It is a strange time to travel in the American West.
Right now I’m bike touring. I started this journey in the first week of March; there was still snow on the ground (a lot of snow) in Leadville, Colorado where I live. I froze my ass off getting to Reno by April 4th for a bike race that never happened, which is about when COVID really started hitting. This engendered conversations about how to proceed, whether I could continue or if it was better to return home, and what was going on in the world; there was a lot of talk about consent, community care, and how we can keep each other safe. I decided to continue forward, practicing social distancing and always masked if interacting with workers.
I rode north through the Paiute lands around Pyramid Lake, ran out of water (but got snowed on) in the Black Rock Desert, cut through Alturas in the northwest corner of California and Roseburg in rural Oregon. I continued to Coos Bay for a night on the coast and up through Corvallis, Beaverton, on to Olympia, Washington and finally to Seattle, where I write this today.
The landscape of the American West is achingly beautiful. I have spent much of the last 7 years exploring it on foot and bicycle. Wandering the warm ridges of the Pacific Crest Trail, or the frigid passes and ice cold rivers of the Continental Divide, the scenery does not disappoint.
What I also see is an imperialist system built on the stolen labor of Black and Brown people. I see the ongoing genocide of indigeionous populations; theft of their land, water, culture and identity. I see exploding houseless populations in every city denied access to mental and physical healthcare, even as we laud the arrival of the world’s first trillionaire. I see, as we ‘open the economy’ in the midst of a global pandemic, poor people are forced to work in unsafe conditions for poverty wages; meanwhile financially mobile Americans can’t even wear a mask as a basic acknowledgment of care or respect for their grocery checker.
This is a stark example of racial and economic injustice. Economic necessity dictates that poor folx need to work, regardless if they feel safe, while rich communities can effectively shield themselves from the COVID virus. I question if the ‘stay at home’ order really only applies to poor people, since I have seen so many affluent people out recreating with their trailers and campers, ATV’s and boats – they simply move the barricades from the closed state parks and set up. And police have been instructed not to intervene.
The people not wearing masks at the grocery store, out recreating in closed state parks, and protesting (loudly and fully armed) the stay at home orders and masks are overwhelmingly white. Yet the populations most adversely affected by COVID are Black and Brown.
The most disturbing, and perhaps most graphic example of systemic racism is in policing. As people started getting stir crazy during COVID lockdown, protesters took to the streets with AR-15s screaming at impassive police and clearly annoyed healthcare workers. These protesters were unwilling to participate in a social program to protect populations most at risk for infection by COVID. Despite the overt aggression and potential for real public harm, these predominantly white protesters were treated with respect and deference by the police.
Compare this to protests against police brutality – protests against the literally THOUSANDS of murders committed by police in communities of color – and the tear gas comes out. In 98 American cities, police used lethal weapons disallowed in actual war against peaceful civilian protesters. Even as protests resulting from the murder of George Floyd were underway nationally and internationally, police in Atlanta murdered Rayshard Brooks, another Black man. This is what white supremacy and institutional racism looks like.
This isn’t easy to write. I’m so mad I’m grinding my teeth. This needs to stop.
I’m a cis white guy from a middle class family. My upbringing was stable, I have a college education and no debt. I travel for 4-5 months a year, sleeping outside, yet have a stable place and often a job when I return home. All of these things are a result of my white privilege.
Time and time again I have had conversations with friends about how this privilege is manifest; it’s the ability, support, knowledge and financial mobility to engage in an adventure like hiking the PCT; or access, language skills, and technology to engage with public art organizations in Seattle.
Again and again, I hear white people around me denying they benefit from this privilege or deny that white supremacy and systemic racism exist in America.
These white friends tell me they don’t see color, they aren’t racist, they grew up in the south, they aren’t responsible for the history of enslaved people in America, they have a black friend, that everyone is welcome, that everyone is free. This, friends, is bullshit.
We need to use our power and agency as white people in a racist society to actively combat racism. This includes doing things that make us uncomfortable as we confront racism in our everyday interactions. This also means finding ways to engage in positive conversations about race and privilege with white friends, while taking time to educate ourselves about these issues and their history in America. The hard part is it’s a long road ahead; the beautiful thing is that we’ve already begun the journey, and there is no going back.