The cover of the issue of The Sun that appeared June 18, 2020 (Volume 12, Number 19), in solidarity with marginalized people of color across this nation boldly read “I Can’t Breathe”.
It was adorned with photos of Black Lives Matter protests that took place in town in support of communities of color across the country, and in response to the death of George Floyd. George Floyd was yet another victim of the longstanding historical and systemic oppression of Black Americans.
Our town, in response to this horrific act, came together in a show of our unique and cherished sense of community. We have, for the majority of my lifetime been a town centered on the idea of “community”.
Growing up through the Carbondale Community School, the four main points of the philosophy informing every day of our education were: Community, Lifelong Learning, Responsibility and Social Justice. From these early years of both focusing on these four ‘compass points’ in school, and living in a town that always prided itself on embodying at least one, if not all of these points in a given time granted me a unique perspective on how a community of people from all walks of life could come together in service to one another.
Later on, as I studied sociology in college and grad school, I found that the word for this pervasive sense of ‘community’ was called in the professional circles “solidarity.” Or rather, those positive traits that bind a society together, that give meaning to the connections we establish with one another, both big and small. It lends to the overall feeling of collaboration, affirmation, and a universal sense of care and acceptance.
It is with this history, both as someone who has grown up deeply rooted in our town’s values, and as someone who has gone beyond the walls of our valley to study the mysteries of human interaction and social connections that I feel compelled to put words to print in response to the radically different Sopris Sun cover that appeared on July 30, 2020 (Volume 12, Number 25).
For me, the “I Can’t Breathe” cover represented that sense of community that we as a town hold to be a strong core value. It represented people “showing up” and embodying that dedication to their fellow people and the equitable treatment of all people. It represented the idea that our town can and will care about issues bigger than itself, and that it will stand up in the face of the horrors of police brutality, systemic racism, and the continued cultural violence against people of color.
This feeling waned somewhat sharply upon viewing the July 30 cover of The Sun. This cover features the “Next Generation” of the Carbondale police force in their “ceremonial” Mountain Fair costumes (bright tie-dye). The cover depicts these officers all excitedly posing for the camera and suspending one of their fellow officers in a sort of way reminiscent of bachelor party photos.
This photo, and the decision to highlight it so prominently as the cover of the Mountain Fair issue of The Sun, strikes me as quite a contrasting move considering the previous feature of Black Lives Matter protests several weeks prior.
The questions that arise from such a decision are plentiful: what is the message of this picture, what is the intended symbolic meaning, why this photo and not one of the fair? For me, these questions emerged around the real question of what it means to grant both BLM protestors and the police force a similar spot on the front page of the town’s newspaper.
The featuring of BLM protests reflected a sense of solidarity in our community, while the decision to feature the police force adorned in tie-dye (under ballistic vests laden with spare magazines, tasers, extra handcuffs, sidearms, etc.) feels almost directly counter to the sentiments of the previous cover.
The central struggle of the entire Black Lives Matter movement has always been in direct response and in direct conflict with the sharp abuses of power by police in this nation that is overwhelmingly targeted at minorities and people of color. Which is why I find it hard to reconcile the messaging of the previous cover.
Upon the cover hitting the digital community of Facebook, what I immediately noticed was an overwhelming outpouring of adoration for our police force. This came from both Black Lives Matter supporters, in addition to people on the other side of the political aisle.
This highlights our biggest issue as a community, in my view. That, for a vast majority of us we live in a world where the fear, violence and constant anxiety of police brutality is not something we must engage with in ‘real life’. We are ‘safe’ from it and that safety affords us the ability to either deny its existence entirely, or to only support it performatively. I would argue that both are equally damaging to the real communities that face this constant battle of life and death on a daily basis.
In closing, I must say that our key responsibilities as engaged community members is to be engaged community members. We must pull ourselves beyond doing what looks good for the optics of the day, and instead ‘show up’ and put our money where our mouths are, so to say.
Our community is not free of police brutality. Our police force is not a benevolent force for good. Rather, our community is free of police brutality with a benevolent police force for some of us.
Our community has a large percentage of Latinx community members — many of whom do not have the comfortable life of a large house, disposable income, and the ability to feel safe when interacting with a police officer. A portion of our community feels safe when they see police officers wearing tie-dye under their tactical vests. A portion of our community feels terrified of that reality.
The part that gives me pause and makes me reflect on where we have “gone” as a community, is those same people that feel safe are the ones protesting, are the ones saying they want real change. What they do not realize is that even the act of feeling safe itself is inherently part of the problem and that it continues to replicate the systems that enact violence on people of color every single day in this country.
As a direct reflection of this, I will offer this small piece of personal confession: Even as I write this from a relative place of safety, to criticize the police force in our small town in any way fills me with an immense amount of fear of retribution, be it small or grand in scope.