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From pink signs to Palestine: Sylva residents rally against hate

More than 30 people gathered at the "From pink signs to Palestine" rally.
Lilly Knoepp
More than 30 people gathered at the "From pink signs to Palestine" rally.

For more than a month, Jackson County residents wrote letters to the editor and posted to Facebook in outrage over a slew of pink signs with business names all starting with the letter K posted at shopping centers along Highway 107.

One editorial writer in the Sylva Herald explained the issue: “You don’t have to be a marketing genius to know that you cannot string together 3 “Ks” in a row for your business slogan. I agree it is unfair – but if you have two “Ks” in your name, further alliteration is not a luxury you get to enjoy.”

More than 30 people showed up in Sylva on Thursday evening to protest the signs – and connected the potential racism that they represent to national and international issues. Tracy Mann of Sylva was one of the organizers of the event.

A sign reads, "Sylva ain't the place for racism."
Lilly Knoepp
A sign reads, "Sylva ain't the place for racism."

“If we're going to talk about racism. We have to talk about the colonial settler project, which is committing a genocide against the Palestinian people today and we can't talk about white supremacy in Sylva and not talk about global white supremacy,” Mann said.

Local businessman Kole Clapsaddle, who owns many of the shopping centers where the signs are posted, owns five companies according to state records including Katiealexis Inc., KCVP, Inc., NHN Holdings LLC., OPM Holdings LLC and KoleKim LLC.

The signs advertise rental space at the various Kole Kim LLC properties: Kole Kim Kurve, Kole Kim Komplex and Kole Kim Kountry.

Clapsaddle could not be reached for comment at press time.

Clapsaddle is not a stranger to public controversy. He previously operated the Chief Saunooke Bear Park when PETA accused the park of abuse and racism in a video narrated by Bob Barker in 2013. Barker also visited to protest the park in 2009. In 2013, the park was closed and Clapsaddle was ordered to pay $20,000 in fines. The bears were sent to a sanctuary in Texas, Smoky Mountain News reported.

The Asheville Citizen Times reported the signs were taken down on December 13 after in-coming mayor Johnny Phillips asked the owner to remove them. ACT reported that current Mayor David Nestler had previously made the same request but was denied. BPR confirmed the pink signs were removed.

While the signs are gone, speakers at the rally said vigilance against racism remains.

Jennifer Harr, one of the founders of Cornbread and Roses, a local nonprofit LGBTQ+ organization, said growing up as a Jewish person in Sylva she was told that Jews weren’t going to go to heaven.

“My first memory of Sylva is when my mother had to explain to me why gold stars were spray-painted on our driveway. I was five years old,” Harr said.

Harr said the intention of the signs doesn’t matter to her. The signs will be interpreted by people one way or another, including by folks considering moving to Jackson County.

“The ones moving here because they think it's that dog whistle of the KKK are not ones I want to include as my neighbors. We have enough of those folks. I don't want anymore,” Harr said.

Speakers at the rally connected the local issues to U.S. foreign policy.

Kyrie Wright, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee,said the current conflict in Palestine reminds her of the genocide Indigenous people in North America faced when the land was first colonized.

"Your tax dollars fund genocide," a sign reads in front of Sylva's Christmas tree.
Lilly Knoepp
"Your tax dollars fund genocide," a sign reads in front of Sylva's Christmas tree.

She said the red stripes on the American flag represents the blood of Indigenous people killed, Africans enslaved and others who died at the hands of imperialism.

“So the next time you take a glance up at that American flag, think about how the new flags made after this year are going to be dyed with Palestinian blood. Because America decided that they wanted to fund a genocide rather than help,” Wright said.

Sarah DeArmon is an organizer with a group that helped organize the rally, the Answer Coalition. The group was founded after 9/11 to protest war and imperialism. She said the gathering Thursday had the biggest turnout for a rally on Palestine in the group’s history, and she attributed high participation to the outrage over the signs.

The fact the signs were taken down was a small win but there is still more to do, she said.

“They haven't changed the business names, but it's a start and it shows the power that people when we unite and we make enough noise and we stand up we hit the street. We have the power to change that,” DeArmon said.

“We have got to keep showing up. We got to keep hitting the streets and we got to keep making our voices heard.”

Another protestor, Haze Loberblatt, said they felt an affinity with the Palestinians.

“I am a disabled trans person and I have more in common with the Palestinian people then I will ever have in common with my government,” Loberblatt said. “We have seen numerous attacks on our rights right here in the US right now. There are bills currently oppressing trans people. There are no safety to help disabled people out. We are being left to die. And this is just part of that whole machine."

Loberblatt, who lost their job the same day, said the struggle to make a living has made it hard for them to be involved in protests for Palestine.

“This system pushes us into individualism and it smothers our empathy. It is so freaking hard to think about other people's problems when you are focused on survival,” they said.

The group plans to host another rally for Palestine on Thursday December 21 at 5:30 at the water fountain in downtown Sylva.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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