Reckoning with racism, week two

06/17/2020

With protests against systemic racism sweeping the nation, the plight of black people in the United States of America has been amplified. In Marin County, where the median income is $124,000 and the average home costs over $1 million, African-Americans represent just 3 percent of the population. The pressure on them to not only bear the brunt of discrimination, but also to represent their race, is felt acutely in West Marin. Alongside our regular news coverage, the Light talked to two black people in our community to understand their experience and perspective.

Here in Marin

At last week’s protest in Point Reyes Station, Camille Ptak carried a powerful and heartbreaking sign: “I’ve had a cop point his gun at me. I’ve had the n-word screamed in my face. I’ve had disapproval of my interracial marriage. I’ve had backlash for standing up to racism. I’ve had this all happen here in Marin.” Camille, who lives in Inverness, created the sign to lift the veil on what happens in the community where she is now raising eight-month-old twin sons. At an earlier protest, she’d held a sign with someone else’s quote; afterwards, she reflected on how the #MeToo movement gained power through personal stories, and she translated the idea to race. She decided to write down her five most traumatic experiences, and after writing the first four, she was awash with sadness. She realized why: it had all happened right here, in the place where she has decided to raise her family. That became the fifth experience. She sent her friends a picture of the sign before they went to the protest to not put them in an uncomfortable position, and they turned out with signs and shirts supporting her as allies. Still, most reactions at the protest were muted. Many people looked and said nothing or took a picture without acknowledging her. After the protest, she had a long conversation with someone who claimed that it had nothing do with race when the white person screamed the n-word at her. The conversation went around and around, and the person kept denying Camille’s experience; finally, they agreed to be cordial and leave it at that. “I don’t think people are ready to acknowledge that racism happens within their own community and circle of friends,” she said. It’s easier to talk about racism happening somewhere else, and there is a large gap between opposing the murder of a black person and being anti-racist, she said. Her intent is not to shame people, but rather to illuminate her experience with the hope that her children will have a less painful time. Camille has struggled with being the only person of color in the room for the 10 years she’s lived in West Marin. “I feel like white people wouldn’t understand what it is like to prepare to walk into a room of 200 black people and be the only white person. But that’s something I have to do to go to community events,” she said. She is now focused on building up a book club she helped organize, Talking About Race, whose website has drawn interest from people in other areas. She is setting up a digital packet to help people create a safe space to talk about race in their own community. “That’s how I can help support other people’s self-reflection and growth,” she said.

Someone who looks like them

John Eleby, an enforcement ranger in the Point Reyes National Seashore, uses his uniform to inspire kids in hopes of seeing more people who look like him joining the ranks. He takes pride in talking to school groups, representing his profession, and standing out as an African-American role model in Marin. He sees a willingness in the park service to improve diversity, but says it still has a long way to go. “Change is certainly slow,” he said. John was born in Huntsville, Ala., outside of a military base where his dad served. His family moved to Germany for six years, and then to upstate New York. With two older brothers, he spent a lot of time outside because it meant they were tearing up the house less, and he developed a love for nature. The local church encouraged him to apply for work at the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, and from there he began an 18-year career with the park service. In 2010, John moved to the seashore, where he patrols by car, foot and boat. Most of his law enforcement is for resource-related crimes or traffic violations, but he has encountered a few dangerous incidents. His approach to avoiding a tragic outcome is to give himself time and distance. “That means parking your car a little further, or observing a person for a while, as long as there is no immediate danger,” he said. The culture of the park service, with yearly classroom and scenario-based training, written tests and a requirement that permanent law enforcement rangers have a two-year degree, helps bring in people who are open to differences and ideas, he said. In the seashore he meets yearly with Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that brings black people to nature, and he is well aware of the impact that has. “It’s important for young people to see someone that looks like them, speaks like them and is from an area of the country they are from. And to see someone that represents them in uniform,” he said. The park service should expand these kinds of meetings and improve transportation from urban centers to the parks, he said. John’s reaction to the nationwide movement can be summed up in one word: Finally. “Finally, there seems to be change. But I certainly am not under any illusion that we are anywhere close to being done,” he said. “If anything, we are seeing the very, very beginning of the change and the improvement and the evolution we are looking for as a country.” Immediately, officers need to improve their accountability and honesty, he said, but the long-term issue is the broken relationship between law enforcement and people of color. “If we’re not making a legitimate and honest effort to talk to communities and see what they need and what they themselves want from their police force, then I don’t think it’s going to get any better,” he said. That effort involves community building and improving resources, such as education, that have nothing to do with policing.