The normally bustling corner of Front and Main streets in downtown Wheaton was even busier Saturday afternoon as more than 100 sign-waving demonstrators gathered to protest a local landlord.
The group's members, led by longtime Wheaton resident Jessica Prewitt, were speaking out against businessman Robert Sandberg and a sign he posted two years ago inside the front door of a former Vietnamese restaurant that says the owners "went back to Vietnam."
The groundswell developed after Prewitt posted a picture of the sign on social media Wednesday.
"To me, that sign says, 'You're not welcome here, get out,'" Prewitt said Saturday outside Sandberg's men's clothing store. "Wheaton is a very tolerant, diverse community. There's just no room for that here."
Protesters lined the corner in front of Sandberg's store, at times blocking his front door, holding signs that read "Diversity is Delightful," "Be Kind," "Give Hate no Home" and "Wheaton Welcomes All."
Kate McElwee brought her two young daughters for what she called a "teaching moment."
"This is so much bigger than Mr. Sandberg versus the restaurant owners," she said. "This is about us peacefully using our freedom of speech to speak out against an enemy of diversity in our community."
Some people not associated with the protest said they felt obligated to go buy something from Sandberg because they thought he was being treated unfairly. Others yelled things like "fake news!" and "say no to DACA" as they drove east on Front Street.
Inside his store, Sandberg defended his right to keep the sign posted until he receives a handwritten apology from the owners of Luong-Loi, who he says skipped out on their rent and owe him $17,000. The operators of the restaurant, which months after closing in 2015 reopened across the street from its former location, deny on Facebook that they have any unmet obligations to Sandberg.
"Look, what these snowflakes are doing out here is petty. I'm no racist," Sandberg said of the protesters. "I have black friends and I'm actively supporting (former congressman from Florida) Allen West, who is black and a great, great man. This is a dispute between me and a former tenant who lied to me and who owes me money. Now these people have people calling my phone and telling me I'm a racist."
Sandberg said he posted the sign because he grew tired of people coming into his store and asking him what happened to the Vietnamese restaurant that had been there for about 30 years.
And he's willing to take it down, with conditions.
"It could be taken down yesterday. All you have to do is have them give me a letter saying that they lied to me. They told me wrong. They didn't go back to Vietnam," Sandberg said. "Give me a reason you did what you did or just say, 'We told you wrong. We made a mistake.'"
Luong-Loi serves lunch and dinner in a building formerly owned by Sandberg at 111-113 N. Main St.
The city gained ownership of the long-vacant property in 2006 after six years of condemnation proceedings against Sandberg. In late 2014, the city council approved the sale of the building to the restaurateurs for $160,111.
The restaurant opened there about a year later after extensive renovations of the building's facade.
Luong-Loi employees on Saturday declined to comment but pointed to a statement released Friday on the restaurant's Facebook page.
"On behalf of the Luong-Loi family, I want to thank Jessica and everyone here for their support and concern on this matter. Thank you to all our customers, the City of Wheaton, and the entire community for your continued support of our family and business," the statement reads. "As for Mr. Sandberg and the 'We went back to Vietnam' sign: We want to thank Mr. Sandberg for allowing Luong-Loi to lease his property for the past 25-plus years. We have no other obligations to Mr. Sandberg."