If you woke up on Friday, May 29, with the idea that you would be joining that evening’s vigil for George Floyd, maybe hanging out with some friends you’d been dying to see since the pandemic hit, catching up on neighborhood gossip, and getting some fresh air while cheering on the local BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) residents in our midst, you might be forgiven for going home that night a little rattled by what just transpired and thinking, “Whoa. There are racists in my hometown? In Happy Valley?”
You might be forgiven, but don’t be surprised if you’re not.
If you missed it, here’s the gist: near the end of the event, a group of young Black men took advantage of the open mic at the vigil to step up and declare their pain, lay it bare in front of masked but joyous white faces, and ask what should have been an obvious question:
Y’all are here clapping and cheering? As a Black man that [that murder in Minneapolis] could’ve been, I feel ultimately disrespected. What the fuck could y’all be cheering about? What are y’all feeling happy about?Jay Bishop
Comments across social media — from Facebook to Reddit to the community surveillance app known as NextDoor — have partly been supportive of the BLM movement sweeping Grand Junction, but also partly virulent and defensive. There is the sense that, as a remote, rural community that prides itself on “traditional” values, we don’t want the noise and anger that have fueled much of the protests that have roiled larger metropolitan cities around the world. We’re Happy Valley! There are no racists here! Everyone is one color, one human race, so let’s all sing Kumbayah and get back to the business of being one big, joyful community.
But merely believing that exposes that raw root of racism that led exactly to that moment at the vigil open mic. To turn one’s eyes and ears away from the cries of pain and, yes, sheer racism that BIPOC residents and especially Black men and women, suffer within our communities is to deny them the humanity that you feel is your right as a human being.
If you believe that “I don’t see color! We’re all one race — the human race!” means you’re free from racism and bias, then you need to see the litany of names of Black men and women who have died brutal deaths in the hands of white law enforcement officers. You need to see the cellphone videos, listen to them cry out for their mothers, as they breathe their last breath over…what? A $20 counterfeit check? Mistaken identity? “Driving While Black” is a joke and a meme to some of you, but that’s a lived reality for Black men who buckle up and drive to and from work every day fearful for their lives. Just because of the color of their skin.
If you believe that attending a pep rally for Black Lives Matter, raising your fists in the air and head-bobbing along with your fellow white neighbors in a sign of solidarity because we would never let what happened to Mr. Floyd happen here, is all the work you have to do in order to consider yourself an ally, then you weren’t paying attention. Not to Mr. Bishop, not to your BIPOC neighbors, not to the relentless articles, social media messages, and blog posts about what it truly means to be an ally.
Don’t just deny that what happened to Mr. Floyd can’t happen here, or won’t happen here. Ask any Black man or woman in your midst, and they’ll tell you that it sure as hell can. As the saying goes, it’s not enough to be not racist. You must be anti-racist. You must learn the history of racism in this country, the hard fact that racism is what built this country, the reality that racism still runs deep in this valley that was founded by racists. You must not only learn but you must act.
The Black Lives Matter chapter in Grand Junction has been dormant for about a year now, but it’s experiencing a surge in interest and donations since the beginning of the protest movement a few weeks ago. In the meantime, several local activist groups and individuals — including the young men who spoke up at the end of that Friday vigil — have stepped up to help fill the void and have worked tirelessly to educate and inform both white and BIPOC residents what it means to be anti-racist and a true ally. But it shouldn’t be up to them. It should be up to everyone who cares about making this community an inclusive one.
Listen, learn, act. Repeat.