Gunnison Speaks

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They kept coming. Not in ones and twos, but groups. Six here, a dozen there. People, many of them in masks, most of them with signs, streaming quietly past the windows at Pat’s, on their way to the corner at the other end of the block. A protest in George Floyd’s name, here in Gunnison.

The protest started over the weekend, when a lone white woman took up our usual protest spot (yes, we have one of those) on the northeast corner of the Main-Virginia intersection holding up two signs Sunday morning denouncing white supremacy.

I didn’t make it down to Protest Corner yesterday, but people were there all day, judging by the cheers and the many honks of cars. An officially unofficial “event” was scheduled for 5:30 yesterday evening, and by 5 a river of people started flowing that direction. By the time I drifted out the door of Pat’s at 5:30, all four corners of the intersection were full, with people lining the streets for half a block both north and south.

Some of that was limited social distancing, and I social distanced myself so much that it wasn’t particularly clear whether I was part of the protest or not (it hadn’t occurred to me to make a sign, either, as so many others did), but I had consciously put on a black T-shirt that morning. It said “Real Pirates,” which perhaps could be construed as a statement but was mostly a souvenir purchase from a museum exhibit.

For half an hour the ruly crowd  waved signs, cheered when traffic honked in support, and roved from corner to corner, always crossing with the light. At 6 the protest surged into the street, headed my way up the street, traffic now routed off Main by city police.

People kept coming, row upon row headed north. This had to be the biggest protest ever staged in Gunnison. People of all colors. “Asians for African Americans” read one sign. “Queers 4 BLM (Black Lives Matter).” “White silence is violence.” “I was born black. I will die black. I don’t want to die because I’m black.”

Trailing the last of the marchers, I reached the door of Pat’s, where Gilly’s eyes were shining. She was so proud of so many people turning out for this.

We watched the march go one more block, then wheel back on the other side of Main Street. The front of the march reached the starting point; the rear of the march stopped at Pat’s. And then we all took a knee.

Eight minutes 46 seconds is an appallingly long time, a ghastly stretch that makes it very clear just how unnecessary the use of police force against Mr. Floyd was. An entire downtown block filled with silent, kneeling people felt very powerful as a response.

Perhaps you are wondering, as I sometimes do, what good we were really doing. We are in this tiny, out-of-the-way corner — who is going to listen to us?

The answer, of course, is that the people who are here are both the speakers and the listeners, and when that many people show up, and so many more honk, hopefully we are hearing ourselves, loud and clear, even when we are kneeling, saying nothing.

In my lifetime in Gunnison I have witnessed the arrival at Western Then State of two of its first black students, and possibly the first two black students in the K-12 school system when their mother married a man who taught at the college. I remember the scandal when David, a year younger than me, started dating a white girl. Who else was he going to date?

We are closer to a polyglot now. After one man moved here from a west African country, his church here sponsored his family so that they could join him in Gunnison, and I believe their oldest daughter has continued her education at Western, where she is not nearly as alone as those first two men. If you look at the City Market or hospital employees, you might think we are a really diverse place.

But there is always work to do. There was the rumored report, never released, of a survey Western conducted that showed people sent their upper middle class students here specifically because of a limited minority population, and there was the beloved basketball coach (I liked him a lot too), who insisted that it was impossible to recruit players of color, even though the team when he inherited it featured almost exclusively darker skin tones.

The wedding I attended, where the only color of any sort was the bride’s cousin’s Puerto Rican husband and three daughters, but that didn’t stop the people at my table from devolving into an ugly discussion of the awfulness of black people. Unsure of my best tactic, aware that I was not going to change any minds, I settled for removing myself from the table.

And the one that haunts me still, the customer of a couple years ago, who came in one Saturday when Ben, James and I were working. Ben got up to help him, while I was doing bookwork at Kara’s desk and James was hidden back in the heat press area.

The man wanted his shirt to say: Blue Lives Matter More. As I sat there, rolling that over mentally, trying to decide what an appropriate response would be, Ben, frequently so haplessly clueless about current events, sat down to design the shirt with the man. “What does that mean?” Ben innocently (honestly) asked, about the time James decided he’d had enough and walked past the man to the production side of the building.

The man looked really uncomfortable, and I don’t recall if he managed to give Ben an explanation. I’ve wondered what he would have done if James, whose mother is white and father black, had been the one to greet him.

I still debate if I should have let Ben make the shirt for him. I have said no to only one or two shirts over the years, hate-filled screeds, which is exactly what this was. Had this man asked for a “Blue Lives Matter” shirt I wouldn’t have had a dilemma, but it was that “more” that really got me. Sometimes I think I should have told him we would print the shirt if he left the last word off.

This took place as the baker in Denver was refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because it offended his religious beliefs. To me the First Amendment is the most important provision in our American writings. This includes the right to free speech, whether I agree with that speech or not. You can’t cherry-pick the Constitution for the things that work for you.

But, as a student speaker at one long-ago Western commencement said, we are complicit when we don’t speak up. If someone tells a racist joke, he said, you are part of the problem even if you don’t laugh, if you are not objecting.

If I did not tell the man we would not be printing his shirt, I should have at least told him how offensive it was. I believe he got James’ message of quiet protest loud and clear, and the fact that he had to explain himself to Ben and had trouble doing so was worth something.

Now there is the message of George Floyd, resonating around the world: We can be better. We must be better. I must be better.

It will take a lot more than a large cross-section of our community kneeling across a downtown block, but the positive message of a shared human experience, even among those of us letting our caution over a virus take priority, was clear: racism is not welcome here. That is big progress for Gunnison.

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