Hiking While Black Isn’t Probable Cause

Photo illustration by Margo Wininger

There are four times in my life that I cried from witnessing beauty. Three of those times were the birth of my children. The other was the first time I stood on a mountaintop. Growing up in Indiana, I had never known the magnitude that comes with standing on a peak covered by a forest. It was during a trip to Arizona last year that I finally understood the true beauty that is nature, and I fell in love. In that moment, I decided to devote my life to exploring the expanses of deserts, forests, mountains, and more that make up this place I call home. I knew I couldn’t leave this planet until I slept in the Grand Canyon and realized that everything I did would need to lead to making that a reality. Upon my return, I decided I was going to start my training by visiting all 24 state parks in Indiana.

I have grown intimate with many of Indianapolis’s parks over the course of the past few years. My role as a frontline activist for racial justice had forged that relationship as a means to get away, if even for just an hour or two. There are tucked-away corners on the river at Holliday Park where I left many woes through the years. Nature is where I go to remember that I am but a small piece of a bigger picture. It’s where I go to connect with the past, thinking of how many souls from generations prior have stepped foot on the same spans of Earth. It’s where I go to just be a human and don’t have to face the pressures society puts on me, as a femme and Black-presenting person. It is my escape from the isms that I stand up to fight against.

I have visited a few of the parks outside of the city throughout the years and quickly learned that there would be extra precautions I’d need to take to be safe, precautions that have proven to be vital in any trips I have planned to state or national parks. The simple fact is that the vast majority of the state’s parks are surrounded by communities with known histories of being sundown towns with links to the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist factions. In order to have access to the very parks that can bring about healing, one must traverse through spaces that in fact can lead to violent attacks. It is what happened on Fourth of July weekend in Monroe County, where three white men attempted to lynch a Black man after attacking him. The horrible incident wasn’t just heartbreaking for me; it confirmed the existential threat Black people face in rural areas in both this state and country.

I now see how naive I was to believe that the boundaries of state and national parks would protect me and my family from those who feel we don’t belong there. This notion that areas that are indigenously places of color have been colonized to a point that white supremacists believe they are theirs to “protect.” The incident in Monroe County just adds to a long line of stories where a person’s skin and tone of voice has served as probable cause for attack. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources proved to be yet another faction of policing that values property and the justification of white fear over bringing justice to a Black man just trying to find peace at a lake.

I’ve cried countless times for lives lost and people traumatized by the same isms that pull me to state and national parks for healing. I’ve always known that I am not a part of the group that is meant to be protected and served. My hope is that someday being a white supremacist will be enough reason to be arrested. I dream of a time when my family and I can be protected from the same factions that criminalize our skin. Until then, I’ll continue to visit parks—even the knowledge that I am not safe there. I will persist because it is my right to witness the beauty of nature and to sleep among the stars.

Photo illustration by Margo Wininger