By Jim McCloskey
The stories I’ve seen hurt my heart.
There was the one about the woman who accosted a teenage boy who’d been invited to swim in a neighborhood pool, telling him to get out or she’d call the police. She was charged with verbal assault and then for resisting arrest when the police decided that she was the one who should leave.
Then there was the man who demanded to see the identification of a woman he thought didn’t belong in a private community pool. She needed no identification beyond having a key card she received to indicate that she was a resident and therefore fully entitled to use the pool. The man lost his job when the story went viral on the Internet.
And finally, a man dangling his feet in an apartment-complex pool was challenged by a woman who told him if he didn’t remove his socks – which she, in her role as property manager, termed “improper pool attire” – he would have to leave. When he wouldn’t comply, she called the police. She, too, lost her job when the story went viral.
I’m reasonably certain that you’ve guessed by now that what these three stories have in common is the fact that the challenges were issued to black bathers by white folks who figured the black bathers somehow didn’t belong. All three incidents went viral, and in all three cases there were consequences for those who on some level felt they’d been offended by how (and by whom) the pool was being used.
From my own perch as an expert observer of pools and how they’re used, I am devastated to see these stories, which stem from levels of intolerance I just don’t understand. I also regret the consequences, which, I fear, tend to spur casual intolerance to new levels while doing too little to amend offending behaviors.
I know from reading Jeff Wiltse’s book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, that public swimming pools have been flashpoints for racial tensions almost since the day the first public pools opened more than a century ago. But that doesn’t mean intolerance has any standing in the here and now or should be historically contextualized in a way that makes bigotry seem normal or somehow “traditional.”
The sad thing is, none of this controversy helps advance the cause of making certain everyone can swim – my own goal for decades for all sorts of personal and professional reasons. I want every community of any size to offer its citizens ready access to pools and swimming lessons. I want every public pool to be a place where any citizen has who has swimming skills and the price of admission will also have safe, easy access to the water for exercising, socializing and enjoying a shared public resource.
At this time of year, swimming pools should be about cooling down, not heating to a quick boil. As someone who cares about the future of swimming, swimming pools and all waterfeatures for which comfort around water is an essential key to enjoyment, I hope these stories are jarring enough to help people see the cruel, twisting results of intolerance.
I offer no action plan, just a wish and a hope that public swimming pools have enough going for them that they can ride these episodes out and endure as great places to have fun. I will, however, offer one suggestion: If you have any sort of role with a public pool in your community, put in the good word for making it accessible and welcoming to all. It’ll be good for the community, good for swimming and, in the long run, good for watershaping.