Posted by: Sandy Steinman | June 29, 2020

Letter From the Desert: Anti-Racism

Letter From the Desert: Anti-Racism By Chris Clarke

I signed off the last Letter From the Desert with a promise that the next issue would address some of the misrepresentations being spread by opponents of protecting the western population of Joshua trees under the California Endangered Species Act. I sent that out at 9:40 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on May 25.

A little more than three hours earlier, (now-former) police officer Derek Chauvin had carried out the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street, but most of us would not know that until the next day.

I have been working since on the usual desert protection stuff, but have found it hard to summon up the indignant outrage I was counting on to write that Joshua tree thing. Local officials spread untruths to misinform the public at the expense of a cherished and threatened bit of the natural world? Sounds like Tuesday.

In the meantime, the world erupted and has continued to do so since. And I still struggle to put words in the right order.

I am not saying anything new when I say that there is nothing new about any of this, with the sole exception of the number of white people who are belatedly paying attention. Not a lot of people know this, but my introduction to activism, a little less that 50 years ago, came during the trials of a handful of participants in the 1971 Attica Prison rebellion, charged with the murder of a prison guard during the uprising. Learning about that uprising, about the torturous conditions inmates faced pre-riot and the literal torture the survivors endured at the hands of law enforcement after many of them were murdered in cold blood, made the scales start to fall from my eyes.

I don’t intend to claim I’ve been woke all these years. Unlike the other white people on Instagram, I am an imperfect ally. I get complacent without even meaning to. As someone raised a white male in Buffalo, one of the most vilely segregated cities in the country, I have a seeming eternity of indoctrination to unpack. Also, scales have fallen from my eyes possibly a thousand times since then. My eyes are quite capable of generating new scales. I’m reptilian that way.

What can I say that hasn’t been said better by others a thousand times before? I won’t add anything new except for my own feelings on the matter, and writing about those is centering yet another damn white middle-aged male. But if I stay silent, I’m leaving it to others to do the heavy lifting. And if I write about something else., that is taking action to not write about the deep-rooted racism this country has at its core. Quadruple bind. It’s damned inconvenient, is what it is. Not quite as inconvenient as wearing a mask in order to avoid making people deathly ill. But significantly inconvenient. I’ve been spending time reading what other people are saying instead.

But here’s the thing. The police murders that I first started paying attention to in 1974 after the police mass murder at Attica are why I’m doing the work I do now. It’s by no means a direct relationship, and the last few weeks have been a reminder that I need to make that relationship far more explicit and direct. But it boils down to this: the system uses violence against people and other living things in the service of a social-industrial structure that profits only a very few, and pits the rest of us against each other as insurance against the possibility that we might one day just overturn the motherfucker. The machine that encourages working whites to parrot the odious phrase “all lives matter” is the same machine that tells laborers their futures depend on desert-destroying projects.

And there’s this: Burn down a chain store and that’s called a crime. Kill a desert spring that’s been flowing for tens of thousands of years so that you can loot a desert aquifer? That’s called a business plan. To paraphrase something someone or other once said, some people loot with a brick, and some with a spreadsheet.

I am idly curious how the open rate for this email newsletter will compare to others whose titles are more cactus and coyotes kinda things. Possibly the unsubscribe rate as well. Every once in a while when I write about social issues I’ll get a reply from someone that essentially says “I like what you write about the desert, but I’m not interested in the political social justice stuff.” But listen: if you don’t want justice, then you haven’t been understanding what I write about desert plants, about ravens and coyotes, about anything. As an editor, I am inclined to place responsibility for that misunderstanding on the writer, an obligation to be more clear.


The United States is a nation built on stolen land with stolen labor. Black Lives Matter. Police departments nationwide have always been intended to suppress Black people and other minorities, and they’ve been the targets of a sustained infiltration effort by white supremacist activists. The only answer is to tear down our institution of policing from the top down. Same goes for prisons. Divert the money we spend on policing and imprisonment to reparations. Also: stop erasing the crimes done to women like Breonna Taylor.

If we do all that and a lot more we’ll be partway through the first step.

Since George Floyd’s murder I’ve been thinking a lot about L.D. Barkley, who at the time of his murder by New York State Police on September 17 1971 was a 21-year-old inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility. He spoke to press two days before he died:

”What has happened here is the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.”

Still true.


  1. Thank you for this. Beautifully said. You’re right, we have to keep talking about it more to further reform. I am anti-racism. I am white and I am anti-racism. I’m not perfect, but I am anti-racism. I intend to read “How to Be an Antiracist’ by Ibram X. Kendi.


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