BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — Amid signs for bait and directions to the footbridge that crosses the harbor, a handmade sign posted along Boothbay Harbor’s main street has drawn complaints of racism from tourists and residents. Several weeks ago, Linc Sample posted a sign on Townsend Avenue, just across from the Congregational Church and most visible to people as they drive out of town. Along with a silhouette of an assault rifle, the sign states, “Black Rifles Matter: Yes, we have ’em. No, you can’t take ’em.”
The sign has led local merchants and business leaders to fear that tourists will shun the town, especially in the wake of threats by some out-of-staters to avoid Maine after Gov. Paul LePage’s recent statements about black and Hispanic people trafficking drugs in Maine.
Sample has posted signs on his property for years, drawing various levels of controversy, including one in 2015 that featured the Confederate flag.
But this year, the signs have prompted complaints to town officials and business owners, including an anonymous letter from a tourist who said they reportedly left town early because of the sign.
“I think it’s racist,” said Rick Prose, who serves as executive director of the Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce and lives five doors down Townsend Avenue from the sign. “It’s insensitive and it’s certainly not welcoming.”
Prose produced a handwritten anonymous letter addressed to him and the Boothbay town manager dated July 25, 2016, from someone whose family has vacationed in Boothbay for five years, but said they were leaving early this year after seeing the “shocking” sign.
“With regret, we are cutting our vacation short because we do not agree with this brazen signage and feel the security of our family comes first,” the writer stated.
Prose said he has heard “many” complaints about the sign — as has Steve Madden, whose store Mung Bean, in the heart of the downtown, is only blocks from the sign.
“Customers just can’t believe it’s there, and they don’t think it’s appropriate,” Madden said. “It’s very controversial in today’s climate. It’s not an inviting sign.”
Sample, a former selectman and longtime resident of the area whose father owned Sample’s Shipyard and whose brother is comedian Tim Sample, has posted signs on the property for years promoting the rights of gun owners.
“He thinks he knows the Constitution really well, but the Second Amendment doesn’t mean they can have machine guns,” Prose said.
But Sample said Friday that people who are offended by the sign “are reading more into it than there really is.”
According to Sample, the local newspaper published a half-page ad a few months ago signed by more than 100 people advocating for a ban on assault weapons. In response, he said, he and more than 100 others signed a half-page ad supporting the rights of gun owners.
“In the meantime, I put up my sign,” he said. “It really revolves around the term ‘my black rifles,’ which has been around for a couple for decades.” He said his rifles “matter just as much to me as your antique rifles.”
“Yes, we have ’em,” Sample said. “We have AK-15s, or what the press generally calls assault weapons. Everyone knows I’ve got guns. The sign never had any meaning in it, it was never meant to be a reflection on race or a threat to Black Lives Matter. This is just a tongue-in-cheek way of saying, ‘You’re not taking them.’ It’s a rallying cry for the Second Amendment.”
Boothbay Harbor Town Manager Tom Woodin said he’s received many letters and phone calls from people saying the sign is racist and vowing not to return to Boothbay Harbor. Woodin said he was unable to provide any of the letters because he doesn’t keep them. He said that Sample installed posts and obtained permits that make the signs absolutely legal.
Still, he said he called the chairman of the Board of Selectmen about the anonymous letter, in part because Boothbay Harbor and Boothbay have begun a joint economic development effort.
“I said, ‘This flies in the face of economic development,’” Woodin said. “[But] I think the consensus of the board is that although it’s legal, it’s unpleasant.”
Denise Griffin, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said Friday that the board had not discussed the sign and that no one had officially complained about it to her.
Griffin said the signs are protected as “freedom of speech,” and said year-round residents have become used to them.
Last year, Sample removed a sign featuring the Confederate flag after “some feel-good nut jobs threatened people on my property,” he said Friday. He said he would typically have replaced this sign with another by now “to keep it fresh” but he said that with so many people stopping to take pictures of it — and because he refuses to cave to those with “overly tender sensibilities” — he’s left it up.
“If you’re threatened by a 40-square-foot sign that says ‘Black Rifles Matter’ with a silhouette of a rifle, perhaps you better look at [your] own self,” he said. “This is the overly sensitive place America has come to.”