A picture featuring Gretha Omey Stenger, a resident of Humboldt County, California, went viral online after she held what many consider an offensive sign while attending a protest against the county’s stay-at-home order on Monday. Standing outside the courthouse, Stenger held a sign that read, “Muzzles are for dogs and slaves. I am a free human being.” The quote was printed alongside an illustration of a black woman wearing a face mask.
This image shown on Stenger’s protest sign was of Escrava Anastacia, an unofficial saint revered in Brazil. Anastacia is believed to be of African descent and forcefully enslaved by her owners in Brazil.
According to Redheaded Blackbelt, Stenger showed up to protest on May 16, explaining to the community news blog that she “came out to stand with people who were deeply concerned about the Stay-at-Home orders and their repercussions.”
Protests have been taking place outside the Humboldt County courthouse all month, and the controversial sign featuring Escrava Anastacia first appeared in a video on May 15, held by local protestor Larkin Small. “Small said it was her first time ever coming to a demonstration and that this is what it took to get her out of her house at the age of 37,” as reported by Redheaded Blackbelt. Small has since deleted her Instagram account.
Stenger once worked as the drama director at Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy in Arcata, but the school has since put out an official statement concerning her viral photo: “The person being referenced in these comments is not a current employee of NPA or HCOE. Her message does not reflect the views of HCOE or NPA.” HCOE is the Humboldt County Office of Education.
Stenger Apologized For Holding The Controversial Sign Following Intense Online Backlash
After her photo went viral, Stenger issued a formal apology to the Times-Standard. She said:
Holding that sign up at the lockdown protest was a grave mistake and I ask forgiveness from all those who I have caused pain. As I had no sign of my own, it was handed to me by another protester and a photographer took the picture before I considered the racist implications.
My intent was to take a stand for the freedom of all human persons and I mistakenly held a sign that conveyed the opposite. Please know that I respect the dignity of all people and I sincerely regret any suffering it has caused.
Sharrone Blanck, president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, told the Times-Standard on Monday exactly why Stenger’s sign was so offensive. “The first issue is the fact that this person is equating dogs to enslaved people, specifically enslaved Africans. Then she identifies herself as a free human being — somehow above and better than people of African descent and people of color in general who were made to wear muzzles.”
Blanck added, “The media really needs to look at why they cover some things and not other things, and do an analysis of whether or not they cover events with people of color instead of events that are predominantly white.”