The Sign Lady

In more than three years, Sonja Fitchhas produced more than 400 pieces of satirical political artwork-her gallery walls are her fence on Ninth Street South in Jacksonville Beach. As a result, she says, she’s been a victim of hate crimes, hate speech, vulgarities and vandalism, and continues navigating the political gauntlet of the city of Jacksonville Beach that wants Fitch to put an end to her signage because it claims it violates the city’s temporary sign ordinance.

Yet she persists, seeing the issue as protecting her free speech and her right to peacefully protest.

“When I first started doing this, it was a way for me to be involved in what was going on in the world. And, my God, it morphed into hundreds of people stopping, thanking and talking to me, telling me how much they appreciate me standing up for them. Which never occurred to me that was what was going to happen,” Fitch said recently.

She tells story after story after story. After putting up signs about Putin and Trump, a man from Crimea, who dubs Fitch his American mother, came to her home, where he broke down and told her how Putin had taken everything he had ever had.

A German woman, visiting for six months so her husband could get therapy at Baptist Medical Centers Beaches, would come in and cry on her couch, explaining she was scared of the current political direction of the United States and that Fitch’s house was the only safe place she had seen where anyone was speaking out.

Muslim doctors who live in Queens Harbour tell her how frightened they are to leave the children home alone.

Fitch is a retired first-grade teacher and union organizer, one of the first female union organizers for the teachers’ union in Florida and Georgia. Her father, a WWII vet, worked in construction, helping build the Buckman Bridge. She has pictures on her walls of family members, noting many of them were killed by various forms of cancer. She points to a picture of a Japanese girl, her adopted sister, Wendy, who died of colorectal cancer.

“Wendy was the first non-white to go to our school in Clay County,” says Fitch. “The Klan came to our house to burn a cross, and my daddy walked outside to yell at ‘Junior’ that Wendy wasn’t gonna hurt nobody; that they needed to go … and they did … . That’s how long I’ve lived here.”

Fitch moved to Jax Beach six years ago after doctors had given up on treating her autoimmune disorders and told her she didn’t have long to live. The house and the signs/art began after she’d recovered enough to be mobile again, putting up non-political artwork that slowly morphed into messages and signs addressing issues like climate change, texting and driving, and various causes-all without complaints from the city or her neighbors.

During the most recent presidential primaries, Fitch began creating and hanging political artwork increasingly focused on Trump and the politics of the Republican Party. She says this set the ball in motion for neighbors and Jax Beach residents to complain.

After a special magistrate’s hearing, Jax Beach city attorney Susan Erdelyi decreed Fitch needed to move her entire fence five feet, could hang a maximum of only eight signs, and all signs could not exceed 4 feet by 4 feet. Undeterred, she resolved to move the fence. It would’ve cost nearly $4,000, but a friend who shares her political views agreed to help.

In addition to her bureaucratic and legal issues, Fitch, a petite woman of 69 years, says she’s been pushed up against her fence by a neighbor, threatened by a man in a truck, had her fence and car spray-painted, and has had numerous pieces of her art destroyed.

“I think it’s terrible the way she’s been treated; I don’t like seeing Nazi stuff going up. They came and did other things, too. They stole a flag,” says neighbor Martha Backer. “We moved here three years ago from Miami, and this is one of the first people I met. She had some signs, and over two years, it morphed into a little more political stuff.

“I really like it. It’s interesting. Sonja is a teacher. She worked for the union, she worked with teachers, she’s intelligent. I think this is a bulletin board. I think she should be allowed to have her free speech.”

Fitch’s garage is filled with gifts from hundreds of admirers: flowers, peace signs, bottles of liquor, cards, letters, even a bottle of mouthwash from a Trump hotel. She continues to recount stories of community members who appreciate her political voice, telling of parents of transgender kids who stop in to talk.

She says there are about twice as many people who stop by to talk and encourage her to continue her peaceful protests; then, of course, there’s a minority who yell curse words from their cars as she sits in front of her fence, reading or relaxing. Lately she’s been reading Fire and Fury.

“Physically, I’m limited due to my health. Somehow I’ve become a voice for other people who can’t voice things at this point-it never occurred to me when I started doing this,” says Fitch. “It’s really unusual to me that’s that where we are in America, but that’s what this has become. People are so alienated and left out. It’s unbelievable.

“During the past two years, I want to sit down and cry for some of these people. It’s so frustrating. If this is all I can do to make them feel better then, hell, I’m going to do it.”