Roger Abramson, a Miami Beach transplant from Ohio, has been a civil-rights crusader for most of his life.
In the 1950s and 1960s, he marched to desegregate a swimming pool in Cincinnati. He and his wife participated in voter registration drives, sit-ins, and freedom rides, and they hosted fundraising events at their home to support the civil-rights movement. He was inducted into the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame for decades of "advocating for equality and justice not only in Cincinnati, but throughout the country."
Now, at 86 years old, Abramson wanted to do something to show solidarity with those protesting systemic racism, police brutality, and the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man who died under the weight of a Minneapolis police officer's knee in late May. He thought about attending a protest but worried about the crowds, his age, and the risk of COVID-19.
That led Abramson to ask his granddaughter, Arley Hunt, to help him write "Black Lives Matter" in chalk paint on the sliding glass door that leads to the balcony of his Mid Beach condo. It wasn't long before neighbors confronted him and complained to management. Staff at his Collins Avenue building told him to remove the sign.
Property manager Luis Tijerino tells New Times he supports Abramson's message but had to enforce the association's rules.
"Our rules and regulations say not to display anything on the windows," he says. "[Condos are] shared use. What goes for one goes for all."
Tijerino says one resident complained that if Abramson could write "Black Lives Matter" on his glass door, he would post a "Trump Forever" sign on his own window.
"There are some people who don't like the sign and have different political views," Tijerino says. "But I'm not going to let him put up a Trump sign. That's why we have a set of condo rules."
Abramson plans to address the issue with the condominium board and could face a fine. In a statement to New Times via his granddaughter, he says the focus should be on his message, not the dispute with the association.
"It is not a story of an old man being victimized in the pursuit of equality," he says. "Instead, energy should be directed back to the story and people I am trying to amplify, the movement for Black lives — Black Lives Matter. Condominiums have rules, and while I definitely do not always agree with them (they also oppose hanging plants) I am an 86-year-old, upper-middle-class white man and I know that my voice (and my life) is not in jeopardy of being silenced here."
Nevertheless, Abramson wanted to figure out a way to get that important message across, so he and his granddaughter took the paint off the window and replaced it with cardboard cut-outs that spell out "BLM." They hung the letters from the door on the inside of the condo using fishing wire — a display that could be considered interior art.
"It is so important that we all are vocal in our own communities so that others know they have our support," Abramson says in the statement.
Hunt, Abramson's granddaughter, says she and her cousins grew up hearing stories about their grandparents' activism and learning about racial injustice. Some of her younger cousins are getting those lessons now, as they absorb the news about Floyd's death and the aftermath.
"He talks to them because this is their first real memory of this type of physical, racial hatred," Hunt says. "I think it's important having those conversations. We do come from white privilege. We've grown up well and had comfortable lives, and it's about leveraging that to be better people and to help."
Abramson used to teach other members of the Jewish community about standing up for racial justice. Hunt says her grandfather feels the Jewish community hasn't been as vocal as it should be.
"I think for him, it's the idea that we've been a persecuted people and these are our kin, our neighbors and friends," she says. "And you don't ever want to see anyone discriminated against. He thinks Jews have a place to be supportive here, and he thinks it's our responsibility."
As the protests grew larger in the weeks after Floyd's death, Abramson wanted to march somewhere he could be distanced from others. He and Hunt found a vigil in Miami Shores earlier this month with a smaller crowd than the protests in downtown Miami. He held up his sign, which read: "I am 86 years old. I protested in the 60s so my grandkids wouldn't need to. What the fuck?"
Like he did in the 60s, Abramson wore all black and donned a "We shall overcome" button quoting Martin Luther King Jr.
Hunt says her grandfather will keep the BLM sign hanging from his door. And every night for the foreseeable future, he'll turn on a bright industrial light at 8:46 p.m. — for the 8 minutes and 46 seconds the Minneapolis officers kneeled on Floyd's neck — so people in his neighborhood can see the shadow of the letters.
"I encourage people not just in Miami Beach, but all over this country, to use a light in their window and any type of clear visuals to symbolize their commitment to this call for equality," Abramson says in the statement. "Join me each night at 8:46 p.m. in turning it on, but know that enlightenment is not just turning on the light, but also having the conversations with your families and taking the steps so the symbolism from our lights turns into actions in our communities."