Queer Pride and Anti-Racist Signs Get Stolen and Vandalized, but Lollipop Guild Vows to Continue Efforts


On Friday, a large rainbow pride sign was erected in Chehalis, with the words “LEWIS COUNTY WELCOMES EVERYONE.” Before the weekend was over, it was torn down and destroyed. 

In response, the organization behind the sign — the Lewis County Lollipop Guild — posted a photo on Facebook. In it, founder Kyle Wheeler stands tall where the sign once was, waiving a large pride flag. 

“Y’all may have torn down our sign last night, but we’re here to build people up,” the post reads. “And we’re not going anywhere.”

Wheeler hoped that the sign would counter the decades-old Uncle Sam billboard nearby, which has famously projected messages criticized as racist and or bigoted in the past. He got the idea from a commentary in the Chronicle, in which Julie McDonald wrote, “people who object to the messages on the Hamilton sign are free to purchase property along the freeway to share opposing views.”

That’s exactly what Wheeler did. At first, layers of zoning restrictions threw a wrench in the plan, and after weeks of back-and-forth with the city of Chehalis, Wheeler felt as though he was being stonewalled.

“I’m not necessarily seeking permission, I’m seeking participation,” Wheeler said. “Getting higher-up people to actually show those moments of solidarity are the things that we need right now.”

Failing to see a way forward through the city, Wheeler erected the sign anyway. If zoning restrictions are enforced, Wheeler said there are plenty of other options, whether it be flags or a 600-foot rainbow fence.

Critics have characterized the project as petty. Wheeler described one man calling him a “trophy wife doing an expensive art project.”

But Wheeler doesn’t see it as a tit-for-tat situation with the Hamilton billboard. Instead, he describes it as “visibility as activism.”

“I never really wanted it to be about speaking at the Hamiton billboard as much as I wanted it to be about speaking to the people passing by,” he said. “If they see just a little rainbow flag in the background, maybe that’s enough to let them know, ‘oh, I’m allowed here too.’”

The pride sign would have made a big difference in his own childhood, Wheeler said. When he was 18, living in a small California town, he came out of the closet while the state was divided over Proposition 8, an initiative to ban gay marriage. 

“It was a very tough experience for me to be one of the very few people standing up for something that I believed in in such a small community,” Wheeler said. “I knew how ugly it got back then, and I knew it was something that had the potential to get ugly here.”

And for some members of the Lollipop Guild, the fight for a more inclusive Lewis County has already gotten ugly. The most obvious example is the organization’s “rural Americans against racism,” campaign. Just like Wheeler’s pride sign, members displaying the anti-racism signs have seen them vandalized and stolen time and time again.

Rural Americans Against Racism

The idea for the “rural Americans against racism” campaign came to Wheeler at a Black Lives Matter event this summer. Erica Castro helped organize the Toledo event for her children, who are multiracial growing up in an overwhelmingly white town. 

When it came time to post about the event online, she was nervous, expecting racist backlash. Kyle Wheeler, who she had met over Facebook, gave her the push she needed. 

“He understood that fear, but he was like ‘don’t worry, you’ll have support,’” Castro said.

Wheeler showed up to the event with his friends, where they tied black and white ribbons onto the Cowlitz Bridge in a gesture of solidarity. He remembers it as the day he saw a hand-made “rural Americans against racism” sign for the first time.

“A couple people at the protest were like, ‘that’s a really good boiled down version. It’s four words and it’s easy,’” Wheeler said. 

Now, the Lollipop Guild has produced and delivered over 600 signs throughout the county and nation. Wheeler likes to think about one particular customer, a woman in Kentucky, who now sports one of their “rural Americans against racism” stickers on her tractor. 

“There’s this misconception that all of rural America has a certain opinion about this,” Wheeler said. “The signs are trying to highlight the fact that … there are people out here that see racism as a problem and want it to be worked on.”

Castro’s family now has a sign in their yard, too. They wanted an anti-racism sign long before Wheeler started producing his own. Castro described how welcome her family feels every time they drive down to Portland and see “Black Lives Matter” signs. But in a rural community that is largely white, they were afraid that their home might be targeted.

“It’s the fear of being the first and the only,” Castro said. 

Now, Castro is seeing more and more signs pop up.

“It truly is making our homes feel more welcome, so when we have to drive to the grocery store in Longview or Chehalis and come back, this is a place we want to be in,” she said.

But according to Wheeler, people are still nervous to openly support racial justice in Lewis County. Although more than 500 people interact and lend support to the Lollipop Guild over Facebook, Wheeler said many aren’t willing to publicly show their support.

Stolen Signs and Racist Backlash

Lucy Page, co-owner of Centralia’s Santa Lucia Coffee Roasters, began putting up “Black Lives Matter” signs after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer now being charged with murder. It was her kids who wanted to put the signs up, and they worked with one of the shop’s employees to make them by hand. 

It wasn’t long before the signs started getting stolen. Page said the “Black Lives Matter” signs were stolen five times. Sometimes they were left in a nearby trash can. One time, the sign was covered by a “white lives matter” sign. The incidents were especially hard to explain to her 7-year-old.

“It’s shocking to me,” she said. “I don't understand how people feel justified in damaging or removing my property.” 

Then, people started stealing the “rural Americans against racism” signs. 

Although Page doesn’t agree, she can understand if people associated “Black lives matter” signs with a movement or protests characterized as violent by some people. But “rural Americans against racism” is not directly linked to any movement. 

“That was far more upsetting to (the kids),” Page said. “Because you’re pretty much saying, ‘I’m a racist, and I don’t want anyone advertising that they’re not racist.’ ”

Despite the backlash, the coffee shop has also seen community support. One patron recently tipped $20 so that Page’s kids could buy more supplies to keep making signs. And plenty of people have offered to replace the shop’s stolen signs.

“What I’m telling people is that we can manage our own signs. We can do that,” Page said. “What would be better is if they put up their own signs.”

But she knows that Lewis County residents are still hesitant to openly voice support for anti-racism. People have warned Page that the signs will impact her business, but Page said she doesn’t want customers who don’t support civil and human rights. 

“There has to be a point where we hold the line, even though businesses may be targeted. I can’t say I’m not worried someone’s going to throw a brick through my front window, especially now that it’s plastered with signs my kids made,” Page said. “But I love their signs, and we’re not taking them down.”