First published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel under the pen name, Elizabeth Rose
The day after the racial justice protest in Carpinteria, I protested in Montecito. I didn’t know if others would be out there, holding signs or walking the streets, but I wanted to keep the conversation going. Primarily, in a very affluent community who, generally speaking, live in Montecito to “get away from it all.” For me, the protest was a way to support my friends in the Black community, speak up for social justice, and take the town’s temperature. Sure, it isn’t LA or Atlanta where massive protests raged for days, but I’m a woman who planned to stand alone with a sign that could trigger people. As silly as it sounds, I wondered if strangers would get overtly vocal or even physical.
That morning, I changed out of a tie-dye top and paisley pants, my usual garb as a writer living in an Airstream, for something more Montecito. I wanted to dress for my audience, which, to me, meant a conservative floral sundress and a straw hat with a black ribbon around the brim. Before I left, I grabbed my poster (“Racism is a Pandemic, too”), then headed out the door.
As I pulled off the Coast Village Road exit to the five-way intersection, there were no protestors insight. So, I surveyed each corner to see which would allow the best view of my sign. The intersection felt too spread out to be noticed, so I kept driving.
After looping the roundabout near the Montecito Country Mart, I circled back to the three-way stop across from the Honor Bar. The busy intersection is further into the heart of town, I thought, and more easily seen by passersby.
My heart pounded as I parked a block up from the corner where I’d stand, so I put my earbuds in and played Jack Johnson to calm my nerves. With the poster tucked under my arm and my mask secured to my face, I looked like a typical Montecitan enjoying a Sunday a stroll. But a minute later, I stepped to the curb and unrolled my hidden agenda.
It’s hard to explain what’s it like to stand alone for what you believe in. As a military kid, I grew up honoring the flag and all those who’ve died for our freedom. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is something many men and women still fight for, and thankfully so – The First Amendment, which protects “freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition” is the foundation of my writing career. Although our country has deep issues to mend, I have never felt more proud and more American than I did at that moment. But as I drifted out my daydream and back to reality, panic set in.
I noticed people sitting at the Honor Bar’s patio tables stretching their necks to read my sign, someone snapping a picture, and drivers slowing in front to read. Finally, after several long minutes, the first honk came, followed by a fist in the air. Others rolled down windows and lifted peace signs to the sky. Even the highway patrol drove by to smile and wave. I choked up a little as strangers showed solidarity, sort of the validation I needed.
But the First Amendment came back to bite me when an older man in a red MINI Cooper threw his arms up in disgust like I ruined his perfectly good Sunday. Another man about my age yelled out, “All Lives Matter!” And a woman, who looked like an elementary school teacher, rolled down her window to cackle and mock me. As I began to feel bullied in a position I rightfully put myself in, a big white Sprinter van honked in support, startling the laughing woman who then quickly sped away. In the forty-five minutes I stood there, only three people outwardly disagreed with my presence, half the people responded positively, and the other half pretended I didn’t exist.
I learned we have to keep asking ourselves the hard questions: Why does racism happen, and why do we allow it? What mental work do we have to do to say what’s in our hearts? It’s moments like these – whether reading to educate ourselves, talking with friends and family, or holding a sign on a street corner – that shows our moral courage and determines who we are.
Let’s continue the conversation: post your thoughts in the comments below. Let this be a safe space where we can talk. No matter what you believe, we can learn from one another. All are welcome here.
I Heart is a relationship column in the Santa Barbara Sentinel. Catch up on more I Heart columns here!