Ferguson, Charlottesville, Uruguay, and 5Ks

I’m in the midst of writing about my trip to Fray Bentos and Mercedes, which was now 10 days ago. It was meant to be a short travel story, but has turned into what will probably be my chapter on urbanism in Uruguay. So stay tuned. But while writing, other events get in your way, and you must put pen to paper. Yesterday I wrote an article about partying. Or rather, described a type of party very specific to the culture I’m living in. Today however, I must turn to politics. There are two abuses that have grabbed headlines in America and forced people to public protests with a speed and scale I have not seen in my lifetime. There is simply too much to ignore. And moreover, there is too much that we can learn from Uruguay to help us fight them.

Today in Cerro Chato, with dozens of people young and old I can now call my friends, I ran a 5K “Yo Corro Por El Buen Trato” which means something like “I run for healthy treatment (towards others)”. I’ve not run much recreationally since leaving Leeds in February, and haven’t run any organized race since last year’s Butte to Butte. In fact thanks to local indifference toward fresh fruits and vegetables and my eagerness to eat accepted grub, I’ve put on maybe ten or fifteen pounds since leaving Montevideo in June. Friends will tease me and rub my stomach saying “cuatro meses ya”, implying that I look about four months pregnant. As I found out today, weekly handball games and pickup soccer kept me in decent enough shape to combat my asado belly and complete the 5K in full stride. While at the time I was only thinking about the race, and chatting with other runners and spectators, it now occurs to me how timely the theme of the race was, and how important it was I power full steam ahead.

Ferguson and Charlottesville are far from people’s minds in Cerro Chato. Though I’ve had many great conversations with people here about race and US University culture, I would be surprised if I anyone here asks me specifically about the events of this week. There is an election in this country on Sunday, and Luis Suarez just scored his first Barcelona goal. For these events to be superseded in Uruguayan news requires something like a meteor strike coinciding with a papal visit. There have been several violent events in the area the past several months, which have incited marches and anti-violence activities such as yesterday’s 5K. What’s incredible about the response of normally laid back Uruguayans is that these were isolated events perpetrated by individuals and not institutions as sacred as universities and police. In response to the kinds of murder that would be on the front page only on a slow news day in the US, people marched simply because something violent happened to their countrymen.

Quoting largely from a piece I wrote last month— I hope to someday see more of this kind of reaction to homicide in the US. Denser and more lateral social networks and less socioeconomic and racially driven segregation make for more powerful, meaningful and ultimately effective reactions to violence. Here in Uruguay, when one of 40 people per year is murdered, he or she is a Uruguayan whether they come from the campo, from the University, from a small town or from Montevideo. And we mourn and act accordingly. When 40 people per week die in Chicago, we either put it as a footnote in Section D because they were of a different race or class, or we sensationalize it on the front page because a good (read: white, rich, young and often female) abiding citizen wasn’t “supposed” to die the way “other” people die. It’s telling that in the US, the problem is often phrased as “the homicide RATE” rather than simply “homicide” or “murder”. The same applies to rape. It shows that we frame humans killing and abusing fellow humans through a statistical rather than a compassionate lens. Let’s not waste time analyzing individual events, so let me raise you this: To reduce (because it can’t be stopped altogether) murder and rape, shouldn’t we prioritize NOT ignoring our fellow countrymen before compiling statistics, making maps and instituting quotas?

Yes, there is corruption with the police here in Uruguay. Yes, there are cases of sexual abuse. I’ve heard about several from friends first or second hand alone. And yes, while tensions between the majority white Uruguayans and minority (around 7%) Afro-Uruguayans are minimal, shadism is a problem that goes very much untalked about, especially here deep in the Interior, where a higher concentration of descendants of indigenous remain, yet have no identity group to claim in a country whose melting pot welcomed many ethnicities, but was still premised on the racial binary of black and white. But Uruguay is also a country where calling someone negro (black) or gordo (fat) is a term of endearment, regardless of skin color or weight. There is neither an obesity epidemic here, nor a criminal justice system that marginalises blacks. In America and Britain we shove our dirty reality under the rug by requiring politically correct language, or no language at all. The only time you can say the word negro in public and not be shunned is when discussing the history of baseball. It is under the guise of protecting our sanctimonious ideal of diversity that we do this. In a truly healthy public sphere, we would be allowed to make jokes and more freely admit to our shortcomings and prejudices rather than continuing to hide what is a great shame.

Despite missing certain perks of American pluralism (more consumer choice means less boredom), I’m grateful to be living in a country where lives of individuals are not so fractured by demographics, interest groups and extremism. Perhaps because of its small size, and perhaps because of such as strong backlash to the dictatorship, Uruguay does not see things like racially charged police behavior or denigration of women persist on a large scale through subtle mechanisms of institutional manipulation. Perseverance of a vile and discriminatory nature can only be defeated by perseverance of an inclusive and benevolent nature. This is what seemingly innocuous social events like 5Ks can make you realize, and what must happen to stand up to racialized police violence and sexualized campus violence. 2014 was perhaps the best year to come down here, not because of the World Cup, and not because of elections, but to be able to witness a society that is coming together rather than unravelling.

As someone that fits in the categories white, male, heterosexual, educated, affluent, Judeo-Christian, adult, able, cisgender, urban, right handed, meat-eating, non-homeless, and native English speaking, I feel a particular need to care about Ferguson and Charlottesville. I am grateful for these privileges and what they afford me, but never once has it occurred to me to use them for anything other than earning a living doing something I am passionate about, being happy, and playing by the rules. It disgusts me that people use their standing in life and their position in certain protected institutions to consolidate their privilege by degrading other individuals that fit in categories perceived to be inferior. It’s one thing to speak out against a widespread phenomenon like war where a whole generation puts their lives on the line and where vulnerability (though in disequal proportions) lies across the societal spectrum and with different demographic groups. But it’s another matter to speak out against ostensibly isolated crimes that target specific groups of people, and that easily get covered up or brushed aside by more tangible and farther-reaching events like hurricanes, stock market crashes, and wars. Ferguson and Charlottesville may not be macro events, but they happen because of privilege abuse, which is a macro scale institutional problem. It’s not privilege and power themselves that should be attacked, but rather what we who have privilege and power do with it. In large part because I experience the world through a lens of privilege, I love this world and never lose the desire to enjoy as much of it as possible. But enjoying it means doing so responsibly, and not preventing others from feeling the same way as me, regardless of their privilege.

Despite thinking in broad ideal strokes, I’ve never considered myself a do-gooder or save the world type. My relationship with activism is something between sceptic mild disdain at worst, and signing a friend’s petition at best. And I don’t see a career in activism doing much for my personal well-being, prospects of a steady income and social life. I’m attracted neither to single issues, nor continually jumping to the next cause du jour. What these events have shown me, however, is that I have a duty to make conscious decisions about whether I use privilege to enable or disable others. They can be as big as accepting a job, or as small as deciding to start a conversation with someone. It’s not big-tent issues like global warming, terrorism, drugs, or even immigration (and me being someone who’s life goal is to study relationships between human migration and the built environment), but people speaking out about very personal issues like rape and police brutality that have me examining my conscience.

During my four years at UChicago, I always told people I could never call Chicago home. I’m not saying there aren’t many great exchanges of people between races, but I am simply not comfortable living in an environment where such stark segregation is implicit in the culture of a place. There is no neighborhood where I wouldn’t feel either out of place (Washington Park), guilty (Bridgeport), or oblivious (Wrigleyille). Call me a chicken for preferring my hometown of Eugene, which has limited minority communities, but even more limited geographic segregation or here in Uruguay, which is whiter than most countries in Europe. The bottom line is that I want make my life in a place that is not so compartmentalized and has fewer quasi-militaristic boundaries. There are sacrifices implicit in any place-based decision, but it’s important to take a step towards supporting softening barriers against mobility, positive human interaction and the chance to enjoy life. Next time you are invited to run a 5K, do it, and not just for yourself.

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