Thoughts on the Killing of George Floyd and Being Black in the Outdoors
Editor's note: Chad Brown is the founder of Soul River Inc., a KEEN Effect grantee that connects disconnected youth and U.S. military veterans with the outdoors through backcountry fly-fishing adventures. We first met Chad over three years ago while working on the Wild Owyhee film series, and we recently donated 100% of the proceeds of our Veteran's Day sample sale to further support his work. As we listen and learn on our journey to better support organizations and individuals focused on dismantling institutional racism, we feel Chad's story about experiencing systemic racism in the outdoors is powerful and an important one to share out.
By Chad Brown, founder of KEEN Effect Grantee Soul River Inc.
Wait before you judge. Take a deep breath. Because you can.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I’ve seen countless people on social media expressing their rage — not about George’s death or about the underlying problem of inequality in our country — but about looting and physical damage to property.
I don’t support property destruction, but when there is a riot, there is no rule book.
As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A riot is nothing but the voice of the unheard.”
The death of George Floyd is a horrific loss that has shined a spotlight on the systemic racism present not just in our nation’s police departments, but in our day-to-day lives, in our schools, offices, court systems, and elsewhere. It has highlighted the tension between white and non-white people in the United States. It has offered us a moment to pause and listen to the unheard voices of America — the voices of indigenous women missing and murdered on their own land, indigenous tribes fighting for their water rights (and losing), Hispanics facing the challenges of maintaining their identity and making a living through low-paid jobs, African Americans asking for equality and justice while seeing black boys and girls getting killed by merciless cops.
The reality of being black in America is being born with a target on you. You can’t separate from this target. It follows you wherever you go. Every time you step outside, your target is visible. You’re judged, spat on, called “nigger” time after time. You walk into a store or office and are falsely accused of a crime. You’re subject to traffic stops simply for being in the “wrong” neighborhood, and then you get harassed by the cops.
Once, when I was pulled over, the cop asked me if I was a U.S. citizen even though my driver’s license clearly indicates that I’m a United States veteran. My car tires have been slashed while fly fishing. Once, while I was fishing on Veteran’s Day, my brake lines were ripped out of my truck.
We all love the outdoors and, as Americans, nature is free for us to enjoy. But nature is not free for me the same way it is for white people.
On social media, I have been publicly accused of “taking” fly fishing from white people. I’ve been told “This is our sport not yours!” and “You need to ask permission to fish my river!” I have received threatening phone calls where I was told I will be drowned the next time I try to fly fish.
We all love the outdoors and, as Americans, nature is free for us to enjoy. But nature is not free for me the same way it is for white people. I wish I could feel completely at ease when I’m outdoors. I wish I could simply enjoy nature and find healing instead of worrying about my safety—especially when I’m outdoors alone. I still feel I have to earn my right to enjoy the outdoors and struggle to find access that doesn’t leave me feeling uncomfortable in wild spaces.
When I served my country in the U.S. Navy, in countries like Kuwait, Somalia and Cuba, I had to live my life in a flak jacket, my weapon close to my body at all times. I learned to sleep with one eye open. Every veteran knows this wartime mentality, it allows us to function under stressful situations and protect ourselves and our fellow soldiers from the enemy.
George was publicly lynched—the worst fear of any black person. Lynching is historical and has been embedded into black lives. It could happen to any black boy, man, girl, or woman. The death of George Floyd makes the already present fear that I am living one degree away of what George had to face even more real. I could be George Floyd. Any black male could be George Floyd. This reality fills me with rage, and leaves me sad and heartbroken.
But this is where we are today.
This is why I have to don my flak jacket and holster my weapon to go to a beautiful place on public lands that nature has provided for all of us—for every soul, young, old, black, brown and white. I fought for freedom alongside others who gave their lives but, sadly, as a black man, I have to protect myself when I go to the river to find my own freedom, joy, solitude and healing.
Systemic racism is everywhere, even in the outdoor industry. Even though there are many non-white experts of the outdoors, they aren’t often identified by the media and overlooked by outdoor companies and conservation groups. People of color are rarely invited to be part of these organizations other than, perhaps, being invited to a panel discussion or being mentioned in blog posts. These gestures to include brown and black folks too often just serve the purpose of checking off the box of political correctness. Indigenous communities and all people of color need to be heard and listened to when it comes to outdoor recreation, policy making, and nature conservancy. We should not be told what sports are suitable for us, how we are supposed to function or what we are supposed to wear or eat when we are outdoors.
This is our opportunity to dismantle racism and lean into creating communities with strength that will support our youth for tomorrow.
George Floyd’s death has provided us an opportunity to step back and really look at why all of this is happening. It is our opportunity to create alliances and new friends and to learn from one another to build better and safer communities—both in the urban and the outdoor worlds. This is our opportunity to dismantle racism and lean into creating communities with strength that will support our youth for tomorrow.
We are all now bearing witness to a relic of the old world. Racism is the foundation on which our nation was built and it has never left us. When will we break the cycle of generational poison? When? We are all humans, but we will be all only when we have accepted all races as human.
Right now we do not. Right now blacks are separated. Right now blacks are being murdered and there is no justice.
White folks have the choice to not participate. White privilege provides one option to not fight for what is right. But white people also have the choice to lean into their privilege and use it to build a bridge to stronger communities, to make all humans a race of one.
Our nation is crippled. Our leaders are not leading the nation but dividing it. Voices diverse in races and gender are not being heard. We are facing darkness together and the one light we have is our love. Where is our love for one another? It is easy to point the finger and charge by forward with hate. But loving takes a deeper strength and maturity.
Our long-established system needs to be dismantled and rebuilt to fit today. Yesterday does not work.
We need equality. We need justice. We need a leader who hears the voices of pain.
BLACK LIVES MATTER.
Let's keep the conversation going. Chad Brown is joining Oregon Wild for a discussion titled "Systemic Racism in Urban and Outdoor Spaces. How Do We Move Forward?" at 6 p.m. PDT on June 17. You can get more details and RSVP here.