Flying a ‘Black Lives Matter’ in a white neighborhood

In the two weeks since a white Minneapolis police officer — knowing he was being videotaped — took the life of African-American George Floyd, protests have erupted around the world and in my white town, my white neighborhood.

‘Black Lives Matter’ protesters in Fayetteville, New York, June 4, 2020. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

I wanted to share some of the more noteworthy reactions from people who look like me (that is, white). These encounters took place in two settings — during protests along a busy road a few blocks from our house, and in our front yard, where we’ve placed a “Black Lives Matter” sign near the street.

Heavily traveled road, afternoon rush hour

As dozens of us held signs during four straight days of 90-minute protests, we heard a steady symphony of enthusiastic car horns, saw plenty of smiles and fist pumps from white drivers and passengers.

In the minority were these (white) people:

* Man leaning out the passenger window of a pickup truck: “Trump 2020! White power!”

* Man in convertible who slowed down to yell “All lives matter!” at a child in our group who was chanting, “Black Lives Matter!” (Yes, he slowed down to yell that to a child about 6 years old.)

* Man in a pickup truck: Middle finger in my direction.

* Shirtless, sunburned neighbor standing in his driveway videotaping the protest. Someone at his house a day or two earlier had been upset with protesters. (I briefly videotaped him videotaping us; he waved, I waved back.)

* Older man in an SUV stopped on the busy road for several minutes to videotape us, phone in one hand, cigarette in the other. Apparently he didn’t like what we were doing. We took a photo of his vehicle and license plate. You never know.

Our front yard

One reason I planted a “Black Lives Matter” sign in the front yard was to engage in conversations with people whom I don’t know, but most likely are my neighbors. I sit in a chair in the yard, sometimes reading, always watching. Conversations have been rare, but the sign gets noticed.

*An older man drove by and flipped the bird — not at me, but at the sign. He must not like signs, because he then ignored the big red STOP at the corner.

* A group of about six young ladies, high schoolers maybe, walked by. Two of them noticed our sign, waved and smiled.

* A young lady driving by slowed and gave a supportive fist pump.

* A young family of four walked by. I don’t know them, but I looked up and waved. Only the man looked in my direction, with a blank expression. Does “no reaction” count as a reaction?

* One evening a car went by, fast. So fast, in fact, that all I could hear the young, bearded driver yell was “. . . f***ing sign!” I assume he either lives nearby or is friends with someone who does. (This is why I take our sign inside every night.)

* A neighbor, whom I know casually, walked by with his two dogs. He stopped to ask about my other sign (for a Democratic Congressional candidate) and then our conversation turned to the nation’s turmoil. He is clearly upset by the direction our country is headed under the current administration. He said he is filled with sadness and added, “It’s hard to find hope.”

These encounters, positive and negative, will continue. The anti-racism protests, like COVID-19, are not going away any time soon.

Each offers the same opportunity to unite us while also exposing the nation’s raw divisions. The lack of honesty and empathy from the White House has worsened each crisis.

For me, the positive responses to our “Black Lives Matter” signs are a source of strength and hope, an antidote to sadness. The relatively few negative, hate-filled reactions are their own kind of oxygen, keeping alive the urgency to keep fighting for justice and the end of racism.

Racism — a learned behavior.

At each location — our noisy street protests and our quiet front yard sign — I witnessed a young mother walking with children stop and answer their questions about the signs. I couldn’t hear what was being said. But I hold onto hope that those teachable moments were filled with lessons of humanity and empathy.