The teacher and poet Linda Thomas likes to remind me that the historical centerpiece of culture, transportation and perhaps even ideology of Orange County is a 19th-century traffic roundabout in downtown Orange called “The Plaza.” But even some locals persist in using an incorrect name: “The Circle.”
The language is, of course, Spanish, and the layout is a roundabout so, yes, this OC landmark is often reconfigured to a circle. The construction of the whole gorgeous civic set-up inspires admiration, with its trees and flowers and shallow fountain pool. Old California-style — a pretended past that obscures as much as it commemorates. Manicured Chapman University is a block north, past the pie place. A terrific high-end Mexican restaurant is a block south. The shops, mostly antiques and vintage clothing stores are cute and overpriced, the architecture a hundred years old. We came here not long ago for a Black Lives Matter rally to mourn the shooting of Breonna Taylor and yet another legal determination affirming the brutality of law and law enforcement.
Dear reader, you have not spent an hour in the little park in The Plaza of historic downtown Orange until you have spent it holding a sign, raising your fist, and chanting with three or four dozen young masked and black-wearing members of the Revolutionary Communist Party and their allies, all while being considered blankly by al fresco diners at Felix’s Cuban restaurant across the street, yelled at by white male cartoon drivers — “Go home!” — or saluted, waved, and honked at by sympathetic drivers, some circumnavigating the roundabout two or three times in a too-easy gesture of solidarity.
In many years of citizen activism, I’ve made allies in unlikely organizations, and in unlikely places. So I remarked, old guy style, on our drive home afterward, to my adult child — who should be off to college, poor kid, and not going to demonstrations with their parents — and to my activist-teacher wife that I’ve assembled with Communists, anarchists, Black Bloc, Antifa, socialists, Greens, Democrats, even, occasionally, anti-war Libertarians and liberal Republicans. Which all seemed helpful in ranking, together, the demonstration an overall 7 on a scale of 10.
The rally occurred during the reliably beautiful Golden Hour on a balmy evening. The signs were good, mostly homemade, except for the “RevCom” banners, which scream hyperbole but lately seem on the mark. The organizers broadcast provocative rap classics. We chanted loudly and occupied half of The Plaza’s lovely west-facing sidewalk perimeter, the bright setting sun creating a silhouette of the notorious former Crystal Cathedral — for irony or just reality. Best of all, a trombonist played New Orleans second-line style funeral stomp on his bright pink instrument.
We 40 or 50 masked revolutionaries were entirely ignored by the other visitors to the park, seniors and couples and families who rested in the shade with their dogs, played with children or walked through to dine at one of the restaurants serving outdoors.
So masked revolutionary protesters — including me, a middle-class composition lecturer at the University of California, Irvine — assembled at The Plaza in the heart of conservative Orange County. This is but only one weird marker of the pandemic and the new protocols of democratic grassroots activism in a topsy-turvy political world. Even a few months ago youthful (and even old!) black-clad protesters in masks, balaclavas, and bandanas might have provoked a more hostile atmosphere, and a much different response from the motorcycle officers parked discreetly in front of Blaze Pizza, thus earning the rally a revised 8 out of 10.
The more things have changed, the more it is possible to accommodate, ignore or engage them. Or, perhaps, note and cherish and celebrate them.
Social progress is slow, but at The Plaza in Orange, it seemed dramatic and even revolutionary. You could drive by and not notice. You could drive by, notice, and be affirmed. Better yet, you could stand there and see it all, as did I, in a truly new and roundabout way.
Top image of The Plaza by Evan Wohrman, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.