Teri Orr: Where fear lives
There is a fine line in journalism between getting the story and becoming the story. And in the ’80s I was in the line of fire — more than once here in Park City and in the county. Those are stories for other days. I wasn’t afraid for myself until after the events when a cop would chide me for wanting to “get the shot” when I might have become shot. We were the Wild West here then with returned Vietnam vets who didn’t know how to get help and domestic violence murders. And, what became a national story of the Singer-Swapp standoff between a polygamist family seeking revenge and law enforcement from state and national departments trying to find a non-violent solution. It lasted for 17 days in tiny Marion. The fatality was the officer who handled the dog who had been sent in to try and disorient the situation.
I was younger, of course, and had the stupidity shield of doing my job to get the story/photo. I was only scared — after the fact. When the adrenaline wore off and I realized someone — usually a cop had to tell me — I had been in harm’s way.
In my travels driving in the West alone I have been in remote places with a broken-down car and spent hours trying to get help in desert places where no one passed by. I have been so lost on the Navajo reservation and disoriented I thought I would never find my way out of the back of the back of that sacred mysterious country.
I share all of this because I need to be clear with the next part — I am not in any way a “fraidy” cat. I have been in tough places and I always get out. That is the narrative I have for my own stories.
But on June 1 I sat alone in my living room on my grandmother’s couch watching CNN and I was as afraid as I can ever remember being. The protests over George Floyd’s murder — a black man — at the hand — or actually the knee — of a white police officer, had been escalating for days. As someone who was a teenager in the ’60s and twenty-something in the ’70s I knew plenty about protests. I had participated in a few in California, Colorado and Nevada long before I moved here in 1979. The protests did not scare me. But the scene on my television had me cowering on my couch — alone in my living room.
The footage of the protesters around Lafayette Square (a familiar place every visitor has shared on school trip to D.C.) being cleared by law enforcement with tear gas and armed officers in riot gear was ugly enough but then — out of seemingly nowhere — beautiful but giant horses appeared with a military presence riding them into the crowd to push the peaceful protesters out of the public square. It was as if I was seeing a newsreel from some banana republic country far far away. In black and white.
Then the president appeared and walked where the officers had just cleared the space and waved a bible in front of St John’s Church — a place at which previous presidents had often worshipped.
The scene was so surreal. I was as lost and as disoriented as I had been years ago for hours on The Rez. I lost my sense of place. I mean I knew I was in my living room in Park City, Utah, but I didn’t know where that was. What was the United States of America and where — exactly — was it?
All the days — more than 100 now — of COVID confinement I had done pretty well. I watched bad television shows like everyone else and cleaned out closets and bookshelves. I relearned how to cook and shop for myself. My work had slowed down just as the quarantine started and so I was a bit unmoored from the day to day-ness of job responsibilities, which was both freeing and odd. I had Zoom calls with family and friends. I was doing alright. Except for this very odd thing — when my friends would ask me what I was reading I had to answer — I had not read or even started — a single book in confinement. In what should have been a dream for a lifelong reader I should have been devouring the stacks and stacks of books I had in every room of my home. But my ability to concentrate for any length of time was gone. So I read newspapers and magazine articles and pieces online from places I never knew existed. I listened to KPCW — but all to public radio from around the world. Because COVID was a worldwide crisis. The entire planet facing this at the same time in a way nothing else has ever touched us in my lifetime.
Watching the scene in Lafayette Square I was fairly certain martial law was going to be declared immediately so I did the rational thing — I went to the local market and bought all the food that would fit in one cart. I came home and unpacked. And I waited. I waited to learn what was … next. The rioting continued across the country for days and we tried to pretend things were getting back to normal and then the realization crept in — normal no longer had a baseline.
The righteous anger that had been simmering for hundreds of years had become a thick dark smoking goo that was stuck to every part of unequal lives. It is going to take the work of our lifetimes but only if we all commit to it — to make this country a more perfect union. And that will mean reinventing how and who keeps the peace.
I am no longer cowering on the couch. I am digging in the garden and planting more growing things than I have tried to care for before. There are online conversations I have been a part of with smart leaders who are part of terrific organizations who understand the challenges ahead were centuries in the making. And strong voices from entertainment and sports and advertising and corporations large and small are recognizing reparations need to start at once. In this time of such uncertainty what is certain is we need to work very hard together — in our own backyards and dig into finding ways where we see and celebrate color and simple freedoms. And we should all be scared of police officers on horseback pushing into a peaceful crowd in our nation’s capital. America will only be great again when we are … all our Sundays in all the Parks…
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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Columnist Teri Orr recently took in the wonder of Utah’s red rock country, a trip that gave her something she didn’t know she desperately needed: a renewed sense of wonder.