GUEST OPINION: Lessons on the Square

By on October 5, 2016

If Jackson Hole wants to attract tourists from across the nation and abroad, it must engage in national conversation.

(Photo: Sarah Ross)

(Photo: Sarah Ross)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – As he stood outside his father’s funeral in Douglas, Wyoming, Jasen Scott Ramirez was shot dead by a police officer in June. However, unlike the litany of innocent, unarmed African Americans killed by police, Ramirez was wanted for drug charges. Still, questions remain about Ramirez’s death, such as what led to the shooting and whether or not he was armed, according to the Casper Star Tribune.

The numbers were never in favor of Ramirez or the list of the fallen that he joins. More than 700 people have been killed by police in the U.S. this year. Native Americans are about five times more likely to be killed at the hands of police compared to white people, while African Americans are three times more likely to die at the hands of police and Latinos are about twice as likely. In about 98 percent of killings, police are never charged with a crime.

Protests have erupted across the country to mourn these deaths and demand justice. In solidarity, I have organized a weekly protest in the town square to have conversations about racial justice and share information about police violence.

Some have said this issue is irrelevant in Jackson. However, in the square I’ve met visitors of all races from all over the country and world who think otherwise. Indeed, when we made the decision to welcome these visitors, we made the decision to engage in national conversations, to demonstrate our solidarity with victims of police violence and racism, to ensure that it never happens here.

One tourist complained my posters were blocking the view, while another smiled, saying she would tell everyone she saw a “Black Lives Matter” sign in rural Wyoming.

Last week I had been sitting in the square for an hour when an older white couple walked by. The man’s face twisted as he read my signs. He asked if I had the name of “that Ferguson thug” on the list of people killed by police.

“Michael Brown?” I asked. “Yes, I do.”

Trembling, he said, “You better believe if a 300-pound black thug charged at me, I would fucking shoot him too.”

His wife read the posters and said, “Unarmed people of color killed? I don’t care.”

Many of the recently departed were doing far less than publically protesting when they were killed. In the last two weeks police shot Terrence Crutcher when his car broke down. His arms were in the air, his back to police. Keith Lamont Scott was reading a book as he waited for his son. Alfred Olango was having a medical emergency. His sister called 9-1-1 for help.

People in the square have called me a moron, a waste of space, and said that I shouldn’t be surprised if I get beaten to death. However, despite their reactionary anger, they don’t see me as an imminent threat. They don’t say I “look like a demon,” as officer Darren Wilson said before he shot Michael Brown, or that I “just look like [someone] involved in a robbery,” like officer Jeronimo Yanez said when he shot Philando Castile, an unarmed black man at a traffic stop.

White privilege means presuming that the people meant to protect me will protect me. White privilege means making mistakes, or even doing something illegal, and not expecting to be shot extra-judicially. White privilege means looking at a list of people killed and saying, “I don’t care” rather than, “I could be next.”

Another couple that stopped in the square saw firsthand how quickly police violence shifts from a distant news item to reality. They are from Douglas and the woman witnessed the shooting of Jasen Scott Ramirez. I didn’t have Ramirez’s name written down, and they asked me to add it to the list. She said Ramirez was tased once and shot seven times outside the church. She watched from her car, and described the trauma of witnessing the event.

“He was murdered,” the couple told me, “and they’re getting away with it.”

As a part of one of the whitest states in the nation, and as one of the country’s most privileged counties, we have a powerful opportunity: To speak out against injustice where and when we see it. We have the responsibility to show those in Charlotte and Tulsa that we hear their pain and that we too demand change. We have the responsibility to demonstrate to our visitors of color that they will be protected and welcomed.

I have the responsibility to fight so that Latino community members in Jackson aren’t twice as likely as I am to experience police brutality.

As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in the situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

If we are silent, we are complicit in violence, and, however accidentally, join the ranks of those looking at the names of the dead and saying, “I don’t care.”

If you care, please join me 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday, in the town square. You can also email me for more info on the Wyoming chapter of Standing Up For Racial Justice: PJH

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