Gary Lang, the owner of a McHenry car dealership, insisted Sunday a message that said criminals and new strains of COVID-19 are coming over the border that he displayed on his business’ digital marquee last week was not racist, while also saying he was sorry many community members took it that way.
The marquee message sparked backlash against his auto company on social media, and disappointed local activists who marched in downtown Historic Woodstock Square on Sunday to protest violence by police officers.
Organizers of the rally, which drew about 40 people, called Lang’s message racist ahead of the event.
“Drug dealers, terrorists, sex offenders and new strains of COVID coming over the border but Kamala is flying to Chicago for chocolate cake … brilliant!” the controversial marquee message read, referring to Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Illinois.
It was removed after being shown early last week.
In an interview, Lang said he did not regret the message and displayed it because he felt compelled to speak out against what he feels is a lack of transparency from federal officials regarding immigration policy and how migrants are being handled at the nation’s borders.
“It’s hard to write anything that isn’t misinterpreted these days, particularly when it’s a controversial issue,” Lang said. ” … Like a lot of things in life, you look back, see that you could have said it or worded it differently. But you know as well that people often see hear and interpret what they want to see and hear. Can’t change that.”
Lang attended the Woodstock rally Sunday and listened to speakers address experiences people of color have had with police. Earlier in the day, he said he was thinking about speaking at the event about his marquee message, but he ultimately did not, leaving after the speeches ended and the march around the square began.
He said he felt it was extreme for people upset by the message to call for his business to shut down over the episode.
But activists at the rally said in interviews that Lang’s rhetoric and language like it contribute to the social problems faced by immigrants and people of color in the country that lead to violent encounters with police disproportionately involving those populations.
“A lot of that has to do with what Gary Lang posted because talking about immigration, taking that stance on immigration and in general kind of dehumanizes people. And because of that, we see a cop looking at a 13-year-old like he’s a criminal or someone who was an immediate threat to his life,” said Jose Lopez, a Woodstock resident who marched Sunday, while referring to the death of 13-year-old Adam Toledo at the hands of Chicago police. “It completely changes perspective and has a much bigger impact than people think. Words do matter.”
McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett said he called the Gary Lang Auto Group business last week to let it know he and the city were hearing complaints about the marquee.
Jett initially did not view Lang’s message as one that carried racial undertones, he said in an interview.
“Personally I don’t think it’s racism. It depends on how you take it,” Jett said. “We know there are issues at the border. And I guess people can read it in all different ways.”
But his attitude changed during an interview when it was pointed out there is a likelihood that any large group of people, whether migrants crossing the border or the population of McHenry, would include some criminals.
“If you look at it that way, that’s exactly right, now I can see them taking it that way, that it’s racist and why is it just Mexico and not the people that live in our community,” Jett said.
The mayor suggested local businesses should avoid publicly weighing in on controversial political matters that do not directly involve McHenry County.
“I think he realized that this was a bad message to put on there. When it comes to stuff that doesn’t affect us locally here, keep the national politics out of it, no matter which side of the line you’re on,” Jett said. “I think we can all learn from this as a whole.”
Amanda Hall, an organizer with the group Standing Up Against Racism — Woodstock that held the rally, expounded on the issues she sees with police responses being more aggressive toward people of color than white people.
“A lot of people are especially bringing up with Adam Toledo, that, you know, it was the right call by the police officer. But time and time again, you see white people with guns, after shootings even, after killing more than one person, being apprehended alive,” Hall said. “And you aren’t seeing that with (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community members and that is continuing to happen time and time again.”