In April of 2015 I went out into the streets of Baltimore with the thousands who rose up around the death of Freddie Gray. I’d never experienced a more physical political reflex than I did at that time—the need to bring my body to places the movement needed bodies to be. I marched through different neighborhoods, rallied outside of public buildings and never second-guessed myself. Not until one day when two groups from Baltimore’s rivaling east and west sides met up in a truce march. This rally had a nervous energy to it. It wasn’t led by practiced activists, just a couple of guys with rough voices taking turns with a megaphone, repeating familiar chants. I went along, certain that these calls for justice were right. As I was marching one of the few other white people there, a pale girl in glasses, approached and quietly told me that I shouldn’t hold my fist in the air—it was a Black Power appropriation, she said, wrong for a white person to use.
Her words unbalanced me. I wanted to tell her that it was about solidarity. But then it dawned on me that I might in fact be offending everyone. Perhaps the others were all versed in the history of Black Power, inheritors of that legacy. Perhaps they all knew their place within it—and mine outside of it: white, not from Baltimore, not even from the United States.
As I begin to reflect on this moment of seemingly inconsequential insecurity, I feel myself entering thorny territory. In writing this, I encounter areas that feel taboo. It’s hard to admit that I didn’t and still don’t fully understand the extent of my privilege. That there was a recklessness to my confidence, and that on some conscious level I knew it. It’s hard to find the terms to represent my problematic color blindness. But I will try: when I put my fist in the air I did so with a boldness that I had carried with me from the place where I was raised.
I come from the wilderness. The Kootenays, a mountain region on the northern edge of an unguarded section of the Canada-U.S. border, is a place of immense forest and immense idealism. In the 1950s a group of pacifist American Quakers fleeing the militarism and materialism of the McCarthy era converged there. They were attempting, in their own words, to live closer to their democratic values. Later other civil rights activists arrived. One of them, Betty Polster, had been a personal friend of Coretta and Martin Luther King, Jr. During the civil rights movement, Polster ferried people around the country and delivered leaflets and supplies. She moved to the Kootenays after King was shot, hoping, as she would later remark, to get away from the “unpleasant” politics of the U.S. She helped build the small gardening hamlet called Argenta. It was through her pacifist network that many other American war resisters converged in the area. By the Seventies the Slocan Valley, in the heart of the Kootenays, had the largest concentration of Vietnam draft dodgers in the world. Meanwhile the region began attracting partisans of the back-to-the-land movement, young people who rejected the consumerism, violence and racism of urban life.
No doubt this place of glacier-fed lakes and old-growth forests seemed like a promised land. And yet the society-building project would’ve looked much different had the indigenous people who’d once hunted and fished those valleys not been cleared out. A conspicuous absence of Ktanaxa (Kootenay) people throughout most of the region that bears their name is therefore an uncomfortable irony of the idealistic culture where I was raised.
My father, from Dublin, agreed with my mother, a Berkeley graduate and People’s Park protester, that the United States was no place to live. They built a log house in the middle of the woods and constructed the walls as bookshelves. We had no television, but there were regular living room meetings about human rights and struggles for justice and democracy in distant countries. From an early age my understanding of the outside world was that it was a place to be intensely concerned about. In the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was backing coups and breaking up grassroots collectivist movements in Latin America, the Kootenays became one end point of an underground railroad of sorts. Guatemalan and Nicaraguan refugees made their way through the U.S. and were hosted in our town. A family of six lived with my family of six. There were live music benefits to fundraise for the Sandinistas. There wasn’t a lot of civic infrastructure to shut down, but we rallied for different causes nonetheless. In gumboots and ponchos we tromped along rainy highways behind a bedsheet banner, singing “Give Peace a Chance” to an audience of patient trees.