UNION, NJ — A billboard at the center of the township that became the center of a nationwide controversy has been taken down seemingly as suddenly as it went up.
For eight days, a billboard sporting a photo of President Trump and the phrase “Our Leader The Idiot” greeted motorists and pedestrians on the eastbound side of Morris Avenue between Rahway and Elmwood avenues.
It stoked emotions on social media and prompted hundreds to call the township.
Television news crews filmed segments near the site and tempers ran hot on New Jersey 101.5-FM radio.
Reporters from New York-based tabloids descended on the town and USA Today picked up on the story.
The attention became so intense, the township issued an official comment on social media and the committee passed a resolution to denounce it.
On the afternoon of Wednesday Aug. 29, the billboard was replaced with public service ad.
And now that the Trump Billboard, as it was simply known in town, is gone and residents such as Ronnie Giameo are eager to get back to life as normal.
“It’s done,” Giameo said. “I’m happy it’s over with and we can put it behind us finally and just move forward.”
The billboard, owned by Out Front Media, was paid for by Neil Harrison, a Bronx-based activist and filmmaker who was using the billboard to promote a documentary film.
Harrison, in an Aug. 31 phone interview, indicated the executives at Out Front Media seemed hesitant to post the billboard from the start. As it began to attract more and more attention, Harrison said they must have been receiving more and more calls. He said they stopped returning his calls after a few days, so he had a feeling Out Front Media would not allow him to renew the billboard for an additional month.
Harrison said the executives at Out Front Media called him on Aug. 29 to tell him the company was going to take the billboard down and refund him a prorated portion of the $1,000 he had paid them.
“My first reaction was, ‘Guys, let’s discuss this. You are using emotion here,’” Harrison said. “The gentleman (from Out Front Media) kept repeating the same thing: ‘We’ve made our decision and case closed.’ There was no discussion.”
Two phone messages and an email sent to Out Front Media seeking comment were not returned.
The billboard was the topic of discussion, however, in the corridors of many of the municipal buildings, township spokeswoman Natalie Pineiro said. Hundreds of calls were coming in to office of public information and other departments. Many of the calls were from people out of the area, if not outside the state. When she arrived at work Monday, Aug. 27, Pineiro said she had 37 messages on her voicemail.
Although some callers supported the billboard and its message, most said they thought calling the president an idiot was inappropriate.
“I think it was mostly, it wasn’t necessarily that someone was expressing their opinion or promoting a movie that was against Donald Trump,” Pineiro said in an Aug. 31 phone interview. “I think it was mostly the language. We pride ourselves on having this really strong unity and no matter what we do we kind of respect each other. I really think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was seen as a lack of respect.”
Pineiro said the controversy spilled over onto the township’s official Facebook page, where Trump supporters were met with anti-Trump sentiment. Calls to show respect for the president and the office of the presidency were met by defenders of free speech.
Pineiro said people are free to express their views on the page, but the town’s policy restricts the use of profanity, cyberbullying, harassment, personal attacks and name-calling.
“People are given a warning, like, ‘Please edit your post or it will be removed,’ and we had to remove quite a few,” Pineiro said.
By Aug. 23, the township issued an official statement on its Facebook page that a “potentially offensive billboard has gone up on Morris Ave promoting a documentary about the president. We wanted to take this time to remind you all that while we take these matters very seriously, billboards are privately owned and as such the Township of Union has no authority or or role in approving what goes up on each of them.”
Five days later, the Township Committee passed a resolution denouncing the billboard.
“The Township Committee prides itself on the Township’s diversity and inclusion, and does not promote hate speech of any kind,” Mayor Suzette Cavadas said reading from the resolution.
The following day, Pineiro forwarded a statement to LocalSource saying, “The resolution passed yesterday evening is a testament to the fact that this billboard does not represent the values of our residents, government or administration. We believe in the concepts of common decency and respect not matter who you are or what you believe in.”
As the town was moving to distance itself from the billboard, Harrison was reveling in the attention it was receiving, saying his $1,000 investment was generating $1 million in publicity.
“I’m not shocked that made waves,” Harrison said. “I’m not even shocked it went viral. It’s pretty much nationwide and worldwide this point. Everybody has picked up on this story, which is great. I love it. I really knew it would make it.”
Harrison, however, expressed remorse for the way the billboard adversely affected the township.
“Did I try to be divisive?” he said. “Did I try to break the town up? No. It wasn’t my intention. and that’s the only thing I would probably regret if anything.”
Harrison and two other men brandishing signs promoting the movie appeared on the sideway in front of the billboard at various times last week.
Union Police Director Daniel Zieser said officers from the department were dispatched to the area three times because people were going into the road and trying to hand out pamphlets.
“They kept going into the street and people were complaining, ‘Gee, I almost hit that guy. Send a car over there,’” Zieser said. “A couple of times (the police went over) just to tell them to stay on the sidewalk, stay out of the street, especially with traffic stopped for the traffic light down by Elmwood and Commerce there. They would step into the street and try to handout brochures or whatever you want to call them, or handbills. We had to tell them to get out of street and stay on the sidewalk. It was nothing. They complied.”
Harrison acknowledged that he had hired two men to stand near the billboard with signs, but he said they were not the ones stepping into traffic.
Harrison said that he expected a backlash from the title of the documentary, which he hopes will be out by Christmas — called “Our Leader The Idiot”, his “Christmas gift to President Trump.”
What he didn’t expect, however, was to get so many threats. Harrison, who listed his email address on the billboard, said he has not reported the threats to police.
“I’m a kid who grew up in the streets,” he said. “If you tell someone you’re going to do something, you’re not going to do it. The guys that I have to worry about don’t say a word. They just come at you. This is nothing new. That’s part of being in the public eye and I’m not the only guy.”
He described his film as a look back at the past two and a half years of the president’s life.
“It will be the most entertaining presidential film that anyone has ever seen,” Harrison said. “It’s going to be bright, not all negative, but it’s going to show the man the way I see the man from my point of view, which is what a lot of Americans do. He’s a very manipulative kind of guy. He’s a mastermind and that’s what makes the man scary.”