Tanja Hester: It’s time to reckon with racism in Truckee
Across the world, people are speaking out against racial injustice and violence through Black Lives Matter marches, and here in Truckee, we recently saw a massive protest against police violence in memory of George Floyd, who was killed by police officers in Minneapolis last month.
In cities in the American South, monuments to the Confederacy are falling as well, as we understand better how these statues function as symbols of hate, reminding Black Americans and people of color that they are worth less than white Americans in the eyes of those who erected these monuments. This anti-racism work is long overdue and much needed. But we can’t make the mistake of thinking that racism, violence, and the celebration of both occur only in other places.
In the heart of downtown Truckee stands a plaque commemorating the “601,” a so-called vigilante squad that operated at multiple times in our town’s history. Though the plaque doesn’t say this, historians tell us that 601 was code for “six feet under, zero trials, one rope,” “one gun,” or “one bullet.” In other words, a lynch mob. A self-appointed group of gun-toting, masked men committing extrajudicial killings against what the plaque calls “undesirables,” but which we understand to mean in large part Chinese laborers, Mexican Americans, and other people of color who settled here to build the railroad. The organizers of the 601 modeled the group after the Ku Klux Klan, which they admired, according to the book “Tahoe Beneath the Surface.”
The language on the plaque is a mix of neutral and supportive, offering no critique of this ugly part of our town’s history. A visitor reading the plaque could reasonably conclude that the plaque represents the town’s current values, especially given that it’s by far the most prominent plaque or memorial on Commercial Row.
This history is important to recognize, but the plaque and its current location neither provide the necessary context to understand its overly sanitized language (“a semblance of law and order,” “though their goals were never achieved”) nor reflect who we are as a community today.
Truckee today is a diversifying community centered on hospitality, and we say we want everyone to feel welcome visiting here, or at least we want everyone to feel welcome after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. The Truckee Chamber of Commerce website says, “All are welcome to explore, create and join – making Truckee base camp for a big life.” If we truly believe that we are as welcoming as that slogan promises, we must confront our history and make the conscious choice not to celebrate the racism and violence committed here.
Those who oppose taking down Confederate monuments argue that we are trying to erase the past in doing so, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not a question of what we remember, but of what we celebrate. Putting something on a plaque or pedestal tells you that’s what we celebrate, what we stand for, what we literally hold up above other events and people as the most important. Putting something in a museum or in a history book gives us the opportunity to provide more context, and to apply the necessary criticism that we must be willing to engage in if we are to progress as a society. We learn history from museums and books, and that’s where things belong that we need to remember.
It’s long past time to move the 601 plaque into the Truckee Historical Society museum in the old jail. There, it can be presented alongside more information about what the vigilante squad actually did, the impact their actions had on Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, and other people of color, and why we should condemn their actions today. And given how dark our town’s racist history is, the plaque is in fact sorely needed there to ensure that children and all of us learn about and remember that past so we can ensure we never repeat it.
The 601 plaque doesn’t represent who we are as a town today, so let’s replace it with something that does.
Tanja Hester is the author of “Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way,” and a former political consultant who lives in Truckee. Find out more at https://tanjahester.com.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
An older friend I made when I began here in 2016 called the other day to talk about the paper. I hadn’t heard from her in awhile and, well, I’ve been here just long enough…