by Zoë Rader and Sarah Slavin
Valerie Latona never thought that her small act would attract this much attention. She was doing something citizens all over the country were doing during the election: posting signs with political messages outside their houses. Except hers was not in favor of a specific candidate. Latona had hung a “Love Trumps Hate” poster on her fence, which faces Rahway Avenue—a street with a lot of walking and driving traffic—and had kept it up after the election.
Although the phrase carries a pro-Hillary connotation, Latona never wanted her sign to favor a specific candidate, but rather the idea itself. She sees it as a message of values instead of a political endorsement. “The word ‘trump’ was used during the election, but he doesn’t own that word,” said Latona. “I mean, it’s a verb. ‘Love trumps hate’ is an important message for kids to know.”
With this innocent motive, she was shocked with the events and reactions that followed. Somehow, this sign in suburban New Jersey became a symbol of a nation at odds.
“We got tons of letters in our mailbox saying ‘We love your sign’ or ‘It cheers me up everytime I drive by it’ and ‘It gives me hope for the future,’ ” Latona said. She was happy with these positive reactions until receiving one letter that said the sign reflected badly on her household and that it should be taken down.
Following the letters, Latona discovered one afternoon that her sign had been punctured with an airsoft gun. She wasn’t too alarmed by this act, but when the sign was soon attacked again, she started to feel concerned. This time, someone had vandalized the sign, crossing out specific words and letters to make it read, “Love Trump.” Latona reported the incident to the police.
The sign’s controversy didn’t end there. Latona soon got phone calls from fellow Westfield residents who empathized with her and wanted to do something more to accentuate the original intent of the sign. This group of Westfield residents wanted to hang a new sign that read “Westfielders for love and respect” on Latona’s fence.
“When I saw the sign defaced, I just had a gut reaction that I had to do something,” said Westfield resident Jenny Tananbaum. “It’s not about politics, but about the sentiment that we cannot allow hatred—or ignorance—to have a voice.”
Westfield Resident Laura Vassilowitch also wanted to host a free coffee and donut gathering next to the sign. Latona agreed to both actions, but didn’t organize either.
Vassilowitch said she felt compelled do something nonpartisan in such an intense election. “We wanted to get the message across [that] we are good people no matter who you voted for in the election,” she said. “We all just want what's best for our us and our family and our friends and our town.”
The coffee and donut gathering was successful, according to Vassilowitch, with a lot of people grabbing food and waving as they walked by. “A couple of people gave us the side-eye or one or two kind of harrumphed,” she said. “They may have seen it as a political statement rather than a community gathering in a friendly place.”
Westfield resident Sally Alameno, who was part of the coffee and donut event, eventually purchased another “Love Trumps Hate” sign for Latona. Now, this sign hangs alone on Latona’s fence and is decorated with Christmas lights. On the sign is a small Post-it note that warns individuals that it’s private property, that the police are aware of the situation and that vandalism is a crime. Nevertheless, Latona said it has been torn down several times since.
“I don’t know that we are going to take down the sign, at least not right now,” Latona said. “I still feel that there is a divide in this country that I have never seen before. There is just so much hatred.”
In a time of political chaos and intensified division in the country, it’s no surprise that an essentially nonpartisan sign has spurred this much controversy. Regardless, Latona, Tananbaum and Vassilowitch repeatedly reinforced the idea that the signs and the free breakfast were purely meant to emphasize the values of unity, love and strength, not anyone’s political views.
“It's so dangerous to let a single election divide family and towns or even the country,” Vassilowitch said. “We'll just have to keep working together and do our best to keep each other's best interest in mind to move forward.”
Tananbaum had actually made a point of telling Latona that she is a Republican. “We need to get past labels and just start talking to each other,” Tananbaum said. “Your political party does not give you the right to vandalize someone else’s property, and no matter who you voted for we all need to stand up for what is right and work together for change.”
Letter to the Editor
Thank you for such a well-written and inspiring article “A Sign of Unity in Westfield”. Unfortunately, the same day the story came out, an adult male in a black pickup truck was seen taping this message to the sign; later that evening, our sign was stolen...It has been reported to the police; they are investigating. A few key points I want to make: First Amendment rights in this country are non-negotiable unless you decide to put them into play on someone else’s private property; that IS vandalism and I hope none of you ever have to be charged with that crime. And, in a democracy like ours, you don’t have to be “loyal to and respect” any leader; we are not a dictatorship. Let no one bully you to do, or believe in, anything different. I write this letter to let all the Westfield HS Students know that the future is in your hands. You can choose love or you can choose hate; no one can make that decision for you—not your parents, not your teachers, and not your friends. My greatest wish is that you’ll choose love—and not stoop to vandalism and hate as this man has done. As Martin Luther King, Jr. has said: “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
Owner, “Love Trumps Hate” sign