When hate flies down the street

Elizabeth Slonim Macanufo is a freelance writer. She and her husband live in St. Louis with their three children. 

By Elizabeth Slonim Macanufo, Special to the Jewish Light

Throughout the election cycle, coming across political signs from the opposing party rattled me, but seeing a Confederate flag within sight of my home truly shocked me. 

I noticed the Confederate flag while driving down our street in Richmond Heights. The offending lawn, already littered with “Hillary for Prison” signs, sits across a playground I frequent with my three children. 

In deciding what to do, if anything, about this unwelcome emblem, I considered the recent advice of a friend. A native Californian of Punjabi descent, she found herself experiencing culture shock while living in the Midwest after public-policy school. 

“People need to start talking directly to those with opposing views to change their minds,” she recommended. 

With the start of a new year, one sure to have challenges and uncertainties, I decided to take her advice.

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No longer content to witness hatred spread without intervention, I shared my concerns with my community by posting the following on the neighborhood community message website Next Door:

An open letter to our neighbor flying the Confederate flag:

Please know that I recognize your right, protected by the First Amendment, to make whatever political statement you would like on your property. This is one of the greatest things about America, to be able to voice our opinions, popular or contrary, without fear of retribution from our government.

However, seeing a Confederate flag waving in my neighborhood makes me extremely uncomfortable. I view the flag as a statement of hate and intolerance. This symbol makes me worry about my safety and that of my children in the Highland Park neighborhood. Although we’ve never met, that flag makes me assume that you think less of me and my children and all others who are different than your perception of “an American.”

I invite you, and any others who have an opinion on the appropriateness of flying a Confederate flag, to contribute to this post or to have a discussion in real life. I would welcome the opportunity to have an honest and open conversation on the topic. My goal is not necessarily for you to take the flag down but at least to understand the dissenting voices, and for you to gain insight as to how your neighbors may feel about your choice. 

Next Door members reacted more positively than I hoped. Many thanked me for my post, agreeing that a Confederate flag in the neighborhood felt alarming. People debated about whether or not someone should be judged because he or she chose to fly a Confederate flag (yes). Some discussed whether flying the Confederate flag could be equated with posting a “Black Lives Matter” sign in your yard (no). 

Several people suggested optimistically that he was simply expressing “Southern pride.” I found that explanation truly perplexing and deeply disturbing. Why would anyone be nostalgic for a time and place associated with humans owning other humans?

A few people criticized me for not approaching the home to converse directly. I admit that perhaps I took a cowardly route. Caution remained a top priority. I could only imagine the worst reaction to an in-person confrontation. 

One neighbor did approach the house. No one answered, but she left a note inviting the homeowner to join the discussion. A few days later he did, only to warn us that he had a security camera and he would let the police know if anyone tried to steal his property. Others tried to cajole a more thorough and thoughtful reply, but he did not respond again.

After a week, the site moderator asked me to shut down the post. Unfortunately, as so often happens on the internet, the discussion devolved into name-calling and tattletelling. By the time the comments concluded, the neighbor had replaced the Confederate flag with a Marine Corps flag, which the group deemed much more palatable. 

Did he take down the flag because of my initial post or because of the majority of dissenters? I don’t know. I’ll probably never know. It’s likely I will never meet this individual. I doubt we have shared interests or run in the same social circles. Although I don’t know if I truly made a difference, I now know that there are many others where I live who feel the same way I do. 

There is strength in numbers, and so this experience taught me what I already know. I need to speak up. And not just speak up, but act up. 

Expect to hear from me and my family. Expect to read my thoughts on social media, where I connect with friends, old and new, who share the same progressive vision for our country. 

Expect to see me at rallies and protests, standing for humanitarian causes that are quickly becoming endangered in America. Expect me to engage with you in person so that we can share ideas on promoting democracy. 

I expect the same of you.