BOSTON (Reuters) – Passions flared in a Maine town on Thursday over a sign in a store asking customers to place bets on an assassination of President-elect Barack Obama.
The Town Council in Standish condemned the sign on Thursday in a 6-0 vote and declared it reprehensible at a meeting where some residents defended the store owner, saying he had a right to free speech even if in bad taste, local authorities said.
“The town of Standish condemns in the strongest terms any such alleged activity calling for violence against any individual no matter their position, race or ethnicity,” said the resolution posted on the town’s website.
The sign in the Oak Hill General Store asked customers to place a $1 bet on the date of Obama’s assassination, and said “Let’s hope someone wins,” the Portland Press Herald reported. It was called the “Osama Obama Shotgun Pool.”
The store in the town of 9,285 people in southwest Maine has remained closed since reports of the sign appeared in the media on Sunday.
About 80 people attended the meeting, including some who defended the store owner, said town clerk Mary Chapman.
“There were folks on both sides of the issue,” Chapman said in a telephone interview. “People were passionate of their opinion but very respectful of others.”
Obama’s historic election victory as the nation’s first black president has sparked racist incidents nationwide, according to groups that monitor hate crimes.
Obama, an Illinois senator, won the November 4 presidential contest in Maine over Republic Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
This next story says that the owner won’t face any criminal charges but you can hit him where it hurts: his wallet. BOYCOTT!!!
Oak Hill General Store owner Steve Collins denied any knowledge of the sign when a Cumberland County sheriff’s deputy arrived to investigate a report of it on Nov. 7, Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion said Friday. The sign itself was nowhere to be found at that time, he said.
And, even if the sign had not been removed, posting it was not necessarily a crime, Dion said. ”It doesn’t appear that it was constituting a criminal threat or a terrorizing incident,” he said.
The sign invited customers to participate in an ”Osama Obama Shotgun Pool” and wager $1 on the date of Obama’s assassination, according to two journalists for The Associated Press who saw it while checking out a tip of its existence. At the bottom, the sign read: ”Let’s hope someone wins.”
A description of the sign was included in an Associated Press national roundup of post-election incidents, many of them racially tinged, decrying the election of the nation’s first black president. That story appeared Nov. 16, and has led to national attention and angry e-mails to town officials.
Dion attributed the sign to Collins in a statement to a Portland Press Herald reporter that was included in the AP story on Nov. 16. ”Whatever the intent of his expression was, we never located the evidence of it,” Dion said at the time.
Dion had also suggested to Press Herald writers that Collins acknowledged the sign. But on Friday, Dion said those statements were based on body language and behavior, and that Collins did not accept responsibility.
”I think we have the liberty to connect a few dots here. It’s unlikely somebody would walk in from the street and post the sign in the store,” he said. ”At (the) least it’s an expression that he provided space for in his store.”
Collins could not be reached Friday. He told his landlord last weekend that he was going hunting and the store has been closed all week, something customers said is not unusual at this time of year. He has yet to talk publicly about the incident, and it’s unclear how much he knows about the flap created by the sign.
State lawmakers from the Standish area plan to introduce a legislative resolution condemning it and other post-election incidents around the state. The Standish Town Council, faced with angry e-mails from around the country, passed a resolution Thursday calling the alleged activity at the store reprehensible. And Friday evening, Gov. John Baldacci and other state and local leaders addressed the incident at an anti-hate rally at the University of Southern Maine campus in Portland.
The controversy began Friday, Nov. 7, when an unidentified man who described himself as a customer of the store called the Associated Press office in Portland to say he’d seen the sign. Reporter Jerry Harkavy and photographer Bob Bukaty went to the store that afternoon and saw the sign as described by the caller, Harkavy said.
A man behind the counter, the only other person in the store, kicked the journalists out when he found out who they were, Harkavy said. They did not get a photograph, although Harkavy wrote down a description of the sign.
Harkavy and Bukaty went to nearby Standish Town Hall to see if town officials had heard about the shotgun pool. The journalists described the sign to Town Manager Gordon Billington. He called the state Attorney General’s Office and gave a written statement to the sheriff’s department. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Harnett said he called the U.S. Secret Service to tell them about the sign and left it to police to investigate.
Within an hour, Harkavy said, a sheriff’s deputy went to the store and spoke to Collins, the owner. The deputy’s written report says Collins was uncooperative and acted ”like he did not know what I was talking about,” according to Dion, who declined to release the investigative report.
Harkavy, meanwhile, wrote a short story about the sign that same afternoon and filed it with editors in New York, he said. Part of his description ultimately was included in the national story published last Sunday. Harkavy’s original story never moved on the wire.
Harnett, the assistant attorney general, said his office would take no action without a formal report from the police investigation.
The Secret Service office in Portland did not return a phone call Friday seeking information about that agency’s response.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: