Lessons from our National Park System for Baltimore, Ferguson 

For 20 years that we've been traipsing through the national parks, I looked forward to the day when we'd encounter black and brown Americans in such numbers among the visitors that their presence on the trail in Grand Canyon would be unremarkable. Their faces would be radiant with joy as we met among the giant sequoias in Giant Grove, Sequoia National Park. They'd move easily among the other guests at Yellowstone Lodge after a day watching bison and grizzlies in the park. I'd run into them at meetings in Washington DC to determine the future of Rock Creek National Park, and they'd be eager contributors to the cause of preservation with their dollars and their political clout.


My dream to see diversity on the trails in Grand Canyon National Park came through last year, but I could never have imagined the oppression going on in places such as Baltimore and Ferguson.


So I can hardly express the shock and revulsion I experienced as a result of learning the cumulative stories of the inhuman conditions that our black American citizens have been living under in places such as Baltimore, Ferguson, New York City among many others, purely because of their race. The veneer of civility and equality has been lifted off to reveal a veritable apartheid South Africa. Incoherent sobs burst out of me. Where I'd thought I was so knowledgeable and involved, I suddenly came up on a reality of systematic and ingrained oppression against fellow citizens that I could never have conceived of.


"He or she is a better citizen who has traveled the national parks, with a keener appreciation of the benefits of living here," to paraphrase Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.


I never had the benefit of knowing Stephen Mather, and I wish I did. Because he had the foresight and drive in the early 1900s to provide what the system needed - more land, comfortable accommodations that would attract wealthy and influential supporters who could get more lands protected.



By 2006. my dreams were beginning to come true, for example with this diverse group  enjoying Yellowstone National Park.


Today's leadership is called upon to make the parks relevant to the country and the growing demographic groups, and frankly is failing miserably. The new "Find your park" public relations campaign on the eve of the service's 100th anniversary is a mere shadow of the comprehensive program envisioned and laid out point by point since the 1990s by the National Park Service Advisory Board led by the venerable Dr. John Hope Franklin, and multiple other commissions since. This iteration of the agency leadership is clearly more at ease contemplating the problem than acting upon it.


Which is a tremendous disservice to our country. And you would have no idea unless, like me, you've spent years exploring the system and understand that many of them offer a cautionary tale against the excesses of greed and the lust for power that our society is grappling with TODAY!



What can this young man possibly think of his country and his place in it? A view from Baltimore posted by our friend Tanya Morgan Dixon.


Looking at the terrified faces of young and old on the streets of Baltimore, learning that they're vulnerable to being killed just by looking two seconds too long in the face of the police reminded me of the lessons from the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado. Here, we massacred hundreds of Plains Indians - men, women and children - in 1864, then paraded their bodies through the streets of Denver. If this site teaches us anything, it is the danger of unchecked power, now being revealed as rampant for decades in the government-sanctioned police brutality systematically employed against citizens of color in places like Baltimore and Ferguson.


Manzanar National Historic Site in California is supposed to be a reminder of how fast our society can slip over into tyranny, as we did when we incarcerated millions of Japanese people just because they were Japanese. Now we're incarcerating millions of black and brown people on admittedly trumped up charges just because of their race, and we're building new prisons based upon the number of children in third grade - who we've coincidentally deprived of a good education, recreation, amenities and even food.


The new Pullman National Monument is supposed to show that there are ways to build a middle class and it's important to do so, unlike Baltimore and other cities that we now know are held in the carnivorous jaws of exploitative economic and political forces that allow the richest 0.1

percent of the American population to control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.



The  Hon. Frederick Douglass was born into the institution of slavery in Maryland, and rose to become an advisor to President Lincoln, insisting on an end to the unholy institution. Can you imagine how many young Frederick Douglasses have had their potential stunted in today's Baltimore, and how great the loss is to our country?


Ironically, two units of the park system commemorate the legacy of Africans born into enslavement in Maryland, who changed the course of American history. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument on the Eastern Shores of Maryland and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, DC both invite us to celebrate the legacy of these freedom fighters. But would they recognize the society they fought for in today's Baltimore?


And let us not forget the greatest riots of all, when a fed-up American public revolted under the tyrannical rule of Britain in the Boston Tea Party of 1773, commemorated at Boston National Historical Park Throwing off the shackles of oppression in that event ultimately took us to become a sovereign nation, and the first man killed was the black patriot Crispus Attucks.


Is the National Park System a living record of our failures and accomplishments that provide us a mirror into our past, a guide stone into our future? Or is it a collection of static, desiccated ideas rooted in the fallacy of white American exceptionalism? Those questions need to be answered and actions taken accordingly if they are to help preserve our democracy.


At a conference in DC last February, the leader of a major foundation actually told us, "The door is closing on our democracy..." She said developments such as Citizens United and the corrosive influence of unlimited sums of money inserted into the political process are rapidly compromising us to a place we might never recover. But then she added that many of the largest foundations are heavily invested in the very industries that create environmental and other problems, "and then we give you a few dollars and tell you to solve them...."


I couldn't believe my ears. The cynicism in that statement was so deep. I mention it because it is utter cynicism bereft of human decency for people to have created the situation that exists in Baltimore today - no pools, no playgrounds, no libraries, no jobs and citizens in jeopardy of their lives if they look at the police two seconds two long. It did not happen by accident. Just as the economic "crash" that resulted in all our wealth moving upwards to 0.1 percent of the population, this situation has been created and multiplied across the country and is cannibalizing our democracy.


It is the birthright of young Americans in Baltimore and Ferguson to have experiences like this at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington DC where the lotus blooms will be overpoweringly beautiful in month or two, but for some it's as far away as the moon.


So the parks need to come out of hiding and do the job they're chartered to do, "inspire and educate" the American people about our past so as to inform our future. If the current leadership is not up to that job - and I'd say we already know that since few people that I meet on a daily basis even know what I'm talking about when I say 'national parks' - we need to place a demand upon them for the kind of Service we expect. Granted leaders frequently don't even respond to direct contact which emphasizes how removed they feel from accountability to the public.


Because my ancestors worked and served and died for the cause of liberty, freedom and equality in America, I plan never to stop working toward that goal. I ask you to allow your heart to over-ride the programming that keeps us distanced from the suffering of our fellow citizens. I am sending this out with a heartfelt prayer that you will see, and feel and hear how we can each change things positively by acting in our sphere of influence. There, but for the grace of God, go I.



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