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1,284.5 miles: The distance from my front door to Charlottesville, Virginia.
In the second weekend of August, I woke to the sound of a crop-duster plane zooming over our family’s tent in the middle of a Minnesota state park about a half-hour from my home. We were on our annual family end-of-summer camping trip. I lay there for a minute on the air mattress and reached over to my shoe, where I’d stuck my phone for the night.
I drowsily scrolled through my Facebook feed, a string of loud words and pictures. Photos appeared of an army of torch-bearing, Confederate-flag-waving white men with angry, determined faces. I realized something happened in the hours since I removed the phone from its charger in the car and stuck it in my shoe for the night.
Somehow, we all live in this magical land where These Things Don’t Happen.
I scanned enough to get the overview of the situation: white supremacists marching with lawn torches, a small counterprotest that met them, shouting, threats of violence, responses of anger and shock that this could go on and be allowed to happen.
“This is America, not Nazi Germany!”
“This is 2017, not 1950!”
I put my phone away, suddenly filled with regret on two levels: first, of course, that the whole thing happened, and, second, that I couldn’t have just left my phone alone for the first few hours of being awake – regret that I didn’t just leave my phone at home entirely.
“I’ll read through it all when I get home,” I thought later, sitting by the lake. My conscience argued back: What more perfect example of privilege than that I am able to contain the experience to my phone, shut it off and put it away.
“Enough,” I thought. “I need to figure out what to do with this beyond a post on social media and meaningless words.” I went back to my book.
DISTANCE TO REALITY
On the walk back to our campsite, I recalled a book I’d read years ago that discussed the seldom-acknowledged distancing element of TV news. The book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, by Jerry Mander (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1978) pointed out that we sit in climate-controlled living rooms, getting our filtered news on demand from our chosen outlets. We no longer receive our news from primarily local sources, from the voices of people we know.
The book argued that television news has separated us from our neighbors and altered our perception of the world outside our living rooms. It’s distorted our sense of distance. How many times have we watched someone standing in shock before a church covered with graffiti or a yard wrapped in crime-scene tape, always uttering the same phrase:
“But this kind of thing doesn’t happen here!”
Somehow, we all live in this magical land where These Things Don’t Happen.
Until they do.
When the only interaction we have with our neighbors is a waved hello in passing or a grumble about their gardening habits, when we know more about the celebrity on the cover of the supermarket magazine rack than the lady whom we see every week behind the register, is it any wonder that it’s so easy to distance ourselves from the reality we see on television and social media? Is it any wonder that as we white Americans express our disbelief over people walking the open streets carrying torches and wearing swastikas, our neighbors of color reply with incredulity that we haven’t noticed that this is only the outward evidence of their everyday experience?
But when things like Charlottesville happen a thousand miles from my front door, what am I to do? Can I even be so bold as to ask, What does this mean in my world?
How far am I, really, from Charlottesville?
DISTANCE TO ANOTHER WORLD
567.7 miles: The distance from my front door to Chicago Heights, Illinois
The night we’d arrived in Chicago Heights with our church youth group for a weeklong mission trip, a girl – maybe 10 or 11 years old – came to the front steps of the church as we were unloading the trailer. She was pushing a bike. We’d just arrived. I was 20 years old, and this was my second mission trip with this group.
“Do y’all know where Pastor Scott is?” the girl asked us as we passed her on the church steps. We were busy carrying in suitcases and boxes, all of us shaking our heads and shrugging in answer to her frantic question. As she kept asking, we started to notice two things: Her pleas were getting more urgent, and the tire on her bike was flat.
“I need to find Pastor Scott. My cousin’s been shot, and my momma is at work at the grocery store,” she explained. “Does anybody know where I can get an air pump to fix my bike tire? I need to get to the store to tell my momma that he’s been shot.” The store where her mother worked was at least a mile from the church, and she’d probably pushed that bike several blocks already just to get to the church.
It was a jarring start to the week, to say the least. We’d walked into another world. Here was a girl whose close family member had just been a victim of violence, standing there, persistent and calm, just doing what was necessary to keep her family informed of their latest tragedy. This was her reality.
The morning after the girl with the flat tire showed up at the church steps, we went in groups around the neighborhood, inviting kids to come to the Bible school that evening. “Aren’t you scared to be walking around this neighborhood?” a lady asked us, eyeing us skeptically through the iron-barred screen across her doorway. I hesitated a minute. We’d long since noticed that our group from Iowa made up most of the white population in the neighborhood. I replied, saying the only thing that came to my mind in the moment, proud of myself for something like bravery.
“No, ma’am. I’m not afraid.”
In retrospect, my words were spoken from simple ignorance. After all, this wasn’t my neighborhood. In a matter of days, I’d be back to my own home, my own suburban Des Moines neighborhood and my own reality.
DISTANCE TO A STATEMENT
41.5 miles: The distance from my front door to Sioux Center, Iowa
I had plenty of excuses that January morning. It was 50 minutes away, on the only day I wasn’t driving that nearly two-hour commute, and the traffic (not to mention the parking situation) would be horrible. Beside that, with the wind chill, it would be nearly 20 below. And there were people there protesting already. What difference would my presence make?
The day Donald Trump came to my college for a campaign rally, I decided to stay home, supporting the protest effort via social media and a blog post written after the event. I decided to stay home and support the fight from my comfortable desk at home, behind a computer screen. I wrote what I feel was one of the best pieces I’ve ever done arguing against Trump’s being allowed to speak on our campus, and I dropped it on my seldom-visited personal blog. I reposted it on Facebook, for a short while. A few hours later, I decided this came as close as ever to violating my self-enforced “no-politics” rule for my Facebook page, so I removed the link.
I should have gone. I should have stood there in the freezing cold and held a sign against this invasion of my college home. I should have stood there with my brothers and sisters who felt a palpable sense of threat at even the mention of Trump’s name. I should have sent that blog post to the college newspaper a week before it was too late. I should have sent a copy of it to the college’s president.
But I didn’t.
I stayed home, stayed quiet, watched it all unfold.
DISTANCE TO THE TRUTH
The first Wednesday morning of the following November I woke at 3 a.m., grabbed my phone and went back to sleep, hoping that what I’d read on my news alerts was just a terrible nightmare.
I asked myself later that dark Wednesday morning in November as I made that 50-minute commute to get to class – how far were we, really, from President Donald Trump on that January morning?
I ask myself today, how far were we, really, from Charlottesville?
And who is my neighbor?
Shelbi Gesch is a writer who lives in Luverne, Minnesota.