An Austin-area woman who sparked a big media mess says she is sorry for showing up at a weekend Trayvon Martin rally with an eye-grabbing sign that read: “We’re racist & we’re proud!”
Since then, Renee Vaughan has been vilified on social media and conservative blogs. Her employer has received threatening emails. She’s apologized on Facebook and is in trouble with her bosses at the Texas Campaign for the Environment.
“She realized how hurtful her actions were and that she used extremely bad judgement,” said Robin Schneider, director of the nonprofit organization. “She’s mortified.”
Vaughan’s trouble started over the weekend when she attended a Houston rally to protest the recent not-guilty verdict of George Zimmerman, who was cleared of second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of 17-year-old Martin in Florida. In interviews with both the Houston Chronicle and Breitbart News that day, Vaughan said she was being sarcastic and that she opposed the verdict.
“This sign means that there are people here who are racist and apparently think that’s OK,” she says in an on-camera interview at breitbart.com. “I’m not one of them. I’m being sarcastic.”
But whatever her point was, it was lost as the photo quickly went viral, with little or no mention of Vaughan’s explanation.
The New York Daily News ran the photo and identified her as a “George Zimmerman supporter.”
Bloggers figured out who she works for and called her a left-wing plant and race-baiter sent to make Zimmerman’s supporters look bad.
Vaughan, a community organizer for the environmental group, declined an interview request by the American-Statesman. But she apologized Tuesday on her Facebook page, saying she had done something “really stupid” and never meant to have “hurt, angered and embarrassed so many people.”
“I pray for forgiveness, and to never, ever be that stupid again,” she wrote. “Those who know me know that I want a better world for everyone. I hope you can forgive me, World.”
Over the past few days, critics have been sending angry emails to the Texas Campaign for the Environment. Schneider said the group has received about three dozen emails, some from phony email accounts. Some, she said, included “extremely threatening language” and one made mention of somebody’s children.
The nonprofit posted a statement on its website, saying that it had nothing to do with the incident, that Vaughan had attended the rally on her own time and that the sign didn’t represent the nonprofit’s values.
“As a result, we are working with our staff and board to determine the appropriate reprimand as well as to clarify our policies for all employees so that others may learn from this,” the statement said. “We do not seek to limit employee’s free speech or freedom to protest, only to have them represent themselves in the community with the sense of justice and fair play.”
Robert Quigley, a senior lecturer at the UT School of Journalism who teaches his students about social media, said the furor over the photo easily could have been predicted. Humor and irony are difficult to convey online, particularly on sites such as Twitter or Instagram, he said. Without context, it’s easy to be misunderstood. Even with context, a picture will always be interpreted in many different ways.
“The fact is, she’s holding a firebomb in her hands, so it’s not surprising to me at all,” Quigley said.