One year into what for many Americans is a bewildering change in the leadership of our country, we gathered around Thanksgiving tables to share food and gratitude. At many gatherings was a heightened sense of thankfulness for community and family in tumultuous times. In 2017 we lost good people standing for what they saw as fundamental human rights. In this latest installment of our Active Voice: Writers Respond series, 49 Writers board member Katie Bausler reflects on two tragic events of the past year and suggests the power of listening for healing.
“It’s important for people in this country, especially white people, to speak out against this. Ignoring it is just as bad as supporting it. We all need to stand up against what is wrong, acknowledge that racism exists, and stand up for what is right, and civil and kind. And to show the next generation that we haven’t forgotten how hard people have fought for human rights. We cannot go backward.” -Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show, August 14, 2017
The presidency of Donald Trump has empowered deadly white supremacy. During his first year in office, we lost Americans who not only professed, but lived for fundamental human values of mutual respect and social justice.
“The reaction to Trump’s victory by the radical right was ecstatic,” wrote Mark Potok, senior fellow and editor for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Andrew Anglin, front man for the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website proudly took credit. “Make no mistake about it: we did this. If it were not for us, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
August 12, Heather Heyer was killed and 19 others injured by a 20-year old man who had been protesting with white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Taking a page from the ISIS terrorist playbook, he deliberately rammed his car into counter protesters. Heyer was 32 years old and working as paralegal. “She always stood up for what she believed in,” her friend since third grade told the USA Today. “It didn’t matter who you were or where you were from,” her father told mourners at an August 17 memorial, “if she loved you that was it––you were stuck.”
May 26, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, 23, and Rick Best, 53, a veteran and father of four, were stabbed to death on a commuter train in Portland. The men stood up for two teenage girls, one wearing a hijab, being harassed by the white supremacist killer.
Taliesin was a 2016 Reed College graduate working as an engineer for a forward-thinking environmental non-profit. Reed College Communications Director Kevin Myers knew him as “just a selfless, selfless person.”
His friends and family were not all surprised by what he did on that train. “We lost him in a senseless act that brought close to home the insidious rift of prejudice and intolerance that is too familiar, too common. He was resolute in his conduct [and] respect of all people,” his family wrote in a statement shortly after his death.
As Taliesin lay dying, held by a fellow passenger, he asked her to tell the people on the train one thing: “I love you all.”
“Free speech or die Portland. You got no safe place,” yelled his killer as he was being arraigned in court. “This is America. Get out if you don’t like free speech.”
This man, who murdered two people, heinous and medieval on a crowded commuter light rail, equated the right of free speech with his right to end the lives of two fellow Americans.
Ati is a light in our tight community in Alaska’s capital. She’s the violence prevention director for the local women’s shelter and a multitasking mother of young children, with a car full of recycling and a smile for everyone she meets.
I first met Ati not long after the 2017 presidential inauguration. It was at a brunch gathering of local ReSisters. Sun streamed into Jordan’s quaint Victorian home on a hillside in downtown Juneau. We sipped mimosas and wrote postcards opposing the oppressive policies towards women from the new presidential administration.
Ati is also Taliesin’s sister. A June 8th Juneau Empire article quoted some of her words spoken at his memorial, “I hope that most people would do what he did, to see hatred and to meet it with openness and love, to be a source of support and safety.”
A few months later, in the locker room before spin class, I overheard Ati chatting with a woman she likely hadn’t seen since before the murder of her brother. “The world needs more men like your brother,” the woman murmured.
Taliesen and Ati were part of a combined family of ten siblings growing up in Ashland, Oregon. Their parents raised them with a sense of respect for all humanity and the importance of creating social change.
Before Ati’s brother was killed, I wanted to believe that people who kill in hate are mentally ill, triggered by the words of people like the current president of the United States. How else could they be so disconnected from any sense of humanity? But Taliesen’s murder was a game changer for me. The horrific reality of racism broke through my self-imposed shell of denial.
And after Charlottesville, where made-in-China tiki torch-carrying, khaki pants and polo shirt-wearing white guys marched with armed Nazis chanting, “you will not replace us,” I got the real memo. Hate can be calculated and deliberate; no doubt emboldened by the incendiary and irresponsible statements of the Commander in Chief. The SPLC notes a 197% increase in anti-Muslim hate groups since 2015, when Trump started running for president.
As I slip on my gym clothes, I blurt out to Ati, “I’m so sorry about your brother,” tears springing from my eyes. Ati seems relatively cool for the hell she’s going through.
“I haven’t been moving enough through the grieving. I thought it would be good to get back to exercising,” she says.
“It’s just unbelievable,” I go ahead and say.
“Yeah,” she replies, as we amble over to the sink to fill up our water bottles. “Election night, I cried all night. I knew people were going to suffer. I knew families would be hurt. I just didn’t think it would hit this close to home.”
Sitting knee to knee by Ati on a stationary bike in spinning class, I am consumed with the loss of her brother. He had a gift for communicating, with love and compassion. His throat was slit, heartless and gothic, by someone with a penchant for loud, racist, hate-filled language.
We pump our quads to the music, a catchy, countryish beat. I wonder what Ati hears in the words:
Hey brother, there’s an endless road to rediscover.
Hey sister, know the water’s sweet but blood is thicker.
Ohh… if the sky comes falling down, for you, there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do.
Hey brother, do you still believe in one another,
Hey sister, do you still believe in love I wonder?
At her brother’s memorial, Ati acknowledged his killing received more media attention because he was white and our system is “inherently inequitable.”
“How do I help my community unpack privilege?” she asked.
How indeed, when that privilege originated with the genocide of the first inhabitants of the continent we live on? And the slavery of the people that built the White House?
These are realities of our history that people like me would just as soon forget. The current upheaval in our country is bringing our blindness to the surface. As I listened to an NPR interview with a black resident of Chicago who’d lost several family members to gang violence, something finally clicked in my head. I have lived my entire life in a privileged bubble, fleetingly “feeling bad” for people stuck in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods.
In a midsummer talk at the state museum alongside an exhibit on decolonization, Alaska Writer Laureate and University of Alaska Southeast faculty Ernestine Hayes addressed unresolved inequality and injustice. “The traumatic effect of the national policies of Manifest Destiny, removal, assimilation and conversion is undeniable,” she writes in her latest book, The Tao of Raven.
I want to be done with this country, and our reality TV president’s reckless rhetoric that supports the ending of good people’s lives. I want to beam over to a sidewalk café in Rome, or Paris, where people of many nationalities, races and languages savor the company of each other at sidewalk tables in the moon or sun light.
Then I remember the café across the street from the bus stop near our Paris apartment rental in the summer of 2015. That November, sidewalk diners were gunned down and killed by ISIS terrorists at that very café.
High profile terrorism can be wrought by both the colonized and the descendants of the colonizers. Despicable acts of inhumanity can be carried out by disenfranchised people and white supremacists hell bent on marginalizing everyone but those that look like themselves.
Now more than ever, we should honor the illimitable spirits of people like Taliesin and Heather. We can start by standing up for love and life over murder and hate. But to progress towards a society of justice and equality, we must resolve our racist past and privileged present.
A year ago, just days before the presidential election, the University of Alaska Southeast initiated an annual day-long Power and Privilege Symposium. Classes are not held that day, so students can participate. People come to Juneau from all over the state to attend. Breakout sessions at the November 7, 2017 event included Exploring Islamophobia in America and Privilege Shame: Achieving Accountability without Alienation.
Hayes was one of three indigenous women who delivered keynote speeches. In her opening talk, she equated white supremacy, revisionist history and colonialism with “empty boxes.” “When we scatter those empty boxes, when we toss them across the floors of our existence, when we free ourselves from the hollow beliefs that divide our prison,” she said, “we place ourselves in long line of social justice warriors.” It is beyond tragic that some of these warriors are losing their lives.
A common symposium discussion centered on a practice our society has apparently forgotten: the acknowledgment of the pain of fellow human beings with compassion and patience. The not-so-new idea is that the more we truly listen to each other, the more we can move towards uniting our broken and divided human family. If the annual UAS event is any indication, we may have a good start on the healing process. Right here, at home.
Katie Bausler lives in Douglas, Alaska and serves on the 49 Writers Board of Directors.
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