In the middle of national trauma, some signs of hope

At the end of May, everything we were doing came to a screeching halt. Again.

I remember earlier this year I spent a good amount of time writing about weight training, just in time for people’s New Year’s resolutions, and then the coronavirus made all those gym-centric posts sorta moot. You might as well be shouting at the wind when you’re talking about training programs and specific exercises that people can’t do because their gyms are shuttered.

So I figured I’d try to write about life during the pandemic. Trying to be relatable, to be real, to give an anecdote about what has to be one of the weirdest periods of my life, limited though my days have been. And I suppose that was fine for a bit, but really, my experiences aren’t that much different than anyone else’s, and no one wants to hear yet one more voice among the millions droning on about how different, how disrupted, and how depressing a lockdown could be. We’re all poorer, more bored and more homebound than we used to be. Wash, rinse, repeat.

One thing I saw is people liked looking back on past travels to beautiful places, and that seemed like a good outlet for this space. Useful information, pretty pics and maybe thoughts of seeing some of the amazing places I’ve seen looked all the more desirable when we were unsure when we’d be able to hit the road for an adventure again.

And then, another disruption. A seismic disruption that knocked us out of our newfound routines and comforts yet again.

When video surfaced of a Minneapolis police officer squashing the life out of George Floyd, the nation began to shudder, then quake, then erupt in a pent-up rage that has been years in the making. The roots of it all go much further back, but in more modern times, cellphone cameras have given us access to too many scenes like that in Minneapolis. Racial injustice wasn’t just back in the front of the news cycle. It became just as big as the pandemic.

As much as I wanted to keep publishing posts about mountain adventures, I couldn’t. In the span of weeks we’ve seen cases like Floyd’s pile up around us and pretending that this will all blow over and that things will go back to “normal” seemed wrong. Not seemed wrong. It was wrong. Too many people are hurting right now for us to carry on like it’s no big deal, or someone else’s problem. But the truth is, that’s exactly how these scenarios have played out all my life. Racial inequity and injustice comes front-and-center until society decides it’s had enough, that it’s tired, and would rather fixate on something happy instead. And nothing gets done.

But to be frank, something feels different right now. That maybe we might actually address this national blight.

Back in 2014, just a couple of years after Trayvon Martin was gunned down, Ferguson, Mo., erupted into protests and yes, some violence in response to a police officer gunning down an unarmed Michael Brown. The Black Lives Matter movement was born in these days. Reforms came to Ferguson, but in the nation as a whole, a stalemate ensued. On one side were those strongly advocating national change. On another, a small but very vocal group discounting the entire movement. And in the middle, a large and silent majority that may have had strong feelings about the problems uncovered in Ferguson, but didn’t want the hassle of arguments and hurt feelings that often accompany contentious discussions about race in America.

It’s that silent middle, unfortunately, that allows this shit to persist.

But I see something different this time. Yes, there are the vocal advocates for justice out in front. And yes, there is that small but very loud contingency trying to discount, dismiss and obfuscate the debate at every turn.

But that big, silent middle isn’t so silent anymore. Marches in my city back in 2014 numbered a couple hundred. This time? Some were in the thousands. Participants came from all walks of life. All races, too. Hell, even Mitt Romney — the whitest dude you can think of — marched in a Black Lives Matter protest, and heavily attended marches took place in small cities and even rural towns that wouldn’t have touched this debate just a few years ago. People posting on social media with the #BlackLivesMatter hastag weren’t just people of color. In my sliver of the world, I saw people who were dead quiet after Ferguson sudddenly weren’t just tacitly supportive. They were vocal. Often. And those younger generations — the Millennials and Gen Z — a bunch of them aren’t having it anymore. Most people who look like me either actively or passively shunned Black Lives Matter messaging a few years ago. But these days, a big chunk of them are embracing it. It’s as if the scales have fallen from their eyes. They get it.

In my hometown of Tulsa, one bone of contention has been the city’s participation in the TV program “LivePD.” It’s a lot like the long-running show “Cops,” which is entertaining to many viewers, but seen as exploitative by many others in minority communities. The city has resisted calls to cease participating in the program, but following these big demonstrations, city leaders agreed to dump the program. Not long after, “LivePD” was canceled altogether. And so was “Cops.”

These are small wins, with much bigger prizes (police reform, ending of redlining, sentencing reform, and so many other huge, lingering issues) still to be won, and still badly needed. But one thing that’s important is tough, honest and fruitful conversations are being had. People are now trying to understand what our friends and neighbors in the black and brown communities have been telling us for decades. Among many, the defensiveness is being lowered and honest attempts to learn and change are being undertaken. And a bunch of folks are beginning to understand how hard this process is.

So part of me is devastated by what happened to George Floyd. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Breonna Taylor. And Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Emmett Till, and so many others.

But part of me is strangely optimistic. It feels different this time. And I hope I’m right, that people’s attitudes are changing, that people are willing to learn, to empathize, and to find out how they can help resolve the longest-running sin that burdens our nation.

There will be time to write about outdoor adventure, running, training or whatever. There always is. But even the things that are hardwired in us need to be paused to take in and act on what’s important. Human beings have worth, something that’s enshrined in this country’s founding documents. But those revered words of old aren’t worth the paper they’re written on unless they apply to everyone, and for far too long, that hasn’t been true.

Maybe now we’re taking steps toward that goal once again. It’s a big mountain to climb, and there’s no shortcuts to the top. But in the end, that summit view, should we get there, will be worth the exertion.

Bob Doucette