Catonsville snowmen display yanked after frosty debate over 'political overtones'

Last weekend, 11 wooden snowmen lined the yard at the Knights of Columbus Patapsco Council, decked in hats, tinsel and glitter to brighten up Frederick Road in Catonsville for the holiday season.

By Wednesday night, the snowmen were gone, pulled down after a barrage of complaints and politically tinged debate on social media, all stemming from one snowman named Snooki.

The “Reel Snowmen of Catonsville” display was planned as a whimsical fundraiser for Catonsville’s Fourth of July Celebration Committee, which organizes the quintessentially small-town Independence Day fireworks and parade.

Snooki, fashioned from the large wooden spools used for utility cable, had two sticks for hands and held a chain of multicolored people. The snowman wore a hat and was covered in tiny birds. And across its front were the words “No Hate in 21228.”

The slogan, which includes Catonsville’s ZIP code, emerged as part of a “unity rally” over the summer held to rebuke white supremacy following protests in Charlottesville, Va. The rally was organized by members of the Catonsville chapter of progressive group Indivisible.

“It was the decision of the [Fourth of July] Committee to remove one of the snowmen for its political nature,” the Knights of Columbus wrote in a Thursday morning posting on its Facebook page. “While the message ‘No Hate in 21228’ is not a political statement on its own, the slogan was adopted by a local political action group; therefore, the slogan indeed has political overtones.”

“Further, the Committee then made the decision to remove the entire display to avoid any further controversy,” the post said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Brian Lewis, head of the Fourth of July committee, called Snooki’s decorators, Marybeth Brohawn and Meg Christian, and told them the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, had received complaints about the “no hate” message, they said.

The women, real estate agents at the Beacon Home Team with Keller Williams Integrity, said the committee had decided to take down the snowman.

Lewis and others with the committee could not be reached for comment and did not respond to a message on the group’s Facebook page. The Knights of Columbus declined to comment on questions about the substance of the complaints.

“We’re hurt and disappointed,” Christian said. “Our whole goal was to be something positive and inclusive for a community that we both love.”

Christian and Brohawn insisted that their snowman was not meant to be controversial.

“Please know that his ‘No Hate in 21228’ sentiment was not intended to be political,” the real estate agents wrote in a Facebook post. “It was never our intention to espouse anything other than peace and harmony, a frequent theme over the winter holidays.”

Brohawn said the message of inclusiveness also squared with their profession, as they are required to practice nondiscrimination in housing.

By Thursday, there were more than 40 comments on the real estate agency’s publicly available Facebook post, praising the snowman’s message and criticizing those who decided to take it down.

Catonsville resident Karen Stysley said others were discussing it in closed social media parent groups.

“I was just completely shocked and flabbergasted,” Stysley said in an interview. “By taking it away, it sends a stronger message that there’s no room here for reaching out in kindness to each other. That’s just really sad and disappointing.”

Others disagreed. Dino Frangos said the no-hate message is a negative phrase has been “used to attack conservatives.” The Catonsville man said he supports removing Snooki, and would take the same position if “Make America Great Again,” President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, was written on it.

“It’s already bad enough Christmas is commercialized,” Frangos said. “It doesn’t need to be politicized as well.”

“Reel Snowmen” were the brainchild of Leah and Mark Hayes, started as a neighborhood tradition among the family’s friends.

One of those friends, Kathleen Carr, a member of the July 4th committee, approached Mark Hayes with the idea to turn it into a fundraiser this year, Leah Hayes said, praising the committee’s work to improve Catonsville.

“It is heartbreaking to see something that has brought us joy soured,” Leah Hayes said in a Thursday email. “The Reel Snowmen were brought to life to promote peace, love and joy.”

A flier advertising the fundraiser instructed contest participants to "decorate as you see fit – paint, dress up, bedazzle, anything up to PG-13 goes."

Organizations, including the real estate agency, donated $250 to the committee for a chance to decorate one of the snowmen.

The celebration committee offered to refund the company’s donation, Brohawn and Christian said, but they declined.

“The Fourth of July is an important tradition in Catonsville, it’s not something we’re going to stop supporting,” Christian said.

After hearing from the committee, Brohawn and Christian posted on Facebook asking the community for another space to display Snooki. Stysley said offered to put Snooki in her yard.

The real estate agents later deleted the request for a new home for Snooki, saying in a subsequent post that the committee had asked them to remove it “to avoid further discord and negative impact” on the Knights of Columbus and the committee.

The Fourth of July Committee, meanwhile, has deleted a Facebook cover photo of the decorated snowmen and turned off the option for the public to post comments on its official page.

“If the 4th of July Committee is concerned about this impacting their fundraising efforts, they solidified this concern by removing Snooki and holding him/her hostage,” resident Tracy Soltesz wrote in an open letter on Facebook that was shared more than 80 times.

Maria Goebel, owner of Staub Art Studio on Edmondson Avenue, also decorated a snowman for the fundraiser. After hearing Snooki had been removed, she asked her husband to remove the Staub snowman and take it back to the art studio on Wednesday.

“We don’t want to be lumped into that display that is going to be exclusive (excluding) of something like that,” Goebel said. “If they’re out, we’re out.”

Erica Russo, of Catonsville, said after learning Snooki had been taken down, she created a copy of the “No Hate” snowman and put it in her yard before noon on Wednesday. After working with her children and their school on anti-bullying efforts, she said, she considered the snowman a way to “reinforce that message.”

For Russo, the “No Hate” message is not political, but “appropriate to the season.”

“That’s the message of Christmas,” Russo said. “To care about other people and to get along.”

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