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Voices / Essay

For many of us, sacred space is a myth

Marginalized people have never had access to the public places that we are all now being instructed to avoid

Shanta Lee Gander is an artist, writer, reporter, and multi-faceted professional in the areas of marketing, management, event planning, and more. This piece was adapted for use in The Commons from a piece slated for publication elsewhere.

West Brattleboro

On Harold Street, I was always told that I was being watched. It wasn’t clear if “being watched” meant by people from the bushes, by strangers, or by neighbors from their windows.

In Hartford, Conn. in the 1980s, television did no one any favors. It instilled the paranoia that someone was going to roll up in a van and kidnap us, using an offer of candy as a lure.

Whenever I left for school, I was issued an edict: Don’t talk to strangers. I stayed home in my first year because I did not have anyone to walk with me and my mother was too afraid to let me be on the streets alone.

When I was 12 years old, my mother played peekaboo with my bit of freedom, letting me go to the corner store.

The store was about a seven-minute walk and always was a treat because of what was inside — not just the onion rings or the Cheez Doodles, but the Puerto Rican brothers behind the counter, one in particular with cat eyes. I always imagined that he liked to see me as much as I liked seeing him.

Trips like that made me feel alive, just like my journeys down to Arthur Drugstore, more of a 15-to-20-minute walk one way.

However, when summer hit, and depending on the spikes in violence, those walks were short-lived.

And one thing was always certain: I was to avoid Sigourney Square Park — about a full block, about 340 feet square — because of the “bench bums.”

The space was commandeered by everyone, from the all-day-every-day-drunk to the folks who just had no place to go. Their bench was their kingdom.

The public places connected to where we lived were not to be trusted. Public swimming pools were cesspools for germs, so we never went. I recall going to the beach only a very few times as a child because once the reports came in of needles washing up on beaches, my mother wasn’t having it.

And throughout my childhood, I knew that Keney Park — all 693 acres of it — was off limits. It was the place where the bodies of girls could be discovered in carpets — like Evelyn Perez, age 25, who was found rolled up in one at the start of my teen years in 1991. It was also the site of illegal dog fighting.

In my language, growing up, public spaces — a street, a public park, a public pool, public anything — were defined as places not to be trusted, those shared with people who could cause harm.

In my language, sharing such space with others was something to do with extreme care.

* * *

I was in my office at Trinity College when a co-worker came in and said, “A plane just flew into one of the World Trade Center towers.” As he said it, I looked like a deer in headlights because 1) Where were the towers? And 2) Did a plane really just hit the towers?

This was before my love affair began with New York, so I’d not yet been there. I never got up to look. Maybe I was one of the few who just could not pinpoint the reference.

Perhaps this is one of those moments when anyone can tell you exactly what they were doing when some kind of doom seemed to be on the horizon, like the day Martin Luther King Jr. got murdered or the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In this specific case, in my language, the World Trade Center was not a sacred symbol. It was a building that could be hit by an airplane.

I was in my sophomore year at Trinity College when Columbine happened. I remember walking through the dining hall and stopping to stare at the television screen with a mix of curiosity and confusion at a mass shooting in a high school. When the next shooting happened, I noticed that some of us were staring, while others continued to move about as if to say, “Nothing to see here, we’ve seen this before.”

Since Columbine, mass shootings have unfortunately shown us all of the ways that public space is dangerous: a nightclub (2016, Pulse in Florida), a store (2019, Walmart in Texas), to a church (2015, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, S.C.), and so many other places.

If we as a country have learned any hard truth, it is that no place — public or private — is sacred. But this is a truth that some of us already knew.

If you are Native American, your story begins with sacred space, land, and practices and ends with the destruction of all of these things.

If you are poor, you know that your home isn’t a sacred space and is, in fact, a space that belongs to the state if you receive assistance. A space where you are told that you can’t have a man living with you if you receive assistance (just one of many ways in which the poor find themselves policed).

If you are a person of color, then you know that everything — from your body, to your home, and any space you inhabit — is far from sacred. Just ask everyone from Sarah Baartman to Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and many of the brown bodies that litter the landscape, people killed for every reason, from lynching to police brutality.

If you are a person of color, then you also know the space that is far from sacred is community.

Many years before the massacre in 1921 in Tulsa, Okla., 150 black men were lynched in the Colfax Massacre of 1873. More murder and destruction of communities of color took place at the hands of white supremacists in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898.

In 1906, thousands of white men took to the street — due to false reports of assault made by white women — to “beat, stab, and shoot” any black people they encountered. In Elaine, Ark., in 1919, the creation of a union of sharecroppers seeking economic justice resulted in white upset, which led to approximately 200 blacks losing their lives in a riot. Similar to Tulsa, Rosewood, Fla. was destroyed two years later.

To walk in a brown body or to embody a poor socioeconomic status always meant that you did not and do not have the privilege of false demarcation of space.

In a time like now, some individuals who are poor and/or are people of color can’t afford — literally — to take time from work to self-quarantine. Even in the time of crisis, the United States has classed the shit out of a pandemic.

If you are a brown person and/or an indigenous person, you are already fluent in all of the ways that the concept or idea of sacred space — at least for you — did not and does not exist. You already are aware of the way that the land eats blood the way that sin eaters once ate bread off the bodies of the dead.

The virus has inspired me to think about all of the ways that the “collective we” has been too comfortable with our false demarcation of place, privilege, and country.

As I read a recent piece on CNN.com about how many migrant workers in India are trying to get to their villages — some on foot due to transportation being unavailable — I think about all of the ways that this story mirrors America.

All of those who can’t afford to maintain “social distance” — especially those living in slums — also reflect our country.

* * *

How have we been allowed to be sheltered for so long with our false sense of security? During times of crisis like this one, we find a collapse of time, space, and travel.

For example, in 2017 while in Havana, Cuba, my husband and I ate very little because the cuisine — at least in that region — was not expansive.

Also, sometimes a place would just be out of whatever food you were seeking. You had to just make do with whatever you could get. Eggs were among a few items that you could not obtain unless you were Cuban; only then could you get them alongside other rationed goods.

After their period of scarcity in the early ’90s, when the former Soviet Union collapsed and was no longer a support for Cuba, the government was forced to control the supply of food.

Here and now, in our crisis, the Brattleboro Food Co-op closed off its bulk section, placing a few items on display for people to purchase if needed. We all now have to wait in line to allow a few people at a time to shop in the store, just as we did in Cuba.

Seeing this line last week automatically made me think of Cuba and a fellow traveler who often said, “If you see a line, get in it, because most often, it has something you need.”

When we visited the co-op on the last day of March, we found that it was one of the first places to suspend large sheets of plexiglass to separate the customer from the cashier. The store also allowed its employees to wear gloves, in contrast to the local corporate chain supermarkets, where no one was allowed to do so.

On that eve of April Fool’s Day, it felt like there was a joke in place, all right: that all of us have always been safe and stable together within public space. But some of us already dunked this myth a long time ago.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #556 (Wednesday, April 8, 2020). This story appeared on page B1.

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