A couple weeks ago I had a friendly and helpful conversation about how to get my trailer’s propane tanks filled at G & K Propane in Yucca Valley. G & K is “the place to go for propane around here” according to my dad, who knows about these things, and I’d say he’s right, based on my experience there. They were clearly looking to help, not just make a buck off me, and I really appreciated it.
As I was about to leave, I noticed a bumper sticker prominently displayed in their lobby, the clever if mystifying “I’LL KEEP MY GUNS, FREEDOM & MONEY.. YOU CAN KEEP THE ‘CHANGE’” with Obama’s logo in a red “no” circle. I have a funny mix of irritation and admiration at businesses who put their mouth where their money is like that. Usually it’s a business advertising in some way that they really only want Christians to come into their store, and I think, “Wow, it’s actually more important for these people to not have to be around heathens than to make money. That’s taking a stand.”
Underneath this bumper sticker was scotch-taped a handwritten note reading, “YA FILTHY ANIMAL!” I was upset enough by this that I’m still thinking about it. The bumper sticker is a way to voice one side of a political debate. “Filthy animal” is not. “Filthy animal” is an expression of total contempt, disgust, and hatred. You can kill a filthy animal with impunity, maybe even with satisfaction or pride. I remembered the manager of a restaurant I worked at, stomping a rat to death in the kitchen.
It reminded me of how afraid I was that Obama would be killed–lynched, really–for the crime of having come into so much power in America. How many people in this country would kill the president if they had the chance? Is the person who wrote that one of them? I seriously doubt it, but “YA FILTHY ANIMAL” is a way of aligning with that group.
All this was going through my mind as I decided what to do. I tend to be outspoken when confronted with racism, once even debating a self-avowed racist barber as he cut my hair. I think of it as one of the more useful things I do. In the case of the barber, for example, I got to hear and be sympathetic about this man’s struggle growing up around LA gangs, how scared and angry he was all the time, how members of his family had been hurt. He got to hear and eventually allow some credibility to my ideas about how it was poverty and oppression rather than skin color that made the people he interacted with as a kid so dangerous.
I imagine there is a similar encounter to be had here, but this case, I just left. I was running late and that was enough of an excuse to get out.
Still, I have a decision to make. When I need to refill my propane tanks, do I go back? Do I say, “I’d like to refill my tanks, but first I need to talk to the person who wrote that note on your wall”? Or do I go somewhere else, possibly driving way out of my way, to find propane people who put less offensive things up in their lobby?
[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape as “Thoughts and Inaction about Ugly Small-Town Politics” on October 27, 2012.]