Death threats, charges of racism and the disapproval of his neighbors couldn’t get Bill Skuby to remove a photo altered to depict President Obama as a witch doctor from the window display of his high end mens clothing store in Spring Lake.
Skuby removed the photo, “for now” he says, that has generated strong reactions, both pro and con, from his window display yesterday. He said respect for the office of President of the United States and the bullying that his bi-racial granddaughter has experienced since the controversy has emerged moved him to remove the photo that has generated nationwide attention. He said he will decide whether to put the controversial photo back into the display on Monday.
Skuby has been using one of his windows for edgy advertising for years. His Halloween display mocked President Obama last year too. This year he added the witch doctor photo over the words Obama Care with the C in Care being a Soviet hammer and sickle and a black hat with F.Y.B.O. embroidered in white on the front and S.L.N.J. Tea Party embroidered on the back. The hats are for sale for $25 and Skuby says the proceeds are going to charity.
This year Skuby’s display is making an impact beyond the borders of the tony town on the Irish Rivera.
Spring Lake resident Barbara Parnell walked past the display on Monday and found it to be “overtly racist.” Parnell called the clothing manufacturers who supply Skuby’s store to complain. She told them that the press had been alerted. “I plead the 5th amendment,” Purnell said when asked directly if she alerted the press. Later during a phone interview she said that one of the people quoted in the Asbury Park Press’s initial article about the display, not her, alerted the media to the display that she said “does not represent the Spring Lake business community.”
While Skuby seemed to be enjoying and cashing in on the publicity on Tuesday and during radio interviews on Wednesday morning, when MMM visited his store on Wednesday afternoon the ugly phone calls and emails from all over the country as well as the negative reaction of his fellow business owners on Third Ave were taking a toll on him and his wife Gail.
“90% percent of the reaction has been positive and supportive, but the 10% has been over the top,” said Skuby, “I’ve gotten six death threats and someone threatened to destroy the store if the display is not removed. I’m resigning from the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Improvement District, putting my house on the market and moving my business out of town when my lease expires at the end of the year.”
During a phone interview on Thursday, Skuby said that about half of the negative responses he received were not about race, but about respect for the office of the presidency. “That’s what got me to take it down. I’m not sure I will keep it out of the window, but I see their point.”
There is no question that Skuby has generated a strong emotional response from many people, both supportive and damning.
When MMM arrived at the store on Wednesday afternoon, there was a car from Massachusetts with Scott Brown and Romney Ryan bumper stickers parked in front. A man from Cape Cod had driven to New Jersey to support Skuby by shopping in his store where raincoats sell for $800, sports shirts for $175 and socks go for $28 per pair. Another man, from Yardley Pennsylvania, had driven to Spring Lake to join his local friend in shopping at the store.
Skuby said that his business was up exponentially this week, but that many of his local customers were disapproving and said they would stop shopping at the store. One customer who made a purchase since the display went up last week returned the merchandise at his wife’s insistence. Of the many locals who have said they would no longer patronize the store, Skuby said he would probably only really miss one of them.
Aaron Christopher, a Spring Lake resident and Vietnam veteran came into the store to shake Skuby’s hand and express his support. The two men commiserated over the fact that Romney-Ryan lawn signs were not available from the Monmouth GOP….both said they called looking for them…but had to be ordered and paid for online at Romney’s website. Christopher and Skuby were not happy that Romney is not competing in New Jersey.
Outside of the store the reaction was not favorable. A small group of local women were gathered in front of the display, shaking their heads in disapproval as they struggled to see the display through the afternoon glare on the window. All but one of the women scattered when Skuby walked out to greet them.
“I am very disappointed in you,” the woman who stayed said to Skuby. She declined to give MMM her name but said she was a Spring Lake resident, a PhD, and an Independent voter who had not yet decided who to vote for in the presidential election. “Its not as bad as I thought it was going to be,” said the PhD, “but that picture is over the top and could incite violence. I know there are people who want to harm the president and something like this could incite them to try. This does not belong here in our community.”
Skuby countered that the only violence threatened has been against him and his business. He said the negative reaction to his display was “reverse racism.”
MMM returned to Skuby’s store on Wednesday evening to get photographs of the display that could not be gotten through the afternoon window glare earlier. In the 10 minutes we were there three cars stopped to look at the display and one pedestrian stopped to take photographs. We spoke to two of the drivers. “I really like it and support what he is doing,” said one driver, “it is his 1st amendment right.” The other driver said, “this could create violence from Blacks.”
“Don’t call me a racist,” Skuby said as we were wrapping up our conversation on Wednesday. We won’t. He is a enigma. He told the Asbury Park Press that the display was “personal, not political.” Yet there are clearly political displays elsewhere in his store. His previous window display, a promotional poster for the movie 2016, is now prominently placed in the fitting area of the store.
Skuby says the fact that he has a bi-racial granddaughter is proof that he is not a racist. His wife, Gail, was a teacher in Louisiana in the 60’s in a school where she was the only White person, faculty or student. She taught many Black children as a teacher in Neptune, NJ for 16 years.
Yet, Skuby twice mentioned that Parnell, the woman who complained to his manufacturers and says she did not alert the media about the window display, is married to an African-American man. “Her choice,” he said.
“This is not a Black-White issue,” said a prominent African-American Republican woman that MMM asked to comment. She asked that her name not be published due to her position with the State. “It’s a matter of respect for the office. When someone threw a shoe at President George W. Bush in Iraq, Republicans and Democrats laughed. That shows disrespect for the office. That matters, not so much here in America, but in Pakistan. It shows the world we don’t respect our leaders.”
“How about we criticise our leaders policies and actions, not their appearance or skin color,” she said, “that guy (Skuby) is an ass just like the prominent Tea Party member I saw posting on facebook that Michelle Obama looks like a baboon. What does that say about me? What does that say about other women with wide noses and wide hips?”
“I don’t think those people are really racist but they don’t consider the impact that their expressions have on other people. What about the Black guy who is thinking of voting for Romney but gets turned off to Republicans because of antics like this. What about the Independent voter who is unhappy about the economy but gets turned off by this nonsense. Republicans are our own worst enemies because we offend people who we should be reaching out to.”