Hoping for miracle at Pomona College; superb muckraker moves on

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

At press time, scores of protesters remain camped out at Pomona College’s commencement plaza, with the school’s graduation ceremony still scheduled for this Sunday. The encampment is only growing, and the kids say they aren’t moving. Something has to give, and I fear it will be ugly.

Regardless, the Courier is committed to reporting on this impasse — a true local microcosm of a national, even international story — the likes of which haven’t been seen here since the Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

From a journalism standpoint, there is one glaring difference between reporting on pro-Palestinian protesters in 2024 and what I imagine (I’m old, but not that old!) reporters were up against in 1968: today’s student activists are largely masked and anonymous, and many have been instructed by protest organizers not to talk to the press.

My opinion on masked protesters has evolved since we first began reporting on pro-Palestinian protesters in Claremont last year. My early impressions are made clear in my December 15, 2023 column, “Passion never goes out of style.” My first reaction was defensive: how dare these soft, entitled kids hide who they are? Stand up and be counted! But as the war in Gaza has regretfully dragged on, I’ve come around to see there is good reason for many of these now veteran activists to hide their identities. “Doxxing” is real, and the harm it can bring can be devastating for not only for them, but also their families and communities. Readily available facial recognition software can be used to find criminals and bring them to justice, and also to do harm. This modern caution applies to counterprotesters as well, many of whom are also masked. This is just the way things are today. It’s not the 1960s. Traditionalists like me need to just accept it and move on, because our handwringing and tsk-tsking isn’t going to change a thing.

I imagine many of the families with protesters in their midst are having some difficult conversations, with emotions running the gamut from pride to horror. All must be worried about their children’s safety, especially after seeing last week’s violent attack on pro-Palestinian activists by counterprotesters at UCLA.

The same must be true for parents of Jewish students who have reported feeling unsafe on American college campuses. Some have been subjected to ugly antisemitic verbal assaults. Jewish parents who support the war must also feel fear and anger when looking at the growing pro-Palestinian movement on U.S. campuses.

It’s a veritable minefield out there. Tensions are ratcheting up, and it looks like it will only get worse. Hopefully the violence we’ve already seen will be a bug and not a feature in today’s protest movement.

Though certainly not a matter of life or death, I for one sure hope the college grads of the class of 2024 — many of whom missed out on their 2020 high school graduation ceremonies due to COVID-19 — get to experience their college commencements this weekend. I’m a parent of one of those 2020 high school grads, and I can say from experience it was a blow. At the time, we tried to salve the wound by promising my daughter her college graduation ceremony would be spectacularly meaningful. I imagine I was not alone in this optimistic assurance.

We’ve already seen some nearby colleges cancel commencement ceremonies. Here’s to hoping Pomona College and the protesters camped on commencement plaza can arrive at a solution that both avoids violence and allows these young graduates their moment.

A muckraker to the end

My friend Mel Opotowsky died April 18. He was 92. It was quick, undramatic. And though he had Parkinson’s disease, he had been in relatively good health up until the end.

Mel would have appreciated that matter of fact lead.

The longtime newspaperman retired as managing editor of Riverside’s Press-Enterprise in 1999.

Mel pitched me various stories over the years. Some I published (“Claremont Manor writing class reveals deep joys, sorrows,” February 3, 2023), others I passed on. You see, Mel may have been more than two decades into his golden years, but he hadn’t lost a bit of his fire for stirring the pot. For example, one of his pieces I rejected was about how some of his peers at Claremont Manor were dealing with various ailments, both minor and devastating. It was a deeply personal story, and it named names. But some of the folks in the story weren’t keen on being named. I explained to Mel we just weren’t in the business of making things worse for folks who were suffering, especially within the context of a story that wasn’t breaking news. He challenged my reasoning over several months, repeatedly lobbying for the journalistic bona fides of his piece. In the end I had to tell him it was over, to let it go, that I wasn’t going to run the story. It wasn’t easy, as I had great respect for the man.

I feared the rejection would damage our friendship. I was relieved that was not the case. There was no bad blood. Ours was a refreshingly adult relationship, one able to withstand disagreement without falling apart.

Mel and his elegant wife Bonnie invited me over to their apartment for talks and snacks. I lunched with them at Claremont Manor’s fancy in-house restaurant. He always wanted to talk journalism, and the Courier, which I relished, especially coming from a guy who came up during the golden age of newspapers, when print was king. He emailed occasional private “attaboys” for stories he approved of, and criticism for those he thought could have been better. He wrote sporadic letters to the editor, and pitched me story ideas.

I was grateful for his enthusiasm, advice, and counsel.

My final email from Mel arrived April 12 with the fitting subject line, “Idea.” In it, he asked me, “Pls call when you get a chance.” Our phone conversation was brief. He had something he wanted to talk about in person. When I turned up at his and Bonnie’s light-filled Claremont Manor apartment that afternoon he was in typical form, fired up about a recent Courier editorial decision and planning his next letter to the editor. What, he wanted to know, did I think about his idea? As usual, he won me over with his enthusiasm and sharp journalistic skillset. I’d have bounced his ideas back and forth and picked his brain all afternoon had I known it would be our last meeting.

Bonnie said he went quietly, unceremoniously, about when we were wheels up at LAX a few days later.

Mel was among the last of a breed of journalists who were able to carve out a solid middle class American life by reporting the news of the day. I’ll miss his wisdom, his care and concern about the Courier, and about journalism in general.

So long, Mel. May your sources be unimpeachable and on the record, and your copy clean and accurate. Thank you.


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