Police lined up on horseback on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, during protests over George Floyd's death. ©KettiWilhelm2020

Racial Justice, a Militarized America & Why This Is On a Travel Blog

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Today, I’m writing about the national protests after George Floyd’s murder, and the context of racism and violence in the US. I’m using the same perspective from which I’ve written about injustices and cultures around the world – that of an outsider and a traveler. I don’t speak for Chicago, and I clearly don’t speak for black people or the Black Lives Matter organization. I’m sharing what I see around me and what I’ve learned, with the hope of helping people (especially my readers both abroad and in rural America) understand the context of what’s happening.

This isn’t my usual topic on this platform, but the world blew up this week – yet again – and it seems this is the only thing that really matters to talk about right now.

I heard sirens all weekend long in Chicago, almost constantly, and it seems like the right time to reflect on what’s going on in the US right now. Because when I say that I write about “life between two cultures” (my husband is Italian, and my most recent expat home was Milan), I don’t mean I’m just going to analyze Italian culture, but my own, too.

I don’t have anything to say on the topic of Black Lives Matter that hasn’t been said before, but sometimes that’s the point. (But I do have something to say about militarization.)

It matters that the demand for justice is coming from everywhere. That’s it’s not just a few people, or “thugs” or extremists. It matters that it’s not just black and brown people talking about racism, just like it matters that it’s not just women talking about sexism.

We’re all in this together – to very different extents and with different consequences. I have no idea what it would be like to interact with the police in an American city as a black person, much less as a black man, but I can tell you this: I would be fucking scared.

My point is, if we’re not all free and safe, then none of us are. And we’re not. Anyone who didn’t see it before must see it now.

This is also for people in Italy and other countries who read my blog and have seen the heartbreaking video of George Floyd’s murder, but don’t have the context of what’s going on this country. His wasn’t the first death of a black person at the hands of police, only the best documented.

I’m surprised by how many people I know in Italy who follow US politics more closely than a lot people in the US. But sometimes what I heard from them and what I see in Italian newspapers are only the most extreme headlines, but not the larger context. So with that in mind, here’s some background.

Black Lives Matter vs. “All lives matter”

While I’m not on the inside of the protest movement, I do want to use what little soapbox I have to show my support for it, and maybe to help explain, to even one person who doesn’t get it yet, why Black Lives Matter means infinitely more than “all lives matter.”

The divide between the two is purely political. “All lives matter” isn’t a group, it’s just a response that the president, among others, has used to dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement. I haven’t heard it shouted as loudly this week as in the past, but it’s certainly an undertone to this moment in some people’s minds. And I want to respond to it because it’s the most ignorant comment on the topic of race in America that I’ve heard in a long time.

The “all lives” people are essentially saying, “What does that mean – white lives don’t matter?” (Or, from a more pessimistic view, they’re saying “No, black lives don’t matter.”)

So from an outsider’s perspective, I’m going to put it in the coldest, simplest, most grammatical terms possible: “All lives matter” is semantics. Human life is important, therefore all lives matter. Black Lives Matter is not a definition from the dictionary, it’s a movement responding to our society acting like they don’t.

You can’t compare a definition with a movement. And movements don’t arise to define words when society lives by the definition. Movements arise when society has stopped living by the definitions in the dictionary.

Two Videos for Context:

In the video below, Trevor Noah gives a brilliant, cool-headed explanation of the idea I mentioned above – that society only works when the contract is respected – and of three events leading up this. (It’s 18 minutes, but it’s worth listening to.)

Yes, there are systemic injustices affecting white people, too, especially rural white people. And they are unforgiveable, but they are mostly economic and based more on geography than race. No one in rural white America is being calmly murdered by the police.

Below is another useful video for context – about why we have such persistent racial inequality. It summarizes deep-rooted problems in a simple way, but without being condescending to anyone – whether you know the information already or not. (And it’s short.)

So if you’re worried that “black” in Black Lives Matter is a challenge to “white,” it’s not. But “all lives matter” isn’t saying a damn thing that we couldn’t learn from the dictionary. And the dictionary describes how things should be, not how they are. The challenge is whether “black lives” even gets to be part of “all lives” or not. If you’re in the US today and you don’t see why that’s in question, then you’re lucky that you’ve never been forced to see it.

A still peaceful protest on Chicago's Michigan Avenue for Black Lives Matter and George Floyd. ©KettiWilhelm2020
A peaceful protest on Michigan Avenue.


The other part of the context that no one seems to be talking about is militarization – of police and of US culture as a whole.

The talk about the need to demilitarize the police might not make sense to a lot of people in Europe. In Italy, for example, you don’t see police walking down the street looking like they’re walking into battle. And you only very, very rarely hear about police killings. (And when it happens, it’s not always the same group of people.)

Police lined up on horseback on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, during protests over George Floyd's death. ©KettiWilhelm2020
Police on horseback on Michigan Avenue, and the bridge raised in the background.

We do need to demilitarize the police in the US, absolutely. Part of that is the guns they carry, and part is the apparent expectation that they can kill a person – often with a weapon, but sometimes with a knee – and get away with it. This undeniable manifestation of a racist and violent culture is part of what people are talking about when they talk about a militarized police.

But it is also about guns. And how can we honestly expect the police to give up their guns when everyone else has them?

At least 6 people were shot within a few blocks of my apartment on Saturday night. I tried to count using the Tribune’s timeline of the weekend. It was hard to keep track. (And to be clear, I live in one of the most privileged neighborhoods of Chicago. It’s not the Chicago that I used to hear called the “murder capital of the US” when I was a kid. I’m not saying “it shouldn’t happen in my neighborhood,” I’m saying not to dismiss it as routine.)

Someone was shot trying to defend a store in the hip Logan Square area. That clearly had nothing to do with protest (and likely had nothing to do with organized protestors or the Black Lives Matter movement).

On Sunday night, I read that in the entire city at least 41 people were shot over the weekend. By Monday morning the count was up to 80. At least 17 of those people died. Those shootings didn’t happen because the police are militarized, they happened because the entire country is. (Not just Chicago, which is just where I happen to be right now, but the entire country.) Those shootings happened because people have unrestricted access to guns in this country. (In theory, not quite, but in practice, absolutely.)

So that’s the other part of the context of what’s going on in the US right now, whether you’re dealing with the police or not, whether you’re going to a protest or going out to lunch: People are armed.

The fact that we even have to have this conversation in 2020 is fucked up.

But 2020 is also shaping up to feel like a turning point in so many ways. As I’ve written before, the pandemic feels like it might leave some lasting positive impact for the environment and people’s belief in our ability to change. Now this moment, the murder of George Floyd by officers in uniform, feels like a turning point in our casual tolerance of racism. At least it feels like that to me, but what I do know. I’m white.

Justice, Travel Writing and the Environment

As I said above, I don’t write about social problems or politics much on this blog, but there are a lot of reasons why I need to right now. I believe it’s relevant to my usual topics of sustainability and travel, too.

This matters to the environment because oppressed people don’t often have the time, energy or money to worry about the environment. Feeling safe in your own community, and being able to provide for your family is a prerequisite to all of that. Freedom and equality are necessary to make sure nature is protected. I’ve seen this clearly in Central America and Southeast Asia, and it’s no different in the US.

(To be clear, none of these are the reasons why racism or oppression are problems or why they need to be fixed. That’s not what I’m saying at all. They need to fixed because they’re unjust. What I’m saying is these are the reasons why these issues are also relevant to sustainability and to travel, which are what I normally write about, and what most readers follow this blog for.)

The Michigan Avenue bridge raised to stop people from joining the downtown Black Lives Matter protests on Saturday. ©KettiWilhelm2020
The Michigan Avenue bridge raised on Saturday, which I’ve never seen before (presumably to stop people from joining the downtown protests).

My first travel experiences were completely tied up in social and environmental justice. I took trips with my college professors to hear Guatemalan and Salvadoran and Nicaraguan resistance fighters talk about battling decades of US invasions in their countries. I traveled to the Dominican Republic to talk to people working at the first clothing factory in the country that paid a minimum wage they could actually survive on – around $3 an hour.

Part of what made me fall in love with travel was seeing, learning from and celebrating the ways in which people survive, thrive, and resist oppression around the world. But I’ve always studied it in other countries. Now that I’ve moved back to my home country, I think the oppressive aspects of our society deserve to be studied in the same way I studied the dictators in Central America in college. We don’t deserve any special treatment.

Frankly, this is kind of a scary time to be back in the US. But for people of color – especially black people – and for immigrants, queer folks and others, it’s never not been scary. I believe them.

So for all of those reasons, I’m choosing to mention this here, on a blog about travel. Because we, as travel writers, can’t afford to isolate ourselves in our beautiful bubble and only write about the fun stuff. We can’t write about problems and violence and “whether it’s safe to visit X country,” then ignore the same things at home.

To all of my readers everywhere, regardless of your skin color, your citizenship, or whether you live in a place like Montana – where I’m from, and where a person living a rural life could potentially have never met a black person – hear this: This matters. Black Lives Matter.

And it matters that we say it.

This is the universal struggle for fairness, dignity and justice. It happens all around the world. I studied it in Central America, I was told to shut my mouth about it in China, and now we’re seeing it live in the United States. We’re not better than anywhere else, and we have a lot of work to do if we want to keep acting like world leaders.

A few of my favorite reactions and resources:

  • Here are some resources about racism and how to help, including a few things on Netflix. It includes a good book list, and I’m adding a few of them to my reading list.
    • I first saw these shared in this blog post by fellow travel blogger Gloria Atanmo of The Blog Abroad. Her words really make you feel the frustration that black people in this country have been living with forever.

  • 2nd UPDATE: From the Obama Foundation, here’s a collection of positive tid-bits from social media, more resources, and places to donate and sign petitions. I donated to the Nationwide Bail Fund, which helps protestors get out of jail. (People can be held in jail on many thousands of dollars of bail. With how many people are being arrested, that’s a lot of activists locked up – often just for peacefully protesting, but certainly without being convicted of anything.)
  • 3rd UPDATE: This video is so good, sincere, positive and actionable:
  • And as usual, I’m proud of Missoula, my little college town in the Rocky Mountains, for being the only spot on the protest map for hundreds of miles around it on Sunday. (According to the NYTimes.)
The New York Times' map of protest locations around the country – including little Missoula, Montana.

By Monday, Missoula was joined by several more towns in Montana, where people were peacefully demonstrating on Sunday. (They’re updating this page often, but you should be able to see current map here.)

The New York Times' map of protest locations around the country – including several towns protesting for George Floyd in Montana.

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