When the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation made unprecedented appearances in Dunwoody earlier this month, longtime resident Kristy Vinot was unable to participate due to health concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, she joined several residents who are expressing their support in another way never before seen in Dunwoody: “Black Lives Matter” yard signs.

“I just really wanted to support that cause and just to get people to think,” said Vinot, who was among the 15 buyers last week for signs depicting a black hand and a white hand shaking each other, along with the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and a localized “Dunwoody GA.” And it’s working, she says: “I’ve noticed some people slowing down to read it.”

The Ziffers’ “Black Lives Matter” sign in the yard of their Springfield Drive home. (Special)

Andrew Ziffer and daughter Rachel, 14, ordered one of the signs for their Springfield Drive lawn. Andrew Ziffer, known for an unsuccessful run for a DeKalb County Board of Education seat this year, said they wanted their stance as “allies” to be clear.  “And when you put a sign in your yard, it’s telling people very loudly that you’re here, you’re watching and you care,” he said.

The signs are made by Custom Signs Today, a business based in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood that is Dunwoody’s go-to sign-maker because it is run by prominent local resident Heyward Wescott. He formerly served as Dunwoody Perimeter Chamber of Commerce board chair and city Planning Commission vice-chair, and last year unsuccessfully ran for City Council. Today, as it happens, he serves as a founding board member of the Dunwoody Police Foundation.

Wescott said that two residents contacted him a couple of weeks ago with a request for custom “Black Lives Matter” yard signs, with word of mouth quickly expanding that to about 15 orders. After more than 25 years in business, he said, he has made many yard signs for political candidates, but never before had demands for such political-messaging signs. He attributes it to political shifts in Dunwoody and the pandemic’s social distancing, which has also led to a boom in orders for graduation and birthday signage for car-parade celebrations.

“I think that people are really trying to express themselves in certain ways and signs are part of that vehicle right now,” said Wescott.

Kristy Vinot arranged the signs outside her Tilly Mill Road home so that together they read, “Everything Will Be OK When Black Lives Matter.” (Special)

Custom Signs Today was involved in a high-profile, and eventually controversial, yard-sign campaign related to the pandemic. The company produced miniature yard-sign versions of the city’s iconic “Everything Will Be OK” mural for sales by two arts nonprofits as a pandemic relief fundraiser. Those signs ran into copyright objections from the mural artist. However, the campaign drew international attention and the signs remain a fixture of the neighborhood as a message of coping with the pandemic. Vinot and the Ziffers bought those signs as well.

The “Black Lives Matter” sign orders increased as the residents who originally commissioned the signs spread the word on such social media as Nextdoor. One posted a draft design that used the official city logo, which Wescott created for the city a few years ago. City officials saw the post and ordered the logo removed, according to city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher, and Wescott said no signs were made containing it.

Wescott said he has not directly advertised the availability of the signs, even though he generally supports the Black Lives Matter movement personally, in part because they were private custom orders and in part because of his status as a white business owner. “It’s not my space,” he said. “I believe in the cause. … This is pivotal, a pivotal time in our country.”

For the same reason, Wescott said, Custom Signs Today intends to donate a portion of the signs’ sales proceeds to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “There is no way I can do this and have a good conscience and not donate money to the NAACP,” he said.

According to its website, that group is calling for a slate of policing reforms. Noting his position on the Dunwoody Police Foundation board, Wescott said he supports the local police and recalled that Police Chief Billy Grogan visited a protest at City Hall and had his photo taken with participants.

“I love our Dunwoody police. I mean that sincerely,” said Wescott. “They are creative with their messaging. They’re creative with how they engage in our community.”

The movement and the messaging

The Black Lives Matter movement, which calls for reforms to halt police and vigilante killings of black people, began as a social media campaign after the 2013 acquittal verdict of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. It gained prominence in the nationwide protests that followed the 2014 police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City. The movement has been a prominent part of the current national protests that followed last month’s police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

Dunwoody is among the cities in longtime majority-white, majority-Republican suburbs that incorporated in the early 2000s to separate from county governments led by black Democrats after political debates that included opponents decrying racial segregation and supporters demanding improvement in the quality of local policing. Even a small number of yard signs about police reform or racism would have been unheard of just a few years ago.

But demographics and politics are shifting, with Democrats flipping the area’s state legislative and Congressional seats in 2018. Mayor Lynn Deutsch attended the recent protests, waving to honking supporters, and recently blasted “systemic racism” in healthcare and called for a “dialogue” on making the city more inclusive.

In addition to the Ziffers’ “Black Lives Matter” sign, Rachel also ordered a sign to express support for LGBTQ people, reading “Dunwoody Pride” and “Love Is Love.” The background is the “More Colors, More Pride” flag, commissioned from an ad agency by Philadelphia city officials, which combines the rainbow LGBTQ flag with brown and black stripes to represent people of color. The version has been controversial within the LGBTQ community as either more or less inclusive and was created in response to incidents of racism within Philadelphia’s gay community.

The “Dunwoody Pride” LGBTQ support sign is joined by an “Everything Will Be OK” sign in the Ziffers’ yard. (Special)

Asked whether the family had posted political-message signs before, Andrew Ziffer said no. But Rachel had a different take.

“I don’t believe it’s really politics,” she said. “I believe these are basic human rights, and that’s not politics.”

For Vinot, getting the “Black Lives Matter” sign after the “Everything Will Be OK” sign did not just make her a repeat customer of Custom Signs Today’s pandemic-era messaging niche. It meant her Tilly Mill Road lawn had messages that now were forced into dialogue with each other.

Vinot said that “I really wanted a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign. But then I just had this thought of, ‘They can’t go together without me adjusting some things.’” She placed the signs side-by-side and, on a separate piece of cardboard, added a word so that together they read, “Everything Will Be OK When Black Lives Matter.”

“I have a total different perspective of ‘Everything Will Be OK’ now…,” said Vinot. “I really love the positivity of it and I still do… but it’s not the case for everyone. It’s kind of a — I hate to say the word ‘privileged.’ But everything’s not always going to be OK until some changes happen.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.