While huge protests garner most of the headlines, little towns all over the country, and in fact, all over the world, are having smaller, quieter, gatherings in support of Black Lives Matter. One example is Baker, Nevada, population 150, located in east-central Nevada.
The first rally was held June 6, 2020, with about 30 participants. Townspeople clamored for another, which was held a week later. About 40 people gathered from many walks of life, ranging in age from 3 to 90 years old. Some have only lived in Baker for a few months, while others were born and raised in this quiet town focused on Great Basin National Park, visitor services, and ranching.
In this second anti-racism gathering, participants began by kneeling on the grass at the local playground for eight minutes and forty-six seconds in memory of George Floyd, who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for that long. No one talked; the only sound was the strong wind gusting through the surrounding trees.
Next, organizer Bryan Hamilton opened the conversation, asking participants why they had come and why Black Lives Matter. One lady commented that while individuals might not be racists, our institutions have become so, and institutional change is needed.
Dan Hathaway stated, “The world is watching us.”
As the blustery wind continued, Sylvia Baker commented, “The agents of change are blowing.” She recalled her history of marching for civil rights in California, where she grew up, and how her daughter married a black man and she had black grandchildren.
Hamilton urged attendees to call-out offensive behaviors. “Becoming an anti-racist is inherently uncomfortable,” he said, and we go through stages. Fear is often first, and then later growth, when we can become an effective ally and can handle uncomfortable discussions about race.
Going through stages is something that has been referred to as the racism scale.
Hamilton continued, “In the U.S., we all have equal rights, but we don’t have equal opportunities.” For example, said Hamilton, say there’s an apple tree. Both a white person and a black person may have the right to pick apples from it. But the white person may have a tall enough ladder to get to the apples, while the black person doesn’t.
Discussion ensued about the term All Lives Matter and what it means, and several participants commented on how people who use that term are often trying to deflect the conversation from its real focus.
Mary Sullivan quoted American novelist James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Janille Baker brought up the 1968 Olympics, when US athletes finished first and third in the 200 m run. When they went up on the podium, they raised their fists in what some called a black power salute, but what they preferred to call a human rights salute. For doing this, they were kicked out of the Olympics and faced death threats when they went home. Baker noted that the International Olympic Committee still won’t allow athletes to protest from the podium (although they are starting to consider it). “We have a long way to go.”
The group was cautioned by David Harley, “We’ve got to watch out for our short attention spans.”
Hamilton gave an overview of black history in the U.S., starting with 1690, when the first slaves were imported into the U.S. He covered “race riots,” reconstruction, lynchings, voter suppression via literacy tests and poll taxes, the wide-spread murders of blacks in Wilmington, NC, and the cycles of injustices against black people and the resulting riots. These injustices have most recently included Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.
Rex Leonard commented, “Nevada doesn’t have a very good history of this (racial justice); it was once referred to as the Mississippi of the West.” He noted that Sammy Davis, Jr., was a headliner but couldn’t go in the front door at some places, but would have to use the service entrance. He preferred going up to Harrah’s in Reno, which didn’t have institutional barriers. Harrah’s later named a lounge after him.
Participants recommended things they could do in addition to holding discussions, including books and movies. Janille Baker recommended Just Mercy. “You need to watch it, you need to read the book.”
Val Taylor, matriarch of the community, exhorted, “Vote!”
The group noted that good things are coming out of protests. NFL and NASCAR have changed their stances and become more aware of social injustice. Breonna’s Law was passed to ban no-knock warrants and named in honor of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in March 2020. Several cities now ban chokeholds.
After about an hour and a half of peaceful discussions on the grass, the group got up and started the march. Some carried signs as they walked (or rollerbladed) around the block and down the highway. The group sang, chanted, and also had informal conversations about how racial issues are affecting people in different ways.
Travelers driving on the highways or visiting Great Basin National Park saw the small group. Some ignored them, others honked in support.
The rally in Baker, NV certainly wasn’t the largest in the country or in Nevada. But it shares that people all over care and are ready to start thinking and acting in different ways. Although miles and miles of basin and range may isolate the town from other communities, it is close in spirit to those fighting for a better world.
Gretchen Baker is an ecologist at Great Basin National Park, and previously worked at six other national park service areas. She and her husband reside with their two children on a ranch in Snake Valley, Nevada. Support her work in the Ally.