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A Reflection on White Privilege on a Trail in Burnet Woods

By Amanda Lynn Barker

A patient is admitted to the ICU with COVID-19. They have access to high- end private insurance, and so they receive all the necessary time, space, attention, and resources that will allow them to fully recover. However, they need ventilator support to make it through. The nurse reviews the processes with them and explains how their lungs are weakened and inflamed from the disease. The patient wheezes in reply, desperately trying to speak. The nurse listens intently, and between the gasps, the nurse hears the patient state that their eyes are good, that they can see quite well. Confused, the nurse flips through the chart. Had something gone wrong with their eyes? “My eyes are important too!” the patient insists. ‘It’s not your eyes that brought you to the hospital,” the nurse explained. “Your lungs are what’s in danger.”

On Wednesday, June encountered a swarm of cops during a mid-afternoon stroll in Burnet Woods. My first thought was oh no someone broke a leg on the trail! That thought was immediately replaced with, “oh no someone was shot on the trail?” But the cops didn’t demonstrate any sense of urgency, and all fifty or so loitered casually beside their vehicles parked in the circle at the bandstand. I felt surrounded, and since they weren’t aware of how they had parked, an SUV cruiser blocked the trail I wanted.

I couldn’t tell why they had gathered in that space. Was I walking into a crime scene, or a company picnic? Was the trail I wanted that they had blocked now closed? Was I about to encounter a confrontation I would rather avoid? I preferred to stay on my course and cross the crowd without incident, and continue my stroll along the trail. For this, I would need to safely cross the swarm without getting arrested or killed. With each step I took toward the swarm, I was acutely conscious of every manifestation of my white privilege.

First, I had accidentally neglected to bring my identification with me on the walk. Here I was, on a random midday walkabout, cutting across a swarm of cops, with little concern that my intentions or my presence would be called into question. The identification laws in Ohio say that a cop can only ask someone to prove who they are if the cop “reasonably” suspects the person has broken, or is about to break, a law. The thing about white privilege is that white people are far less likely than brown or black people to be reasonably suspected of breaking the law. If a cop demands to see ID, and the person exercises their legal rights and asks what law they supposedly broke or are about to break, the cop is supposed to release that information. However, it is much safer for a white person than for a brown or black person to ask that question without the situation escalating into a violent or even fatal incident. And remember, the cops can give any answer they want, and the burden of proof is on the individual to determine their innocence.

Second, I knew I could address the cops without them being on edge at me. Cops are taught to profile. Here I was, a thirty-something year old hippie- looking white woman on a midday walkabout; yea they had seen me, but they weren’t watching me. I wasn’t what they were looking for. When the blocked trailhead was still a respectful 35 feet ahead of me, I stopped, kinda waved to get their attention, and said, “hey can I walk through to that trail?” The one who responded gave me a look like, well of course... and then said, “sure,” and shrugged. I felt reasonably confident that as I got closer and they saw my face, I wouldn’t be mistaken for someone else, maybe someone who they thought they had seen committing a crime the other day in another part of the city. Since I am white, I am assumed

to be a fully legitimate and law-abiding citizen.

Several years ago, I attended a workshop on how to interact with the cops during a demonstration that may or may not include acts of civil disobedience. The organizer was David Cobb, the 2004 presidential candidate for the Green Party and the co-founder of the Move to Amend organization to end corporate personhood. At the training, he advised us to approach the cops like we would approach wild animals. Don’t look them in the eyes, always be aware of our physical proximity to them, and for goodness sakes, don’t engage with them! “You wouldn’t try to convince a hungry hyena about your point of view, so don’t try to convert the cops,” he would say. This lesson has stuck with me, and I see many similarities between cops and wild animals. Wild animals, cops are unpredictable, volatile, and potentially dangerous; but cops are more dangerous toward some people more than others.

I had to cross between the swarm, and the backside of one of their cruisers to get to the trailhead. I walked a wide circle, keeping as much distance between myself and the swarm to my right, but I also didn’t want to get too close to their cruiser. One of the cops noticed my discomfort, and he stepped further away from me, I guess to help me feel more comfortable walking past the swarm. I thought to myself, what if I were black or brown and the cop noticed that I felt uncomfortable? Would they assume I had committed a crime and that’s why I was uncomfortable, at which point they would demand to see an ID that I didn’t have with me? Then they would be able to decide how much of an issue they would want to make about my lack of ID. I would have very little, if any, control over the situation. Once an interaction between a cop and a black or brown person starts going bad, it’s a rabbit hole of trouble. Another thing about white privilege is that it is easy for white people to stay out of jail.

White people have more control over our environment; we have more choices. That’s why it’s called white privilege. White people have more allowance to simply live and exist in a social space. It’s an absurdity to claim that all lives matter in a response to the statement that black lives matter. Black lives are surrounded by dangerous choices that lead to violent interactions with cops. Nobody goes to the doctor for a lung problem, and then insists on treatment for their eyesight as well. White people need to recognize the problem of systemic racism, and affirm and demand that black and brown lives matter. I want everyone to have the same opportunity to peacefully enjoy a midday walkabout as myself.

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