Free Speech: Painful Awakenings

By on April 11, 2018

During instances of racial injustice across the nation, Jackson’s response reveals a town unable to reckon with conversations about race

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated 50 years ago last week. (Library of Congress)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Since the killings of Saheed Vassell and Stephon Clark, protests have surged across the country. The unarmed African-American men were shot dead by police in two American cities—Vassell in Brooklyn, New York, on April 5 and Clark in Sacramento, California on March 18.

But as people marched nationwide, folks in Jackson Hole were reliably silent.

The town also was quiet on April 4, the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

King lived with constant violence in the name of racial equality. He was shot at, his home was bombed and he was targeted by multiple spheres of society. An FBI memo declared him “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” King’s honorary degrees, J. Edgar Hoover said, would not save him. “You are done,” the FBI director wrote.

King’s vision of equality, after all, threatened America’s white people and institutions. And it still does.

In Jackson, where people feel seemingly removed from the enduring pain of racism in America,  it is time we acknowledge certain truths.

The truth of King’s body crumpled on a hotel balcony.

The truth of Clark, a young father, bleeding out in his grandmother’s lawn.

The truth of seven police officers surrounding Vassell, a mentally ill man, and firing 10 rounds into his body.

The truth that black people in America are more likely to be stopped, handcuffed, pepper-sprayed and fatally shot than white people.

A study by the American Psychological Association tested implicit bias using a video game in which police officers saw images of young black and white men holding either guns or items such as cellphones. The officers shot more often and more quickly at black men. The most common mistake was “shooting an unarmed black target and failing to shoot an armed white target.”

Two summers ago, when Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Terrence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott were killed by police in rapid succession, I held 12 weekly vigils in the Town Square.

These vigils did little but to help me see how unprepared I and many of the white people in Jackson are to talk about race, let alone to protest, to mourn, to effect change.

Locals and tourists alike asked me why I was holding vigils in Jackson and impeding the view of the Town Square. “It’s nice that you care,” was a common response, “but it doesn’t really impact us. What we do here doesn’t really matter.” 

We have only chosen to believe it doesn’t matter because that is simpler. We are a small town, yes, but more diverse every year. Seasonally, we are virtually cosmopolitan. We are near multiple Native American reservations. The notion we can pass on engaging in difficult conversations about race by virtue of geography is false.

There is no reason why the many wealthy members of this community can’t hold a fundraiser to support nearby chapters of Black Lives Matter.

There is no reason why we can’t hold a protest in solidarity with those mourning Clark, like we did after Trump’s election, like we did with the school walkouts. 

There is no reason why we can’t protest outside the jail when ICE detains an undocumented person, as white people have done outside Colorado facilities.

There is no reason we shouldn’t financially support the town’s only immigration attorneys, who are overwhelmed and cannot take more clients.

There is no reason we shouldn’t have conversations about how events like the shootout perpetuate an image of the Wild West that whitewashes the valley’s history.

There is no reason except that we don’t want to. Because in Jackson, we fear disruption. For many of us, there is a barrier between our beliefs and the actions we are willing to take. I wonder where this barrier comes from, and how we can dissolve it.

Residents know what it takes to summit mountains. They know about the endurance and patience required, that it will be painful at times. Before we summit difficult peaks, we train, practice, exercise.

Dismantling racism within our systems and ourselves is similar work. It requires patience and endurance. It can be painful and it demands that we exercise stubborn muscles, tolerate discomfort, rely on others, take risks.

It requires that we are honest with ourselves, with our limitations and capacities. It requires that we battle with the inner voices that tell us we cannot or should not.

The anti-racist activist and author Resmaa Menakem wrote that white people who don’t practice anti-racism are not only hurting or disadvantaging people of color, but themselves. “Healing involves discomfort—but so does refusing to heal.” He described clean pain and dirty pain. The former “mends and build(s) your capacity for growth … it enables us to engage our integrity and tap into our body’s inherent resilience and coherence.” Dirty pain, on the other hand, is the pain of avoidance, disassociation, denial, or dishonesty.

Until we choose clean pain—the pain of acknowledging racism, privilege, and the hurt it has caused ourselves and others, we cannot heal as individuals, communities, or as a country.

The white people of Jackson Hole are capable of enduring the pain required to summit the mountaintop King evoked in his prophetic final speech. “I may not get there with you,” he said, “but I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

White folks can no longer rely on people of color to lead the way to the promised land. If that’s the future we want, we have to try harder. We have to choose it. Discovering what this process looks like in Jackson is the next question, one to answer collectively. First, we have to decide if we care to try. 

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