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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.


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.

Recent Comments
Mary Neighbour
Yes, it is important that you use the phrase "peaceful resolution." My Central Park reaction could have led to violence. And it oc... Read More
Sunday, 04 December 2016 22:02
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Learn More: Links & Resources

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A selection of websites containing information about the Dred Scott Case 

1.Video overview of Dred Scott v. John Sanford

2.National Archives and Records Administration

Our Documents, Dred Scott v. Sanford

3.Facts and images compiled by Washington University in St. Louis

The Dred Scott Case

4.Facts compiled by the National Parks Service

The Dred Scott Case

5.The Library of Congress, multiple pages of related information: 

A selection of articles about the Dred Scott Case

  • Article re: the relevance of the Dred Scott case to today's cultural and political discussions

  • Article from Street Law and the Supreme Court Historical Society

Landmark Cases, Dred Scott v. Sandford,

  • Findlaw's article and links

Landmark Decisions, Scott v. Sandford,

  • New-York Daily Tribune. (New York, New York), March 9, 1857

The Dred Scott Case

  • Anti-Slavery Bugle. (New Lisbon, Ohio), March 21, 1857

The Decision of the Supreme Court

  • Holmes County Republican. (Millersburg, Holmes County, Ohio), April 16, 1857

The Original Dred Scott a Resident of St. Louis--Sketch of His History

  • The following collection presents 396 pamphlets from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, published from 1822 through 1909, by African-American authors and others who wrote about slavery, African colonization, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and related topics.

The slavery question. Dred Scott decision : to the free voters of Ohio.

  • In honor of the Manuscript Division's centennial, its staff has selected for online display approximately ninety representative documents spanning from the fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.

Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote a letter to Caleb Cushing on November 9, 1857, thanking Cushing for his support of Taney's decision in the Dred Scott case.

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