Why hitching across the USA led me to give £2500 to the ACLU

Julian Sayarer explains why, inspired by his trans-USA hitchhike and by John Berger's example, he is donating £2500 of his Stanford Dolman award, to the ACLU.

Julian Sayarer
5 February 2017
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At a ceremony in London, earlier this week I received the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award for my book, Interstate,  which tells the story of a hitchhiked journey from New York to San Francisco. Although I spent much of my twenties travelling, that journey was unique in so much as it was almost entirely unplanned. I went to the US to work on a documentary project that, soon after the crew’s arrival, was postponed when some key promised funds failed to materialise. With my ties to the UK cut for two months, and already in the US, I made the decision to hitchhike across the country, with California the destination that seemed most logical. The rest of this article is a more polished version of the speech I gave when accepting the award, announcing I would share the £5000 prize money with the American Civil Liberties Union, encouraging others to join in matching my donation, and also a detail – outlined in this Crowdfunder – that I felt unable to explain in the immediate and very public setting of making a speech for an award I hadn’t known I would receive.

There were many reasons for why the trip was difficult. Hitchhiking is an onerous exercise in causing repetitive rejection and suspicion; the roadsides where I slept lightly saw me disturbed by animals and other drifters; that I’d gone to the US for other plans meant – when things were rough – that I myself was unsure why I’d ever put myself in such a situation. As I remarked when given the award, it was strange to receive acclaim for a book in such a prestigious setting, having whilst writing it been frequently judged a beggar (“panhandler”), criminal, or one of the many miscellaneous homeless Americans. For all that it lacked romance, by the same token the journey helped strip some of pretence and myth from the contemporary US, leading us to the book’s subtitle: “hitchhiking through the state of a nation”.

I have to say that I never expected to receive such a prestigious award. Only three years ago I had never even expected that I would ever get even my first book published, and sort of believed that it was destined not to happen in direct proportion to how much I wanted it to happen. I was born in London, but grew up ten miles outside of Leicester, in a small town (back then it was a village, but the many housing estates added to its periphery have seen it upgraded) where the hosiery, textiles and automotive industries of the twentieth century have all disappeared, taking their jobs with them. Whether in Trump or in Brexit, we have seen the reaction of people who – if they are not forgotten at least feel they have been forgotten – as they go about lives in anonymous towns such as that. The views that I would find expressed in that town are often not those that I share, and perhaps some of that is part of what prepared me for the suspension of judgment that I believe is necessary in useful travel writing. The movements of the far right and populist right have always done well in that part of the Midlands; they are spearheaded by wealthy, cynical and attention-seeking individuals who deserve our contempt, and only deserve our attention so that the methods of their thinking can be understood and undone – but often, tragically, they have found a home with good people who have picked up poor responses to their legitimate grievances. 

Last month, the great and generous thinker John Berger, died aged 90. When he won the Booker Prize in 1972, having learned of Booker’s connection to slaveholding sugar plantations in the Caribbean, Berger felt obliged to give half of his money to the UK chapter of the Black Panthers. Throughout my travels I have always been conscious of the power that is implicit in a passport, and in travelling in America I have been doubly conscious of the additional protection I am granted by my appearance and the colour of my skin. Hauled off of interstates by state troopers and police, I was treated borderline politely where a black man may have been shot dead. I am half Turkish, with many influences of Muslim culture in my upbringing, but I do not look outwardly like “a Muslim” and presume that this too made my journey easier than it would otherwise have been. For these reasons, it feels only right that at a time of fast-creeping authoritarianism from the regime of Donald Trump, I should share this prize money with the American Civil Liberties Union; in order that they might protect these and other rights for me, and extend them to those who do not receive such full versions of them. I would invite and encourage others to match my donation so that we might eventually give £5000 to the ACLU.

I would like to say, first of all, that this is not an insignificant amount of money to give away but the world we want to live in will not make itself for free, and those who wish to dismantle liberty in the name of a perverted version of ‘freedom’ have deep pockets. I do not have a great deal of money, but I have enough money to survive, and trust that the ACLU can put the funds to better use than I could. On this subject, of having enough money to survive, another valuable lesson in travelling long distances with limited means is that you come very quickly to appreciate the beauty, simplicity and generosity of the natural and human world in which we live. Where they develop a surer sense of this security, people are harder to sway with the threats of demagogues and our politics can be made a better and more generous place. We are at a time where we must frankly assess how much a small number have and can afford to have taken away, how much we have ourselves and can afford to give, and how others – very simply – are in a far greater need than our own. 

There was an element of my thinking that I omitted from the speech I gave when receiving the award – that was the significance of climate change and renewable energy. There have already been very many early casualties in the regime of Donald Trump; civil liberties are the greatest and most immediately urgent, but the sabotage of climate science is an act with greater long term consequences for a greater number of people. Fossil fuels and extractive industries are at the heart of the Trump administration. From the appointment of lifelong ExxonMobil devotee, Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State, to Donald Trump’s shares in the company behind the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners; oil is so informally central to the fortunes and worldviews inside the administration that it scarcely need even be named. The accuracy and severity of climate change science is zealously denied inside such circles because, if it were not, then their businesses could not function in their current forms. To strip them of the business model on which their politics subsists is what, long term, will eventually de-fang their movement.

At a time when renewable energy technologies are becoming increasingly competitive, they now face an enormous challenge to their legitimacy and funding, in the form of attempts by the White House to deny their need or usefulness. For this reason, of all additional funds raised beyond my donation, half will be given to the ACLU and the other half will sit in a renewable energy fund (many of which now exist, including in institutions such as Abundance andTriodos), with the profits of this investment also paid to the ACLU and providing them a regular income. The money will simultaneously support action against climate change and generate a return that will go towards fighting for civil liberties. 

 Corrupt politics and heartless business models go hand-in-glove, with injustice functioning as a network. In order to successfully erode their influence, which we will, we must do likewise and the candour of our feeling has to be joined by a clarity of constructive thinking. Donald Trump is not the marker of a new darkness coming, but of an old one dying.



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