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Austin Homeowner's Hanging of Empty Chair Ignites Online

When is an empty chair not an empty chair?

A northwest Austin homeowner has cut down a nondescript folding chair hanging from a tree in his yard, after a local blog’s allegations the hanging chair was a symbolic “lynching” of President Barack Obama created a firestorm in the blogosphere.

Liberal Texas politics blog Burnt Orange Report (BOR) first reported on the chair on Wednesday. BOR editor Katherine Haenschen, who wrote that BOR was emailed the photo from a reader, wasted no time expressing her anger with the statement:

Now, one could easily argue "it's just a chair, what's the big deal? That's not racist!" However, in light of Clint Eastwood's speech at the Republican National Convention, in which he had a largely one-sided conversation with an empty chair he pretended was Barack Obama, this imagery is now associated with the President. The image of the chair is associated with the President. Now, lynch that chair from a tree, and you've got a pretty awful racist sentiment calling for lynching the first African-American President!

After an unpleasant exchange with the homeowner, Bud Johnson, BOR updated its original post on Thursday, noting an American flag was now planted on the chair – strengthening the political connotation of the imagery.

By that time, national media outlets had begun reporting on the controversy. Websites including Gawker, and The Huffington Post reported the story, as did the New York Daily News. It received the following condemnation of the scene from a Travis County Democratic official:

“I’m sure he’ll argue that it’s freedom of expression ... but to me what he did does not enlighten me to his side at all,” Andy Brown, chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party, told the Daily News. “It says nothing on the issues.”

The Daily News also cited Travis County Republican Party chair Rosemary Edwards, “who told NBC News she wasn’t aware of the display, but said any racial connotations would be ‘deplorable.’”

By Thursday afternoon, the chair was taken down, but left in Johnson’s yard. KEYE TV caught up with Johnson, as he was cutting the hanging chair down from his tree. The news station has also posted a five minute video of one of their reporters’ conversation with Johnson.

Johnson disputed that his hanging the chair from the tree implied any racist sentiment. From KEYE:

… [Johnson] said the chair was not being “lynched”, and when [KEYE TV reporter Lydia Pantazes] asked why he had it hanging from the tree, he said the tree was "the only place I had to put the damn thing.” Johnson then placed the chair on his lawn a few feet away from the tree.

He also confirmed the chair’s symbolic ties to Pres. Obama, telling KEYE “Haven’t you heard of the Clint Eastwood thing with the empty chair?” 

Johnson since told Austin American-Statesman columnist Ken Herman that he decided to cut the chair down “because some people are stupid."

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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