For Montclair Local

On Monday, June 14, I presented a poster in Downtown Montclair at its busiest intersection, the “Five Corners” spot where South Fullerton Avenue, North Fullerton Avenue, Church Street, Glenridge Avenue and Bloomfield Avenue converge. It reminded people of two things — every day is Flag Day, and Black and Asian Lives Matter every day.

I heard the sounds of support from honking cars and wonderful passersby. In three hours, I counted the number of "likes" and expressions of support by motorists, bikers, pedestrians and outdoor diners nearby. 

I mentally recorded 176 clear expressions of support via horn honks (the vast majority), thumbs up, waves, salutes, claps, shout-outs and the personal reflections of passersby. Hundreds more glanced at my poster, curious perhaps. Most needed to focus directly on what was going on around them — there’s lots of traffic at this dangerous intersection in Montclair. In the back of my mind was the nagging thought about distracting the drivers and being the cause of a pile-up, while at the same time calling attention to “lives mattering.”

As I stood there for three hours, I became very moved by the whole experience and the personal interactions that I was having by just being there. The Flag Day + Black/Asian Lives Matter poster that I held up seemed to evoke a number of reactions from passersby.  

One woman who seemed to be Asian slowly approached me, her hands held together as in prayer. I saw sadness in her eyes and I sensed a level of caution and fear. She paused and looked at my poster and said: “I hope so.” “I hope so too,” I told her.

She slowly walked away and I thought about all the attacks on people who are or might even “appear” to look like someone who is Asian or the “other.”  Perhaps she had a family member or friend who was harmed or heard about someone who had their storefront damaged.  But fear was in the air.

A couple of teenagers on their bikes stopped and looked at the words on the poster and motioned their agreement, and then we talked about how the Brooklyn Nets were doing. 

Mothers and fathers with strollers — including one parent with twins — stopped by and we chatted and I got to meet some toddlers. In all the hustle and bustle of daily life and the easing of pandemic life, people often stopped to express their views on the topic at hand or on how screwed up the country is. Some blamed Trump, the Republicans, the Democrats and often the whole damn system. 

But I also noticed that people seemed, of course, to be preoccupied with daily life and its challenges, their eyes straight ahead of them. I also noticed that others looked away from me and my sign — hurried away, some with a look of displeasure. Perhaps it was too sensitive a subject or a hot button of disagreement.

In any case, my sign and I seemed to have some impact one way or another.  But,this wasn’t about me, although I felt good that perhaps, in small way, I might have made a difference.  Maybe the linkage of our flag and the lives of others who are in peril might somehow help to bridge the gap.

Again, it was not about me and what I stand for.  It was about Montclair and the America we all hope for!

It was about the American Flag — under which I fought and led combat operations in the jungle, rice paddies and hot landing zones of South Vietnam as a 23-year-old lieutenant, and a combat infantry platoon leader of 36 men (average age, 19). They were Black, white, Asian, Latino and the many shades of America. Despite differences back home and differences among us, one flag united all of us.

Back in the “world” as we used to call it, the American Flag waves again in our imperfect, pained and bloodied nation. Our flag could now represent our best hopes, determination and commitment to right a 400-year-old history of suppression and violence against people of color. For too long, extremists such as those who attacked and committed murder at the Capitol on Jan. 6 or before that in Charlottesville have used the flag to promote racial hatred and division.

Our flag must be one of the symbols that remind us of who we can be and what we can be with each other, in order to create a just and “more perfect union," not just in our words but in determined action with tangible results for social justice for all.

Black and Asian Lives Matter, every day!  

Flag Day is every day! 

Both together, now and forever!

Gene Gitelson and his wife, Rosalind Winter, fell in love with Montclair in 1984 and raised their family here. Now retired, Gene worked as a career counselor in town and served as a management consultant to the senior leadership teams of UN Peacekeeping Missions around the world, and an adviser to the war crimes trials in the Hague. He served as a combat infantry lieutenant in Vietnam.


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