, Aug. 26. We were holding up signs that read “Climate Change Matters” and “Mr. Gibbs support renewable energy” as part of Signs on the Square, a weekly protest organized by the local political group Gibbs Watch. The protest is geared towards addressing issues involving health care, immigration, and environmental issues, among other political themes in the Trump administration, in order to build a more visible presence in the community.
Residents of Knox County founded Gibbs Watch, a left-leaning group that seeks to influence Bob Gibbs, the U.S. representative for Ohio’s 7th district, following President Donald Trump’s election. The group organized the first “Signs on the Square” event last January. Each Saturday since then, local residents, Kenyon faculty and college students have gathered to hold up signs and raise awareness for political issues that they feel have not gotten enough attention.
“After the election, a lot of people were concerned about health care,” said Robert A. Oden, Jr. Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski, a founder of Gibbs Watch and Signs on the Square. “So a group of … extraordinary people in this community decided to get up and do something.”
Slonczewski has been interested in politics since fourth grade, when her teacher had a class debate about whether girls were as smart as boys. “That’s when I learned that all of life is political,” she said. Around 1980, Slonczewski was involved in a nuclear freeze campaign that brought a million marchers to Manhattan. The campaign sought to counter the nuclear arms race and ultimately helped to change U.S. policy. Since that experience, Slonczewski has held a strong conviction that ordinary citizens have the ability to shape politics.
Gibbs Watch started as a Facebook group focused on making phone calls to Bob Gibbs. Members initially focused on issues regarding health care, which came into question following Trump’s election and promise to cut down on existing policies. After the group visited Gibbs at his office in Ashland, they felt he was not involved enough in community outreach and did not listen to their demands. The nine visitors then founded Signs on the Square.
Gibbs Watch has been meeting on the square nearly every Saturday at 12:30 since. “These are people who feel like they’ve been shut out by the election and that their opinions weren’t being heard, but I feel like our opinions have been heard … because Obamacare is still here,” Slonczewski said. Gibbs voted in favor of a bill to begin the repeal of Obamacare last May.
One aspect I noticed about Signs on the Square when I returned the next Saturday, was the range of people it united. Clusters of three to ten people lined the square. One group that caught my eye was made up of four women.
Carol Stebbins, wife of Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Ted Mason, said that she was “shell-shocked” by the Trump administration and began coming to Signs on the Square in order to take action. Crystal Tuel and Joyce Skocic are both retired school teachers from Mount Vernon who hope to draw attention to the problems they see within the Trump administration. Tuel had never participated in a protest before coming to Signs on the Square last spring but felt she had to act after the election.
“To have Mount Vernon townspeople here adds a different flavor,” Tuel said. Skocic added that because she and Tuel are familiar faces, passersby start to pay more attention when they see them out on the square, “wondering what it’s all about,” she said.
The women mentioned that it was not uncommon to encounter hecklers during the protests but that they had learned not to pay them much attention. I noticed the first Saturday I attended that for every heckler there were also one or two drivers who gave a thumbs-up or other gesture of solidarity as they passed by.
The protest also encompassed a wide age range. Both Director of National Fellowships and Awards Thomas Hawks and Leeman Kessler ’04 brought their respective daughters. Hawks’ daughter Sabina is 11 and Kessler’s is only 3. Hawks explained that his family had not been to the protest in a while and hoped to get more involved this year. Kessler said he came almost every Saturday, and his daughter was by his side both of the days I attended.
The protest ended as it does each week with a group sing-a-long of “This Land is Your Land” on the curb at one side of the square. The theme for the Sept. 2 protest was targeted against Trump’s opposition toward labor unions. This Saturday they will focus on climate and the environment, specifically the Rover Pipeline that runs through Ohio and contributes to pollution in the Lake Erie Watershed and wetlands.
In addition to Signs on the Square, Gibbs Watch maintains an active Facebook group, which enables its 566 members to post resources and concerns about local and national politics.
Slonczewski hopes to increase the involvement of young people with the group as the protests continue. “I would like more students to come out, especially next week,” Slonczewski said. “It’s your future, the climate. We want your help out here.”
Editors’ note: This reporter is involved in Gibbs Watch and Signs on the Square.