The current protests that have erupted across the U.S. following the death of George Floyd seemingly had far reaching affects. When I saw the film footage of George’s death I was, like most everyone, sickened by what I saw. Unfortunately, I had inclination we would find ourselves in this situation eventually.
Let me explain, back in April 1992, I was stationed in Camp Pendleton, California when the Rodney King riots broke out. We were deployed to help bring the situation under control. At the time most of us on base hadn’t seen the footage of Rodney’s beating by the police—the internet didn’t exist back then—as we were focused on our training, taking the peace of our nation for granted. We climbed aboard the duce and half’s somewhat blind to the situation. That was a hard position to be in not knowing what was going on. I remember we sat in the back of those trucks asking each other questions; Are we actually going to war in L.A.? Are we going to fight our own countrymen?
I was a medic and under direct orders by my superiors to do as I was told. So, all of us had no choice in the matter, it didn’t matter what side of the issue we were on, if we even knew what the situation was, we had our orders. As a Marine Corpsman (medic) I can justify my duty as one that provides medical assistance when needed. I was thankful, I wasn’t there to shoot anyone, I was there to patch up anyone and everyone. The thing that kept going through my mind was, why were the U.S. Marines being sent to U.S. city? I didn’t think it was possible for the U.S. military to be used against its own country. I thought for sure it was going to be the end of our world as we knew it. I was young, inexperienced in the ways of politics and I only knew that I was to follow my orders.
Fortunately, my unit didn’t have to hurt anyone, and I was able to patch up a few people before it was all over and we went back to base. But what I took away from that experience was the atmosphere where nothing got accomplished and I figured we would revisit the situation at a later date. The civilians didn’t feel like they were heard by our government. And we, or at least I, felt like I had been awakened with the realization that we, as a country, could go to war with ourselves and that scared me. Later, when I did see the footage of Rodney being beat, I was shocked that it had happened. I couldn’t figure out why the cops weren’t arrested straight away for their brutality. Why did tour leaders let this get so far out of hand that the Marines we deployed? It seemed like common sense to retrain the police and for our communities to work on society as whole. I had no idea that injustices like this were happening. (I do understand now this is part of my privilege as a white person.)
Fast forward to 2016, I was deployed for disaster work due to severe flooding in Texas and Louisiana. I live in Nevada and have lived most all of my life in the North Western United States. Before 2016 I didn’t realize that southern hate groups and especially the Klu Klux Klan, were growing and becoming an upcoming voice for our country.
When I arrived in Huston, Texas as a disaster volunteer I was relocated to Beaumont, Texas for a about a week and then up to Jasper, Texas for another week. My job was to drive out to the rural areas and map the periphery of the disaster while performing wellness checks on people. As a volunteer, I never once thought of my work as anything other than helping people; it never crossed my mind that victims of the flood would have a problem with outsiders. Like I said I’m from Nevada, and my partner on the job at that time was from Syracuse, New York—both white men.
Once we arrived in Jasper, Texas it did not take long before my partner and I ran into trouble. We had noticed that many of the properties had white crosses in the yards, rebel flags, and another flag that is white with blue field in the upper corner with a red cross. We came to learn later that those are symbols of white supremacy. The later flag is what is known as a Christian flag, but it’s been adopted by the KKK as well.
When we saw these symbols, we naively felt little concern; we inaccurately guessed the crosses represented a Christian family. However, we quickly learned crosses can also represent white supremacy for many.
We came to a property where the signage was very racist along the driveway. Signs that were warnings for non-whites not dare come to this home. As a working partner of a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is helping people, we are taught not to distinguish who gets our assistance. Even if a person is a flag waving racist, we offer them the same assistance to them as we do their neighbors. My partner and I are white, so we figured we could knock on the door without any harm. I knocked and then heard a commotion in the house, it sounded like people leaving out the backdoor. I heard someone fumbling with the lock on the front door, and eventually the door opened to a big man coming out on the porch.
“Hello,” I said and explained what organization we were with, even though we were both dressed in vests that obviously expressed who we were. “We are doing a wellness check on you, your family and your neighbors. Have you been affected by the flood and if so, how can we help?”
He looked at me, then to my partner and his face turned red and his eyes narrowed as he turned back to me. “We don’t want no damn Yankees helping us. We can get along just fine without you!”
He was visibly angry with us. The disdain this guy had for Americans living in the North was unbelievable. My partner who was seventy-two at the time said, “Yankee? I haven’t heard that term used toward someone since the seventh grade. You folks still use that term?”
That was when I saw a man about hundred yards off in the backyard pointing a rifle at us from behind a tree. I looked at the big man and said as I pointed at the red cross on my chest, “This is not a target. We are only here to offer assistance. If that is problem, then we will go.”
The big man waved a hand and the man behind the tree dropped his aim and walked calmly back to the house through the backdoor. He then told us it was better if we left and that we should tell everyone from FEMA to the Salvation Army not to come to his house. For safety reasons my partner and I went out of our way to inform everyone we could about that area. It was common for us to run into people like that in the Beaumont /Jasper area. Understand that in this area they still bury the dead according to color. I was told that ‘It’s just the custom down here in the south not to mix whites with the non-white in the grave yard.’
At another point during this disaster deployment, I was working with a FEMA officer who was headed up to Jasper from Beaumont to work at the joint operations site up there. I told him about the hostility I had experienced up there and shared my concern as he was a man of color. His reply sent shivers down my spine. He told me that when he arrived at the disaster he was assigned in Jasper where he had been warned by FEMA in the Dallas office about the intolerance in this area. The night he arrived, he was pulled over by the police. He identified himself as a FEMA officer, by holding up his badge. The police took his badge and tossed it across the street and told him they didn’t recognize his authority and because of his color he wasn’t welcome in Jasper. They told him “Remember what happened to James Byrd? If you know what is best for you, you’d leave town.” James Byrd Jr was black man that was lynched in Jasper in 1998 and drug though town behind a pickup truck. The pride these white supremist have for such a horrid act still makes me ill.
My FEMA friend told me that after the police left, he got out his vehicle, retrieved his badge, got back in his vehicle and left town. Once outside of town he pulled over. He said he was shaking and crying all at once. His tears were out of frustration that he couldn’t depend on the local law enforcement for backup and cooperation. But in truth, he told me that he was scared for his life. Even though he had a gun on his hip, he was frightened and intimidated by the local cops. “I shouldn’t feel that way in my profession,” he said, “I can’t believe that in 2016 we are still dealing with this racists bullshit!” This time he was going to Jasper with four other FEMA officers to continue working the disaster. Prior to going back to Jasper, he had filed a complaint about the police department, so he felt confident his trip would be different from that last experience. Our paths never crossed again, so I don’t know the outcome of the FEMA officer. It is my hope that he didn’t have any other troubles.
If you recall, 2016 was an election year. In these towns it was not uncommon to see yard signs that read “We have endured a minority president we will not endure a woman present.” Or, “If Hillary gets in, we go to our guns!” When I got home, I told my wife, “I had no idea how much hate was out there until this deployment. I fear a civil war in our near future.” At first, she thought I was exaggerating until other people that were deployed with me confirmed what I had witnessed. I have been on other deployments since 2016 where racism has become an issue.
For insistence, when I was deployed to the Virgin Islands in 2017 during three Category 5 hurricanes, I witnessed how different a disaster is handled when racism is involved. People that held high government positions made policies not to help the people of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico because the population wasn’t white or considered American. Because I was no longer the young, sheltered man I once was, I, along with others saw the racism clearly when it came to the lack of urgency or help being deployed to the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico. The U.S. Government purposely delayed resources and material relief to the islands, and let the Jones Act waiver lapse, slowing shipping that brought aid to a trickle making recovery efforts very difficult. Yet, the U.S. Government vowed to stand with Texas and Florida every single day to help them restore and recover. While Puerto Rico and St. Croix are U.S. territories, yet because their skin color is different, we treat them different in recovery efforts.
I am sharing these experiences to help shed light for my fellow white Americans on the very real racism that I have witnessed firsthand. As I said, after my deployment in 2016 to rural Texas, it became very apparent that my experience foretold of what would happen in the future. George Floyd has exposed what some of us have been talking about for a while now, racism in America and I am glad that the protests over his murder show no signs of quieting down. In fact, quite the opposite with the ripple effect for justice of others killed at the hands of racism has erupted. I hope that people keep going until there is real change.
What is happening is painfully familiar to the Rodney King riots. For people like James Byrd Jr. their injustices need to be addressed. It is my hope and prayer that we as a society come to learn the value of our fellow person no matter their color, creed, religion, gender / non-gender or choice of partner. I understand that being white telling my point of view might stir up emotions of resentment by some, but please understand that I’m attempting to educate my white counterparts. My experiences are authentic and have provided me with an avenue to empathize with my fellow human no matter what color their skin is, and it is my hope that this little story helps others to see the there is still much work to be done to become an anti-racist society.