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Power to the people

Late one night, when I was fifteen, I was driven home by the father of the children I had been babysitting. He was a very tall, broad-built man who was deaf, and we were silent on the short, two-mile drive. As we bumped over the railroad tracks and through the town's main intersection, the flashing red stoplight illuminated a group of young men by the side of the road beating, kicking, and punching another young man. Horrified, I turned to this father of three young children. His foot on the gas pedal pressed down just a bit harder, and I understood that he was pretending not to see.

* * *

In the wake of increasing harassment and abuse—perpetrated by people filled with hate (and/or terror, as Toni Morrison sees it)—against non-whites and non-Christians, I am steeling myself to defend my values. I have an uneasy sense that I will be put to the test. 

Will I stand up for what I believe in? Or will I speed on by, pretending not to see?

I don't have a great track record. I watched the civil rights movement of the 1960s unfold on television, though I had an excuse for not being a freedom rider: my age was in the single digits. But what about Vietnam? I didn't protest. What about the women's movement? I didn't speak out. I was a pretty self-absorbed teenager, and before I let myself off the hook for being a "typical teenager," let's all remember the thousands of teens who do become activists.

Today, I'm middle-aged and comfortable. I vote, I sign petitions. I speak out, mainly to like-minded people, about the things I value that are being perverted: free speech by hate speech; peace by brutality; multi-culturalism by fascism; and education by willful ignorance.

Our president-elect is like a Pandora's box, out of which many harms are flowing. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 867 hate incidents in the ten days following Trump's win as president-elect. Newly painted swastikas soil high schools, churches, subways, and people's homes. 

The 100+ daily incidents in the three days immediately following the election support the notion that haters are emboldened by Trump. I'm hoping that the decline shown in this graph continues, but what if it doesn't? What will I do when confronted with hate and brutality? Will I pretend not to see?

A friend recently introduced me to the term "collective complicity" and the idea that if we do not stand against injustice then we are complicit. Similarly, this is expressed by the slogan, silence = violence. I have always believed this to be true, even in times when I failed to stand up for my values and fell into being complicit. When I rode past the scene of a young man being beaten, I felt—and I was—complicit. What should we have done? Yes, yes, a grown man responsible for a fifteen-year-old shouldn't entangle her in violence. And yet--

What might we have done if we hadn't dismissed the possibility of intervening? If we had taken time to consider our options, we might have realized that a car is a pretty powerful thing. I bet if we had just turned around, locked our doors, trained the car's headlights on that gang, and blared the horn, we would have ended the beating.

For me, this is the crux of the matter: will I have the courage of my convictions? I hope so, but I have doubts. I don't know how strong my spine is—I haven't put it to the test.

Well, as with any test, one needs to prepare. 

As unsavory as it is, preparing oneself to put oneself at risk seems like a timely idea. So to bolster my confidence and strengthen my spine, I am going to prepare to be prepared. And in case you, too, are having similar doubts, here are a few suggestions, courtesy of Hollaback!, as reported by Anna North of the New York Times. (Hollaback, whose purpose is ending street harassment, teaches anti-harassment activisim.)

Imagine being in a supermarket, and a white man is leveling insults at a woman wearing a hijab.

Option 1. I could intervene by addressing the white man, attempting to make him stop. Some people might carry this off, but I don't think I'm one of them. My fear and anxiety likely would just throw fuel on the fire.

Option 2. Instead, I could try ways of removing the oxygen from the flame, like talking to the Muslim woman and ignoring the harasser. I could ask her if she would like help. I could ask for the time of day, just to create a diversion.

Taking the focus off of the harasser can make him or her retreat. In addition, approaching the person being harassed gives that person control over the situation — he or she can choose to accept or decline your help or ask you to do something specific. If you don't talk to the person experiencing harassment, you may not know what, if anything, he or she needs from you.

Hollaback!

Option 3. Seek someone else's help—a clerk, a bystander, the store manager, or as many others as you can find—to create strength in numbers.

Option 4. Sometimes the harm is so fleeting, like a sniper attack, that the harasser is out of the picture before anyone can do anything. In such instances, I can still take a stand against the offender by offering to help. I can be a witness. I can affirm that the abuse was unjust and wrong. I can console and even help the Muslim woman feel safe by offering to walk with her to her car.

***

In broad daylight in Central Park, when I was about twenty-one, a man grabbed my breast. My knee-jerk reaction? I chased him for half a mile—I was in good shape, I was strong, I was outraged. I didn't catch him and I don't know what I would have done if I had, but the natural power that I possess kicked in, and it felt right. When I stopped chasing him, I called after his retreating back: "Run, chicken, run!"

I do have power; each of us does. Let's prepare to use it for good.

Reader, beware!
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Comments 2

 
Guest - Jeannette Gagan on Sunday, 04 December 2016 21:14

This is a profound blog--first in the way you share so much about yourself, Mary, which is very admirable as it prompts readers to reflect on our own perspectives and actions. Secondly the options presented are extremely valuable. Option 1 does not appeal to me as intervening could result in violence with fear and anxiety being a natural response to such a situation. Option 2 is surely preferable as Hollaback so deftly outlines. Option 3 would depend on the exact situation encountered. Option 4 is rich with suggestions--taking a stand, speaking as a witness and offering help to the harassed person. Keep posting these blogs as they are invitation to each of us to not remain silent and to contribute to peaceful resolutions during these provocative times.

This is a profound blog--first in the way you share so much about yourself, Mary, which is very admirable as it prompts readers to reflect on our own perspectives and actions. Secondly the options presented are extremely valuable. Option 1 does not appeal to me as intervening could result in violence with fear and anxiety being a natural response to such a situation. Option 2 is surely preferable as Hollaback so deftly outlines. Option 3 would depend on the exact situation encountered. Option 4 is rich with suggestions--taking a stand, speaking as a witness and offering help to the harassed person. Keep posting these blogs as they are invitation to each of us to not remain silent and to contribute to peaceful resolutions during these provocative times.
Mary Neighbour on Sunday, 04 December 2016 22:02

Yes, it is important that you use the phrase "peaceful resolution." My Central Park reaction could have led to violence. And it occurs to me, now, that activists all over the world are trained to prepare for confrontation in a non-violent way. I agree that we must also strive not to contribute to violence. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Yes, it is important that you use the phrase "peaceful resolution." My Central Park reaction could have led to violence. And it occurs to me, now, that activists all over the world are trained to prepare for confrontation in a non-violent way. I agree that we must also strive not to contribute to violence. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
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