Ferndale residents Paulina and Arne Petersen had put up anti-racism signs in their front yard before.
They did so in 2011 after Ferndale High football fans and players were accused of hurling racist taunts, including the n-word, at opposing teams. (The team was placed on probation for the 2012 season due to these incidents.)
They also put up a sign in 2013 after the infamous “Super Freak” incident, in which members of the Ferndale High booster club were caught on camera lip-syncing to the Rick James hit, complete with blackface. And when that sign was stolen from their front yard, they simply made new ones.
But none of the previous signs inspired quite the response the Petersens have seen with their latest, which was inspired by the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The two panels — featuring plain white letters painted on a black background — read “SPEAK OUT AGAINST RACISM” and “SILENCE IS DEADLY,” and they’ve been met with an outpouring of support and appreciation.
Outside her house Sunday afternoon, Paulina Petersen told the Outpost that she wasn’t sure what kind of reaction she’d get.
“One morning [Arne] had gone for coffee and he came back and he said, ‘Well, brace yourself. You’re not going to believe what’s in front of the sign,’” Paulina recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh no. Okay, here we go.’ And he said, ‘You’d better come look.’ So I’m expecting something terrible. I came out and a lady had put a little bouquet of flowers under it, and I cried.”
She was moved by the show of support, she said, and those gestures kept coming. “People just started bringing flowers, and just more and more,” Paulina said. “And people come and replenish them, and then people started bringing potted plants. People gave me gift certificates to go buy flowers to get started in the pots, and then somebody brought the Martin Luther King sign, which is very beautiful.”
The portrait of King, accompanied by the quote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” has been affixed to a message board next to the original sign. The board has been filled with hand-written notes from people who’ve stopped by. Paulina has provided a little spiral-ring notebook and pens, along with zip-lock baggies so the pinned-up messages can survive a rainy day. Someone donated a bottle of hand sanitizer.
“Lot of people stopping by, taking photos,” Paulina Petersen said. “A lot of tourists. Somebody from New York stopped by.”
One note reads, “I’m so proud to live in a community that rallies behind peace.” Another says, “Let’s open our eyes to our own fear and bias — let’s open our eyes to accept that all our blood runs red.”
“I am quite surprised that this is here in this town,” reads another note, “but it puts so much hope for the future. We must keep fighting. … Real change must happen.”
One local resident, who makes her own quilts, donated a handmade rainbow pride flag.
“Almost all of them have been really positive,” Paulina said. A rare exception, written on light pink note paper, says, “I can’t believe you are taking such a chance. To put Ferndale in such danger. By inviting Marxists to come protest. …”
“One guy put a note on there saying, ‘Don’t be a douchebag.’ So apparently my grandkids have a douchebag for a grandma,” Paulina said with a laugh.
Though she was raised in Carlotta, Paulina has deep roots in Ferndale. Her great-great grandparents owned a ranch in the Cream City, which makes her kids sixth-generation Ferndalians. She credits her dad with teaching her about racism and the destructive power of the n-word in particular. And while the picturesque Victorian village has earned a reputation for intolerance, Paulina said many residents feel differently.
“I think there are a lot of good people in Ferndale who are afraid to speak out because they are shot down so fast,” she said. “They’re afraid of stepping on toes or making a fuss or causing a problem and so they are just quiet, but they know it’s wrong.”
The Petersens have not been quiet, but as is true for many Americans, this time feels different.
“It’s not like this is the first time we’ve stood, but for me, when I saw the video of George Floyd, when I saw George Floyd dying, I — I can never say I’ve never seen someone being killed. Ever again,” Paulina said. “I saw it with my own eyes, and I was a witness. And I did nothing. I sat in my chair in my living room, safe, and watched a man die. And … I can’t even imagine what it’s like for people. I can’t imagine if that was my husband or my child or something. And so I’ll never be quiet again.”
She’s also not letting any blowback intimidate her. “We had a guy driving by with a confederate flag and a Trump flag, kind of in our face, and so I just went in and grabbed a big American flag and he drove off,” Paulina said. “He was making sure we noticed. I’m not going to hide or cower ever again. Ever again.”
When someone told her that anybody supporting the Black Lives Matter movement must be anti-American, she rejected the notion by lining the top of her sign with American flags.
“I had a guy tell me the other day, ‘There’s no racism in Ferndale, is there?’ I just looked at him and said, ‘Yes, there is,’” Paulina said. “Life is very difficult for minorities in Ferndale, but the minorities aren’t going to say anything.”
That, too, appears to be changing. As Paulina was standing outside her house, talking about her sign, another Ferndale resident pulled up to the curb to ask whether Paulina and Arne would be attending the “Peaceful Demonstration Against Discrimination,” an event organized by Adrienne Tait Wohlfeil, a young Black woman who moved to Ferndale at age 16. (The Petersens did indeed attend the event.)
At the demonstration, Wohlfeil spoke about being bullied and harassed in Ferndale to the point where she felt compelled to rub bleach on her skin. However, she also said, “The reason why I organized and feel so strongly about this event is because I believe Ferndale has one of the greatest communities … in all of Humboldt County.”
And she expressed hope for the future: “I want to stress to the few who still need to hear it that it’s never too late to change. I was skeptical about any change happening until this very movement had spread across the world. Then I saw the changes in people first-hand.”