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Reading the signs of the times on Claremont streets

by John Pixley

Josue Barnes was walking home from school one day.  He was a student at Claremont High School, where he played on the football team and earned good grades—good enough to get into college and then go onto a prestigious medical school back east, where he is currently a student.

On that day, he was walking along the sidewalk, heading home as usual.  Except on this day, he noticed a white man walking on the sidewalk toward him, carrying a briefcase.

Why did it matter that the man was white?  Because Josue Barnes is Black, and, apparently, that mattered to the man.

The man didn’t know that Josue Barnes was a student at Claremont High School, a student on the football team, a student earning good, college-worthy grades who would eventually attend medical school.  All the man knew was that the young man, the kid, walking up the sidewalk towards him was Black. Apparently, that mattered.  Big time.

It mattered enough, it mattered so much, that the man crossed the street to walk on the other side.“And, remember, this was Indian Hill Boulevard,” said Mr. Barnes when he spoke in September as that month’s guest in Claremont Speaks Black, the local Bahai community’s monthly series on Zoom featuring Black residents of Claremont speaking on what it’s like to be Black in Claremont. “And you know how wide and busy Indian Hill Boulevard is.”

Mr. Barnes is the co-founder, with Noah Winnick, a white CHS alum, of Claremont Change (claremontchange.org), advocating racial equality and justice in Claremont, in the wake of the George Floyd killing. During the Claremont Speaks Black session, he spoke of being shocked that a white man, especially one who appeared intelligent, would go out of his way to avoid him, a hard-working student, because he is Black.  He said that this incident was a turning point in becoming aware that being Black makes him different and treated differently.Later, when I told some friends here in town about this incident, they gasped, shook their head, rolled their eyes.This really happened in Claremont?  Really?

Really.

It was definitely eye-opening to me. It’s one thing to hear talk of Black people being treated differently, treated unjustly, treated inhumanely in Claremont – one needs only mention Irwin Landrum, killed by Claremont police—but it’s something else entirely to hear a Black person talk about being subjected to the different treatment.

Thanks to the local Bahais for giving us this opportunity. (The Claremont Speaks Black series is also a response to the sustained protests this summer after the Floyd murder in Minneapolis against police brutality and racial injustice.)

I am also grateful to my friends’ gasping, head-shaking and eye-rolling—shame, shame!—when I told them what Mr.  Barnes had experienced here in Claremont.  I wasn’t alone in being shocked, embarrassed, outraged, ashamed, hurt.

There have also been other signs, literal and otherwise, that I have been grateful for in my limited outings around my neighborhood and around town in recent weeks.For one thing, there have been all the yard signs. I have seen a few Claremont Change yard signs, speaking of Mr. Barnes, here and there.  The message for equality and justice is getting out there.  I have also seen Claremont Cares yard signs, encouraging mask-wearing to slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s nice to see these signs, but it would also be nice if they were universally followed.  (For every day I’m encouraged by people out wearing masks, there are days when I’m disappointed—no, horrified—to see people, lots of people, not wearing masks.  And don’t get me started on the people eating at restaurants, even outside.)

There are also the Black Lives Matter signs popping up in front yards. It’s great to see this support, although this is only a tiny step and will not end racial injustice.  Then again, it says something when one is the only one on the block to have a BLM sign.These signs join those saying, “We believe Black lives matter…love is love…no person is illegal…science is real…”—a simple proclamation as protest.  

Then, with the election, there have been the candidate signs proliferating on front lawns and various other strips of land, vying for attention, like the candidates themselves.  I have seen signs for the presidential candidates – Biden much more than Trump in the area I frequent – but, perhaps appropriately and definitely to my relief – the vast majority have been for City Council candidates.

Maybe because, for the first time, the election is for districts rather than city-wide, the signs seem more personal, like a neighbor calling for our support.  There is a small-town charm to this, without the irritating clamor of the hand-painted signs for student council candidates plastering the walls and every other surface on campus (nothing charming about that).

Even more charming—and poignant—were the signs seen on many front yards beginning in the late spring congratulating graduates, primarily from Claremont High School but also from El Roble and even elementary schools.  This was one sweet way of making up, or trying to make up, for graduations and other recognition ceremonies squashed by the pandemic.

Another sign of the times, perhaps inspired by the pandemic, is furniture, toys and other items being left on the sidewalk for others to take for free. I see this as people reaching out and helping one another, in a safe way, during this difficult time.

Finally, there are the Halloween decorations.  I have seen more and more of these in recent years but nothing like this.  It could be despite the pandemic putting a damper on trick-or-treating and other celebrations, or it could be because of it, especially with the city, encouraging safe ways of celebrating, sponsoring a decorating contest.

Or it could be both.

Whatever the reason, it has been, from what I’ve seen on my limited outings, definitely a treat, a sight to see.  There have been the usual pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns, along with skulls, skeletons and spider webs, along with ghosts hanging from trees, here and there.  There have been plenty of scarecrows lounging on front porches and in front yards, some doing things, like the one reading a book next to a little library.  Some yard displays have been incredibly creative, involving quite a bit of work, like the two scarecrows on Mountain Avenue playing badminton or the party on West Point with dancing skeletons, accompanied by two seated, banjo-playing, pumpkin-headed scarecrows.      

In all of these, I’ve seen signs, encouraging signs, of community at a time when there hasn’t been much.    

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