Not all protests have a crystal clear message to send — the latest show in Austin, Texas, is a perfect example of that. On Wednesday, Facebook user Brianna Smith posted a photo to her timeline of a sticker that had been unwittingly placed on the display window of a local business, which read "Exclusively for white people; maximum of five colored customers". The stickers indicated that "Colored BOH (Back of House) staff" were accepted and that the advertisement had been "sponsored by the City of Austin Contemporary Partition and Restoration Program." Five other businesses have since come forward to protest similar vandalism.
"As I was walking down 12th Street I came across a boutique called Rare Trends," wrote Brianna in the photo's caption. "Placed in the middle of their display window was this sign. This just goes to show racism is very much alive TODAY." Smith wrote that she believed the stickers were "created by someone who had way to much time on their hands".
Immediately, Austin Mayor Steve Adler denounced the display as offensive, indicating that the city had in no way been involved or given any sort of authorization for the stickers. "This is an appalling and offensive display of ignorance in our city. Austin condemns this type of hurtful behavior," said Adler in a statement to the press on Wednesday. "Our city is a place where respect for all people is a part of our spirit and soul. We will keep it that way."
Added City Manager Marc Ott, "This is an affront to who we are as a City and who we are as a community."
The stunt has raised the ire of local residents, many of whom can't seem to agree about the stickers' intent. Wrote Rare Trends management on its Facebook page Wednesday, "We were victims of an outrageous vandalism act occurring in many East Austin businesses. Rare Trends does not or will never discriminate against any person regardless of their age, ethnicity or religious beliefs."
Ironically enough, the owner of a similarly vandalized nearby business claims that whether the sticker was meant in jest or otherwise, it was nonetheless tasteless considering the business' multiracial staff.
"Some people are saying that this may be an attempt at satire, or a statement about gentrification," said Sugar Mama's Bakeshop owner Olivia Guerra O'Neal, in an interview with NBC affiliate KXAN on Wednesday. "As a multiracial family with a multiracial staff, there’s nothing funny about this … It’s sick, and its cowardly message can be read many ways, none of them positive."
Austin City Councilwoman Ora Houston told KXAN reporters that the sticker was tactless, as no one could really determine whether it was meant as a joke, a social statement, or an outright racist appeal. "Regardless of what it was about in their minds, it was the wrong action," said Ora. "We don’t know who did it, we don’t know why they did it ... I would not be willing to make a stab at it; I just know it’s not the kind of Austin I’m accustomed to living in."
While all six businesses targeted have since removed the offensive stickers, at least one owner is brushing past it and trying to move on. "Sure, it’s offensive, but it’s also just a sticker," Windmill Bicycles owner Sarah Goethe told KXAN. "It’s easy to take down. I’ve got a business to run."
The Austin Chronicle reported on Wednesday that, as the stickers were customized, investigators should be able to track the designs back to a print shop — wherever that may lead. Of course, it might be a hefty task: With the SXSW film and music festival currently in swing downtown, the stickers' owner could simply be an out-of-towner trying to make a classless joke, further complicating the investigation.
Until the offender is caught, there's nothing more that the confused Austin residents can do but cross their fingers and hope that it's simply a case of misguided humor — and hopefully nothing more.