Signs

Tonight a neighbor sent a group text to say that she had been out walking her dog and had seen an unfamiliar pickup truck drive up and down our dead-end street, removing Black Lives Matter signs from the front yards. A number of us texted back that our signs were gone. One neighbor’s front-door camera captured a short movie of the truck rolling down the street while somebody ran from sign to sign, pulling them out of the lawns. The neighbor who’d seen this happen was rattled–it was later in the evening, the street was dark–and I imagine we all were, hearing about it. When I went outside to check on our sign, I walked up and down the street, and I don’t know what I expected to see, but everything looked different.

Last night at my city’s school board meeting, the agenda for which included a vote on extending the mask mandate, the board president had to ask police to clear their meeting room after the board’s rules of decorum for public comment were violated. The woman whose behavior led to the meeting being stopped is anti-vaccine and anti-mask, as her frequent comments on the city health department’s social media posts have made plain. She’s captured on the livestream of the meeting wearing a thin blue line t-shirt and a Trump mask. On local radio this morning she repeatedly claimed that she was being “silenced.” Her shirt and mask spoke volumes.

Not to put too fine a point on it: these events are signs of the times. The country is falling apart. The worst president we’ve had could be back in the White House in four years, if he’s not in jail. There are governors who are mandating that there be no mandates in their states, trading the safety of their constituents for their votes. It’s just a few feet of ground in the culture war the GOP is fighting nationwide, from the Capitol to local school boards. Schoolteachers are being told they can’t teach the history of race in the country. Texans are being deputized to arrest fellow Texans if they exercise their right to make their own reproductive health care decisions. The battles in this war are less and less tactical and more and more scorched earth. It’s far from inconceivable that the peaceful transfer of power will be a casualty, and with it, our democracy.

Signs matter. In times like this, they matter even more. Two strangers came on my street tonight and stole my sign out of my yard, and did it up and down the block. This isn’t just an annoyance or even a disconcerting violation of my property. In the words of the woman who disrupted the school board meeting, it’s an attempt to silence. I know that people on both sides of the cultural divide (I was going to say widening cultural divide, but I don’t actually think that’s true) have signs that proclaim their beliefs, and that many on both sides believe that what their signs say is correct. I also know that, despite the disingenuous cries of cancel culture, the right in this country wields the rhetoric of silencing far more frequently and viciously than the left, and that it’s not just a tactic, it’s the point. The Attorney General of my state would like to make the teaching of whatever he wants to pretend is critical race theory illegal. He’s sending a signal to voters that he’ll work to silence the voices talking about race in America, in the past and the present.

Some see yard signs and t-shirts and bumper stickers as empty gestures, signals of virtue but hardly action. The shadowy figures seen in my neighbor’s front-door camera recording must think otherwise or they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of stealing our signs. Just like the neighbor who just texted us to ask if anybody knows where to buy more signs so we can get them back up.

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