Stan Kuhlman sits alone in a lawn chair at the busy intersection of Raleigh Road and Meadowmont Lane in east Chapel Hill.
Every afternoon since June, he’s set up a large sign with “Black Lives Matter” painted on a white background. Then he sits behind it as traffic passes by on the six-lane highway.
“We could not just sit around and not do anything,” Kuhlman says. He takes the afternoon shift, while fellow demonstrators David DeMarini and Jay Greenberg take the mornings.
“We’re all enfeebled old white guys, and we’re retired,” Kuhlman says. “But I think we’re successful if people just feel good from this stoplight to the next one.”
Kuhlman and Greenberg’s friend, Eric Teagarden, discussed the idea for the demonstration in June after the killing of George Floyd. They began the Monday after Father’s Day. DeMarini, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, joined soon after.
While the protest is centered on the Black Lives Matter movement, it is carried out by a group of white men in their sixties and seventies. Kuhlman says white men bear the responsibility of keeping racial justice in the conversation, because white men caused the injustice.
He says that while he recognizes that the conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement has decreased since the summer, it is important to not let the issue fall by the wayside.
The men plan to put the demonstration on hold during the winter months and return when the cold breaks.
“We’re going to stop at the end of December, and we’re going to figure out what to do in between, and when to restart after that in the spring,” he says.
The morning after Election Day, DeMarini and Greenberg had their chairs set up on the same corner with the same painted sign. Greenberg, 73, says he’s been involved in protests and social movements since the 1960s, beginning with the movement against the war in Vietnam. For him, the small demonstration was appealing, because it would allow him to be involved without exposing himself to COVID-19.
Greenberg says he was active during the Civil Rights Movement. He sympathizes with people frustrated with the often slow pace of social change, but says it’s more important than ever to raise awareness now.
”Have you ever been to the Grand Canyon?” he asks. “That stone wasn’t cut overnight. This isn’t going to happen overnight. So we’ve got to keep going. It’s a marathon.”
DeMarini says his last major involvement in a protest movement was as a student at Illinois State University, marching in opposition to the Vietnam War. He says he witnessed the same sentiments from people during the ’60s antiwar movement as he did during the Trump presidency: folks wanting to move out of the country rather than live in an unfavorable political climate. But he emphasized the importance of making a personal effort.
“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, it was, ‘America: Love it or leave it,’” he says. “That was the chant from people who thought everything was just hunky-dory. And so some people chose to leave, but most people chose to take a stand and try to change things. They ran for elected office and started various social movements.”
That morning on the side of the highway, passersby on the sidewalk wave and voice their support. Bill Roper, former interim president of the UNC System, walks by with his dog.
“Hang in there,” he says.
Both DeMarini and Greenberg say the goal of their demonstration has been to keep the Black Lives Matter movement visible in Chapel Hill, even when election coverage and other news cycles have taken some eyes off of it. Based on the small but vocal group of objectors they’ve encountered, even in progressive areas like Chapel Hill, there is plenty of work to be done, they say.
“Going dormant until the next flare-up is not an answer,” Greenberg says. “It’s not as exciting, but it’s effective. Get involved. And don’t get discouraged.”
During Kuhlman’s afternoon shift, passing cars honk in support every few minutes. He might get one out of 10 cars to honk, and a few will wave; but every so often, Kuhlman says, someone will give him a thumbs down, or the middle finger. While the vast majority of reactions have been positive, one detractor sticks out in his memory.
“I think it was late August—we had a young guy come down on a bicycle,” Kuhlman says. “We thought he was going to come over and talk to us about it. He proceeded to just smash that sign apart. It was in pieces, and he didn’t say a word until he was all done, and he said, ‘There you go.’ And he got on his bicycle and took off.”
But Kuhlman focuses on the positive interactions.
“There was a young woman here and she said, ‘I’ve been seeing you for months, and it affects me deeply,’” he says. “And she started to cry. So I think that we’re getting these three-second connections with people. It’s kind of a micro-community, I guess.”
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