A gun range in Camden County is resisting calls to take down two billboards that activists say aggravate racial tensions and mock NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with race," said Wesley Aducat, owner of the South Jersey Shooting Club in Winslow Township, which put up one of the billboards several weeks ago near Route 73 in Voorhees Township. The second appears on a digital sign near Routes 73 and 130 in Pennsauken. "It's just support for our veterans."
The signs say: "The only time we take a knee…" and show the silhouette of a person shooting a rifle, with the website of the club at the bottom.
Aducat said he supports the right to protest but doesn't agree with kneeling during the anthem, particularly since many of the club's members are veterans. He said he has no plans to remove the billboards.
That has upset the NAACP's Camden County East chapter. It says the signs twist the message of kneeling, which is meant to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality against people of color.
"We're talking about police murdering unarmed black people," NAACP member Keith Benson Sr. said. He called the signs racially divisive and has encouraged people to call the club to complain. "They deserve all the disrespect they're going to get as a result of putting it up. But they probably thought they were clever. They probably thought they were strong, patriotic Americans."
South Jersey Women for Progressive Change, a group that formed after the 2016 presidential election to empower women, has also told its members to call the club. Susan Druckenbrod, one of the group's members, said she recently talked to an employee: "I told them the billboard was offensive, and he said, 'That's nice,' and he hung up."
Druckenbrod had one word for the billboards: "Racist."
"We're living in a very difficult time right now. People are trying to stand up for black and brown people to say, 'Hey this is not right,'" she said. "That sign really is just mocking the idea of taking a knee."
The shooting club, which says it is affiliated with the National Rifle Association and requires members to join the NRA, operates along Piney Hollow Road in Winslow, just off the Atlantic City Expressway. (Carmen Console, the club's membership director, said he had nothing to do with the billboards, despite being named in social media posts as the person to call).
On the club's Facebook page, people left comments both supporting ("Love the sign on 73!") and criticizing the signs. One woman wrote, "I'm sure there's a way to advertise responsible common sense firearm training and use that's not offensive."
The debate over taking a knee during the anthem started in 2016, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled to protest racial injustices and police mistreatment of black Americans. Players who followed his lead have said they are calling attention to those issues and not trying to disrespect the flag.
Critics have called the protests insulting to troops and the flag.
In September, President Trump tweeted that NFL fans should boycott games until players "stop disrespecting our Flag & Country," echoing his remarks from an Alabama rally that NFL owners should demand for players who protest or don't stand during the anthem: " 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.' "
That same weekend, protesters chanting "Take a knee" were cursed at by some Eagles fans, one of whom yelled "I hate you! American made!" just before the Eagles-Giants game at Lincoln Financial Field.