Two years after SF 'Karen' incident, gay man has chalk art protest

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Friday June 10, 2022
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James Juanillo, right, and his friend James Gosnell stood on the sidewalk where Juanillo hosted a chalk art protest in Pacific Heights June 9. Photo: Eric Burkett
James Juanillo, right, and his friend James Gosnell stood on the sidewalk where Juanillo hosted a chalk art protest in Pacific Heights June 9. Photo: Eric Burkett

James Juanillo, surrounded by boxes of chalk and standing on the chalk outline of a large calendar drawn on the sidewalk beneath him June 9, is hanging around outside the large Victorian he shares with several friends. Juanillo is throwing a chalk art protest, a notably more chill event than had occurred there before, two years ago to the day.

Neighbors in the Pacific Heights neighborhood where Juanillo lives had been stopping by throughout the afternoon, helping him fill in the days of the calendar with chalk-drawn pictures of hearts, flowers, messages of love, and a reminder to passersby to vote in November. The low-key protest was a commemoration of the day Juanillo had his first encounter with one of the more vexing trends sweeping the country.

Juanillo, people may remember, attracted the ire of a neighborhood "Karen," that salty breed of concerned white citizen committed to interfering with the activities of people of color, no matter what they might be doing. In Juanillo's case, it was writing — in chalk — "Black Lives Matter" on the low, black retaining wall along the sidewalk bordering the property of the house where he lives. Juanillo, a gay Gen-X Filipino American, caught the whole incident on video. This was only a couple of weeks after police in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd, a Black man they had in custody after he allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill.

Needless to say, the video went viral.

The video captured Lisa Alexander, who lived nearby, and her partner, Robert Larkins, on June 9, 2020, questioning Juanillo about his actions, implying he didn't belong there by telling him at one point, "We actually do know the person who lives here." By that time, Juanillo had lived in the house for 18 years, he told the Bay Area Reporter.

At Juanillo's encouragement, Alexander called the cops who, a little later, drove by and, recognizing Juanillo, waved hello and drove on. They never even got out of their vehicle, Juanillo said.

The incident, the video of which eventually drew millions of viewers, proved profoundly embarrassing for both Alexander and Larkins, who lost his job with investment firm Raymond James as a result. Other companies cut ties with LaFace, the beauty product company of which Alexander was CEO (Alexander took the company's web and social media presence down shortly afterward). Juanillo, on the other hand, was interviewed by numerous news outlets, and even ended up doing a guest appearance on the talk show "Dr. Phil".

Alexander issued an apology through CBS News a short time later.

"I want to apologize directly to Mr. Juanillo," Alexander wrote. "There are not enough words to describe how truly sorry I am for being disrespectful to him last Tuesday when I made the decision to question him about what he was doing in front of his home. I should have minded my own business. The last 48 hours has taught me that my actions were those of someone who is not aware of the damage caused by being ignorant and naive to racial inequalities."

"When I watch the video I am shocked and sad that I behaved the way I did," she continued. "It was disrespectful to Mr. Juanillo and I am deeply sorry for that. I did not realize at the time that my actions were racist and have learned a painful lesson. I am taking a hard look at the meaning behind white privilege and am committed to growing from this experience."

The B.A.R. was unable to reach Alexander, and Larkins did not respond to a request for comment.

A message drawn in chalk on the sidewalk by James Juanillo's neighbors in Pacific Heights June 9. Photo: Eric Burkett  

Flash forward two years and Juanillo, who said that moment on the sidewalk in front of his house "absolutely" changed his life, marked the anniversary with a chalk art protest.

"I mean, like do I regret that day? Not at all," he told the B.A.R. "All right, it changed my life. And in so many positive ways that that outweighed the unexpected sacrifice of what I considered a really well-oiled life. You know, before that actually happened, my life was on autopilot."

Juanillo, though born in the Philippines, grew up in San Francisco. He came out in San Francisco. Happily married with plenty of friends and family, and running a successful dog-walking business, Juanillo said he hadn't realized — until that moment with Alexander — "how fragile that privilege was and how easily it could be questioned."

Suddenly, he realized he was in a position to see both sides of the fence, he said, "to be that ground person between the black and the white of America. That I was in a unique position to bridge a gap, the racial divide, even."

That event also inspired the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to later that year pass the Caution Against Racial and Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act — or CAREN — which criminalized making phone calls to 911 of the sort Larkins and Alexander made to police when they confronted Juanillo, and gives victims the right to sue their harassers. The legislation passed unanimously.

Juanillo marvels at the fact that people are still reacting to the video.

"It still angers people," he said. "It's an experience that people are going through, these microaggressions that are hard to capture on video tape but that people of color are experiencing multiple times a day in all the arenas of their lives."

The experience hasn't left him embittered or resentful. It was, he said, a reminder that while we're all capable of being bullies, we're also all capable of being benefactors.

"And so I believe that choice, if Americans are made aware that that is the choice we are making, that Americans want to be good, that we want to be a better nation than we really are and that we might need kind and gentle reminders from our neighbors. That that's not only possible but that it should be traditional. Right?"

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