Teri Orr: Taking a knee together
The plainclothes officers pretending to work on the metal fence that needed no repairs. The white undercover cars on the street behind the school — talking to each other like horses at the fence line facing to head in opposite directions. We knew there were precautions being taken even before we stepped on the socially distanced space.
I hadn’t walked onto that football field in years. My son played ball in Park City back in the late ’80s and early ’90s and had a great career. As a single parent who didn’t care a whit about football I watched every game just wanting him to not get hurt. His sister was a cheerleader two years behind him so I attended the games she cheered for there also. And they both graduated from that same field — a tradition that has been sadly lost to this year’s graduating seniors.
So stepping on the perfectly level field with the soft, designer astroturf was surreal. Facing the empty bleachers except for less than 10 student — respectfully spaced and masked — was literally backwards from a sporting event. The team was presenting from the stands and the field was filled with the spectators.
The artificial turf wasn’t all bristly and stiff but rather soft like a carpet. We all sat on the perfectly level playing field. The noonday sun was hot. There were feedback problems from the microphone like any high school event but then student organizer Lance Rothchild welcomed the crowd and started the rally by having us all kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, exactly the same time George Floyd had a knee on his neck while begging for his life. In silence, we all — to a person — knelt on that artificial level playing field.
I am a long ways from those days when I watched my children participate there. They have children of their own — one who graduated last June and two still in high school. And though I am ready to take a knee — metaphorically — any day — I found staying on one knee difficult for nearly 9 minutes. I thought about switching knees but decided George didn’t get a break during his last minutes so I could do at least this. My mind floated in and out of why we were there — to how physically uncomfortable I was. I let that sink into my meditation about race and privilege and hatred and fear and damn, that unfiltered sun was hot. I was so relieved when the time was announced up and I could sit and stretch my leg.
State Rep. Sandra Hollins spoke about being the first black woman in the Utah Legislature — in 2015 — and how she wasn’t welcomed there then by some. She urged us to use our white privilege to “show up.”
Emma Tang, former Park City High School student, working in Colorado on a U.S. Senate campaign, reminded us we were on broken treaty land — in our case specifically from the Shoshone, Ute and Paiute tribes. She reminded us the largest voting block this election will be the 18 year olds who will be ready to cast their first votes in November. She said, “We need your anger all the time.” And she reminded us it was our job as white people to “call out” racism when we saw it. “White silence is violence,” she said.
Rothchild told the crowd it was going to take real action this time — “I don’t mean changing your profile picture. I don’t mean sharing this with five people who think black lives matter. I mean proving it. With action. Stop watching. Start working.”
The other student speakers — Noam Levinsky, Carly McAleer and Jessica Hinojos — all added their powerful passionate voices to the protest.
When we got up to leave we saw more than 300 community members had shown to support these kids and to make their own personal statement of support by being there. I was proud of the diversity of ages who were there and all the school district leaders from Superintendent Dr. Jill Gildea to Principal Roger Arbabi who had greeted us at the gate. Fully masked. Summit County Sheriff Justin Martinez, Park City Mayor Andy Beerman and Councilperson Nann Worel, Summit County Council’s Roger Armstrong, Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter, who had — just the night before — been part of a team deployed to Salt Lake City to try to keep the peace there.
Keep the peace … it is a fine blue line between keeping citizens safe and making citizens safe. A senior law enforcement official talked to me about how impressed he was with the student leadership and how impactful it was to have started with those nearly 9 minutes of kneeling. “That part was so hard — right? I couldn’t stay on one knee — I had to switch. And I’m in pretty good shape. And it occurred to me — that officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck — he would have had to switch knees, too. He really did know exactly what he was doing. It just really hit me.” Good cops — which we benefit from in Summit County, having two cooperating agencies filled with smart compassionate men and women — good cops are always saddened and angry by bad cops.
And here’s what I took away from the day — our kids have more than game — they have fire and desire and like the My Brother’s Keepers kids who spoke later in the week in a closed circuit conversation hosted by former President Obama — they are demanding we pay attention. The students with their passion will step in and up and make the noise and lead us. It has always been thus.
We are aware enough in Park City to know where we sit and where we stand and where we kneel is an artificially level playing field. We have work to do. Here. And in Utah and all across the country. There will need to be reparations for centuries of mistreatment of brothers and sisters who — as Playon Patrick from My Brother’s Keeper rapped — “We ask our shadows if they meant to choose this skin — we are conflicted between being black and being people. “
We have much work to do here and now. We need to listen to the young people and let them lead us — starting this very Sunday in our Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder and director emeritus of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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It’s fitting in this fact-free world, writes columnist Tom Clyde, for Wasatch County officials to host a “grand opening” for a road that isn’t open yet.