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Thoughts on racial equality from an Edmonds resident

 

Last updated 6/18/2020 at 9:52am

Geronimo Whitaker

Geronimo Whitaker

Editor's note: Geronimo Whitaker is an Edmonds resident who last year wrote a Guest View column for the Beacon on what Black History Month meant to him.

Whitaker is an accomplished artist, and much of his work has to do with depicting the unique perspective of African Americans, especially regarding policing and other systemic issues contributing to the inequality painfully evident now.

His work has been featured most recently in Oakland, California, but includes works accepted at other national exhibitions. His specialty is art about the violence inflicted on African Americans, as well as other political topics.

Whitaker, 70, agreed to answer a few questions that might help Edmonds residents better understand Black Lives Matter and the African American – and all people of color – experiences in their fight for equality in a country with a deep-seated history of racism.

Have you experienced racism in Edmonds or south Snohomish County?

I have lived in Edmonds since 2013. In 2018, I decided to accompany my wife to the Mountlake Terrace Community Center, where she regularly attended a senior aquarobics class. My intention was to lap swim while she exercised.

Following a class, the husband of one of the other class members approached the table where I was waiting for my wife to come out of the locker room. He began talking about what a great lunch he was going to make when he got home for himself and his wife.

Then, as he concluded his description, he walked directly up to me and said "and YOU'RE NOT INVITED!" I was stunned by the directness and forcefulness of his words. My wife and his were just coming out of the locker room and, at that point, the man and his wife exited the Community Center.

When my wife – who is white – and I got to our car, I asked her if she had heard the speech. She had, but suggested that "those folks have a weird sense of humor." My immediate response to that was anger. In my mind, I replayed the event and concluded that he didn't know me well enough to make a joke like that.

In fact, as a former Vietnam combat squad-leader, and the son of a Tuskegee Airman, I felt like he didn't know me at all, but that didn't matter because he thought I was inferior to him and his tone said so.

I was very tempted by the thought of physical retaliation: I hold a black belt in karate, as have other martial arts training. "Leg sweep, reverse punch to the head, and he'd be out cold before he hit the floor," part of me said.

As a survivor of PTSD from combat in Vietnam, I also had been counseled and taught techniques to deescalate and maintain control in such situations. In the end, I recalled what my mother had taught me: "If you can't say something nice, say nothing at all."

So silence was my shield, and I didn't need a sword. Still, as an African-American, a veteran and a man, it took a lot to walk the path of nonviolence and nonretaliation and stick to the higher road.

Have you had issues with the police?

As a teen growing up on military bases, I had several times that I was taken into custody, for being in possession while underage. Fortunately, dealing with MPs was much different than dealing with civilian police.

My father impressed on me that I was foolish to put myself in a position where a policeman could "do anything they want" and have the law to back them up.

@escribe positive experiences you have had in Edmonds

In my retirement, art and music have become my refuge and rehab. I began to study the saxophone about two years ago. My daily practice was interrupted one day as my backyard neighbor came out to yell at me. "I'm trying to get some work done here, and that noise is annoying!" he said. "Stop it!"

As I opened my window – it was mostly closed – to reply, I thought about what to say. It was about 4 p.m. "I have the right to do this," I thought. "I have waited all my life to learn how to play this sax, and no pissant like you is going to stop me. F- off!"

He went back to his house, but I was shaken. I called my brother (a former Special Forces Green Beret) and he advised me to document the event. So, I wrote a letter to the Edmonds PD describing the events that had taken place.

In a few days, I received a visit from an Edmonds PD officer. As I opened the door to greet him and invite him in, I was relieved by the fact that he was Japanese American. I immediately knew that I could talk to him about what had happened without necessarily going into how minority people feel when set upon by whites.

We had a very satisfying discussion in which he asked what I wanted him to do. I said that I was trying to avoid confrontation, but that if violence were directed at me, I wanted there to be an existing context for what, when, and why.

If nothing happened, nothing needed to happen. In summary, I had a very good exchange with that Edmonds PD officer and felt like I had been not only heard, but understood.

What do you like about living in Edmonds?

I like living where I can relate to and interact with my neighbors – most of them. I am blessed in my location on a cul-de-sac, which offers a circle for our little group of houses and families. I like the ethnic and racial diversity I have on my circle: Africans, African Americans, Ethopians, Latinos and whites.

I lovingly call it my "little United Nations," which actually reflects the motto of our country: "E Pluribus Unum": out of many, one.

We help each other, watch out for each other and, best of all, feed each other. Yesterday, one neighbor sent her son to my door with a bottle of her special hot sauce. "I can't afford to keep the kitchen business open, so I'm giving these away" was what she said.

She wouldn't accept any money for them, but just said "You enjoy, Geronimo! Just enjoy!"

I could not ask to have a better group of neighbors. It makes being alive a daily pleasure. I love Edmonds.

How would you like your elected officials to engage with you?

I like to see who I'm talking to. I participated in the Edmonds Diversity Council on several occasions and found that to be a potentially useful/gratifying vehicle for comments and ideas. Health issues sidelined me from regular participation, but I did manage to make a few connections with councilmembers that allowed me to feel like there were sympathetic ears for whatever I had to offer and a venue to continue the conversation. I think town hall meetings can be helpful when kept to a specific agenda as a forum.

Study groups also can be good mechanisms for bringing in new ideas to problem-solving. Mostly, I like to know that my elected officials can be approached and will actually listen to the small voices of people like me – whatever that looks like.

How would you like to be portrayed in the Beacon?

The power of the media is obvious. It shapes the boundaries of our conversations and can provide insight or context or just spin. I would like to be shown for what I believe myself to be: A patriotic American who believes in the Constitution and the principles of democracy.

As a veteran who has answered the country's call by volunteering for the hardest, most dangerous job: Infantry.

As a grandfather who is looking to help make the world safer for the next generation and those to follow.

I see myself as a citizen of the earth, with rights and responsibilities to her.

 

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