My wife Shamane and I enjoy an early morning ritual. Three days a week at 5:45 AM we venture out on to Madison’s Lake Monona to swim. To be more accurate, she swims while I pace stroke a few miles on a standup paddle board. In the hopes of keeping her safe in the choppy waters of this urban lake I provide just a bit of security as we both embrace the grateful privilege of beginning our day together with much needed exercise. I watch out for the occasional motorboat and follow her progress back to shore after she makes the turnaround. Paddling nearby as she swims I make sure that she and I both get home safely.
But on the morning of July 7, 2016 our plans were thwarted by an influx of fog. Visibility on the lake was less than a few hundred meters. And rather than risking an unforeseen tragedy on the water we opted instead to get an early start on our work day. Within moments of tuning the car radio into our local public radio station, where Shamane works as a reporter, we received the horrific news that another black man had been killed by a police officer, this time in Falcon Heights, a suburb near St. Paul Minnesota. The death of Philando Castile was the latest in a recurring string of incidents involving the police, which resulted in a fatal shooting. Just the day before Alton Sterling, also a black man, was shot and killed by police officers in Baton Rouge Louisiana.
As a journalist who specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation and adventure travel it could be said that I’m straying a bit far from my wheelhouse. But having devoted much of my career in writing over the past several years to addressing the issues of race and access to nature the free movement of black people in this country, whether through our national parks or even city streets is something I cannot ignore. How much less likely are African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and other minorities to visit wilderness areas when we cannot assure their safety and security in their own neighborhoods? I believe that particularly relevant to my work is anything that prevents or deters people of color from venturing safely outside of their homes, especially when the consequence of their actions could result in serious injury or even death.
I was encouraged by statements issued by at least two environmental organizations that expressed their disappointment over the latest news.
“The Sierra Club believes all people deserve a healthy planet with clean air and water, a stable climate and safe communities. That means all people deserve equal protection under the law and the right to a life free of discrimination, hatred and violence,” wrote Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. “Unfortunately, those aspirations and goals are not a reality in our country, and that is why the Sierra Club stands in solidarity with all of those saying Black Lives Matter, demanding justice, accountability, and action to confront the racism and inequality that has allowed these tragedies to persist. We can do better and by standing together to work for the changes that are needed, we will.”
And Bob Irvin, president of the conservation group American Rivers, issued a statement as well.
“At American Rivers, we stand in solidarity with all of those working for justice and an end to racism and inequality in our country. Violence against people of color and violence against public servants must stop,” Irvin wrote. “A popular saying in the river community is “we all live downstream.” It illustrates how actions – even actions from a faraway place or time – impact us and our families and neighbors. It underscores that we are all connected, and have a responsibility to treat each other with care and respect.”
Though the circumstance of these two recent cases are markedly different the shootings of Castile and Sterling share in common with other occurrences around the country an apparent disproportionate use of lethal force by the police and the killing of a human being. Despite our presumption that the race of each victim should be immaterial, the frequency with these incidents have occurred in recent months has raised a great deal of concern in many communities nation wide. Alarmed by the prospects of black citizens being killed by the police, whether accidentally or deliberately due to a misunderstanding, local leaders here in Madison are taking proactive steps to prevent this from happening again.
Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, had already scheduled a gathering to address this very important social issue. Prompted as well by the profoundly disturbing video that featured the violent arrest of Genele Laird, 18, just two weeks earlier Johnson hoped to provide local black youth with practical rules they should follow in order to survive whenever they are confronted by the police.
The instructions, detailed in a video called “Get Home Safely:10 Rules of Survival ”, may be perceived by many as common sense. But sadly they imply that a black person is likely to be treated differently by the police than a white person. By adhering to these rules, no matter how sensible, it is presumed that people of color will be instantly perceived with suspicion of guilt and open hostility that put their very lives at risk. Though we may shrink from the notion that in the 21st century racial discrimination still inspires fear and uncertainty in the hearts and minds of black people in our community, in light of recent events, it would be naive to assume that a black person will receive fair treatment by the very police officers charged to protect and serve them. So it’s up to everyone to behave responsibly and in such a way that assures that we all will get home safely.
Certainly not all police officers should be looked upon with mistrust or even fear. But the event at the Boys & Girls Club brought together many concerned citizens in order to share their grievances and voice their outrage to public officials including Madison district attorney Ismael Ozanne and police chief Michael Koval. Also in attendance were several officers in uniform who sat among the audience of parents and teens eager to put an end to this cycle of violence and death so prominently reported in graphic videos over social media. Are these indeed isolated incidents of tragic circumstance? Or are they the natural result of racially biased policies of moral indifference that place a lower premium on the value of black lives?
One has to wonder when seemingly minor infractions of the law, an illegal left turn, the sale of bootlegged CDs or contraband cigarettes, a broken taillight, can result in the death of the perpetrator. How can we justify the use of lethal force in the apprehension of a suspect who, even if guilty, had only committed a misdemeanor offense? Shouldn’t officers of the law be held to a standard of performance that at the very least affords each citizen the presumption of innocence and the privilege of courteous treatment?
In the audience a young girl named Ailyah Moore raised her hand to share her story. “Why can’t the police see how much they are hurting us?” the 12-year-old asked through tears. “The way they treat our parents so badly it hurts their kids too.”
In an encounter with law enforcement Ailyah’s mother was physically and verbally abused by Madison police officers while being taken under arrest. Visibly traumatized by the event she witnessed, the child pleaded the cops in attendance to consider how their actions, while in the performance of their duties can have a lasting impact on the community as a whole. “I know that because of my race I will be treated differently by the police,” Ailyah told me. “That’s just not right. I should be able to trust them and I just don’t.”
The cops responsible for Ailyah’s hard feelings toward the police were not in the room. But those who were seemed burdened by the animosity of the citizens around them. These good men and women sworn to protect and serve their community struggled between the obligations of their duties and the difficult tasks they are so often called to perform. Without apology for the actions of their fellow officers, but resolved to honor the commitment of their oaths each policeman held hands with the people gathered there to join in a circle of prayer for peace.
Early the next morning Shamane and I drove out to the shores of Lake Monona. With exquisite weather for both paddling and swimming we relished our time on the water together in the warm sun with a cool breeze gently brushing our smiling faces. But once again our revery was spoiled by news from our car radio. In Dallas Texas five police officers were shot by a sniper during an otherwise peaceful protest march led by the group #BlackLivesMatter. In a horrible twist of this downward spiral the gunman claimed his outrage over the deaths of black men in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights prompted him to kill white police officers as retribution. Sgt. Michael Smith, 55, Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, 48 Officer Michael Krol, 40, Officer Patrick Zamarripa, 32 and DART Officer Brent Thompson, 43, died in a hail of bullets while as many as twelve other people, other officers and civilians were wounded. The calculus of death and injury does nothing to balance the scales of justice as we all must mourn the loss of life through violence as the moral failure of our society as a whole. Instead of actions and words that further drive the American people apart we must find ways to bring us together.
On Saturday evening on June 9, 2016, while protest marches and demonstrations were conducted across the country from New York to San Francisco, something wonderful happened. At Indian Lake County Park near Madison a group of local parents and their children gathered for a short hike to experience the mid-summer glow of fireflies. Although the event organized by Outdoors 123 had been scheduled for months, the timeliness of this firefly hike was most profound as this diverse and multi-ethnic group of citizens was joined by officers of the Madison Police Department. There were no signs or speeches. There were no cries of outrage or claims of discrimination. The only marching was restricted to kids and families walking along the trails following the flight of phosphorescent insects in the twilight of a warm, clear evening.
Even with so much fear and anger in the world we can indeed come together as a united people. Upon the common ground of public land where each of us can experience nature in its most elemental form we can find the peace we need to heal a wounded nation. And in the calm resolve of love and understanding dedicated to safe passage of all those we meet along the way everyone can get home safely.
This story is part of the New Century Vision Project, an ongoing effort to encourage more people of color to enjoy and experience the wonders of nature. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park service let’s create a vision of a new century of environmental conservation that is diverse and inclusive of all the American people. #inclusivevision4next100
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