The Lynch Mob
As I tried to object to the racist joke, I couldn’t speak. My heart pounded out of my chest with fear as my throat tightened.
Shortly after I returned from the Reevaluation Counseling workshop, someone in my family told a racist joke. I wondered if that was “the lynch mob” that I had promised to stand against. I decided that it was. The only problem was that I had no voice. I had been abused as a child and so had great difficulty interrupting inappropriate comments in my family. As I tried to object to the racist joke, I couldn’t speak. My heart pounded out of my chest with fear as my throat tightened. This kind of experience happened several times. Each time, I experienced my powerlessness to voice my objection.
Around that same time, a group of people belonging to a white supremacist group decided to march in a Chicago suburb, Skokie, IL. Skokie was a diverse community in which a substantial segment of the population was Jewish. Several of the St. Louis co-counselors (“RCers”) who had been at the RC workshop, decided to drive to Chicago to stand as allies with the Jewish people to let them to know that they were not standing alone. It was a hard decision for me to go with them because I was so scared, but I made myself go as part of my commitment to stand against not only racism but any form of oppression.
As it was, the white supremacist group canceled at the last minute because there were so many anti-racism demonstrators there who were quite angry and aggressive. The police assigned to protect the supremacists were in the most danger, holding the line against the crowds. One of my close friends, Allen, a man of the Jewish faith and an RCer, taught me something during the event. He spoke to the police and told different officers what a really good job they were doing, how brave they were, etc. This was in great contrast to some of the anti-supremacist demonstrators who were outraged that the police were protecting the people who were so verbal in promoting hatred and bigotry. I saw how easy it was to become confused during times like these and become as violent as those one was opposing, to even turn on allies who were trying to protect one’s best interest. But what I noticed most was that I was paralyzed with fear. I had trouble thinking and taking any decisive action. All I could do is try to look like I was “okay” just like I had done most of my life when I was emotionally caught in the old terror of childhood trauma.
Whether it was a racist joke or my inaction in Skokie, I did listening sessions with fellow RCers and emotionally released many hours of fear and grief related to the present time events and how those events related to my past. Surprisingly, this bit of “processing” better prepared me for the next time I would come face to face with racism. Some short time after the Skokie event, the white supremacists got a permit to march in another area of Chicago, Cicero, which was known for its violence against people that were not easily identified as white. The Cicero neighborhood was slowly integrating and “white flight” was just beginning to take place. There were still periodic incidents where people of color were beaten or killed.
Once again, a few St. Louis RCers drove to Chicago to stand as allies against racism and anti-Semitism. We were joined by several Chicago RCers. Before the event, we did listening sessions with each other which gave us all a chance to better understand all the feelings we were experiencing. This prepared me to function a bit better than I did in Skokie.
The march in Cicero was a much better organized event for the white supremacists, the protestors, and the police. The police had a pretty effective barrier between the supremacists and the anti-racism protestors. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people had come to protest and were effectively kept behind a perimeter outside the park where the white supremacists were rallying. My friend, Allen, was with me once again. While most of our group got stuck behind the police barrier experiencing a sense of powerlessness, Allen chose to take action. Taking my hand, we walked away from our group and the other protestors and simply walked around the barriers into the park. Allen and I were soon separated when he went to get a drink and I stayed behind. We never found each other again in the park. Because he was Jewish, I worried about his safety.
Being in the park was like being on a movie set. People were screaming from second-story apartment windows, “6 million Jews were not enough! We should have got them all!” Young men wearing t-shirts showing a clenched fist and the words “White Power” were everywhere. There were elderly people and even children; it was overwhelming that so many people were filled with such hatred. At the previous Teacher and Leader workshop, Harvey Jackins had presented some information about how people get hurt and how they then act out their hurts on others. As I encountered different people, I wondered what had happened in their lives that seemed to consume them with such hatred.
The crowds were immense and I was completely disoriented on how to return to where I had entered the park. I don’t know how long I had been in the park when I came upon a life changing event. A young man of African heritage had gotten into the park. He was being surrounded by a large group of white supremacists yelling things like, “Kill that nigger!” Their rage was palpable. All of a sudden, almost simultaneously, four large white men leaped on top the black man. I watched for maybe 30 seconds as I thought about another man of African heritage that I knew. That could be him. I took a deep breath, evaluated that I might lose my front teeth but I could replace them with false teeth. I grabbed the closest man to me around the neck and attempted to pull him off. To my great surprise, he didn’t hit me and he came up pretty easily. He suddenly got his bearings. He and one of the other men in the pile got the other two attackers off and then started trying to walk the black man out of the park. As these two plain clothes police escorted him through the screaming crowd, the officers were saying things like, “He is a Marine. He fought for our country.”
One officer walked ahead while the other walked to the man’s left. That left the black man’s right and back exposed to the raging crowd. I was thinking quickly and decisively. I decided not to protect his right as my presence as a young white female walking protectively beside a black man could insight the crowd to greater violence. Instead, I covered his back so no one could come up behind and hit him without going through me. Fortunately, other than hearing a lot of violent, racist language, the man was not attacked, but eventually escorted to a police van.
Things were happening so fast. I was still worried about Allen, but I didn’t have much time to marvel at my new-found courage. Suddenly, I spotted several Jewish men with their Yarmulke (hats) walking through the crowd which seemed to become more and more like a mob. I decided to walk behind them in case they needed help. Two men behind me started saying hateful things to the Jewish men. I turned around to the two bigots and said in a dynamically forceful yet kind voice, “Shut up.” To my great surprise, they stopped. A minute or two later, they started again. I turned around, looked them both square in the eyes and said, “I said shut up.” They shut up.
About that time, this small group of clearly identifiable Jews joined two other men of their faith. As I stood behind them, a young white guy with a supremacist t-shirt ran up to the Jews and said, “I am going to kill me a Jew!” I stepped forward between him and the group of Jews and said, “Oh no you are not”. He demanded that I get out of his way. I said, “I can’t let you hurt these people.” He called me a Jew lover. I said, “I care about you too.” Then his eyes teared up. I thought, “Wow, Harvey is right. There is just a person in pain behind all this hatred.”
Suddenly, he grabbed the papers that I was holding and threw them at me. This was white supremacist literature that I had gathered. I thought about picking it up but decided I should not stoop down. The young supremacist said to me, “Listen, I don’t want to hurt you.” I said, “I don’t want you to hurt me either but I can’t let you hurt these people.”
The crowd started yelling to throw me to the Jews and calling me a nigger lover. Someone began to talk about the violence in prison and how they were mistreated by blacks. I said there was so much pain on both sides. The crowd was agitated but no one was attacking the Jews. One of the Jewish men whispered to me “Do you know what you are doing?” I didn’t of course. I was making it up as I went, using that flexible intelligence that RC groups spoke so admirably about.
I replied that I thought I was being effective, the crowd was not attacking. He said to be sure that I did because if something happened to me, he would have to jump in and help me. As the crowd urged the white supremacist on to hurt me, a woman in the crowd spoke up very loudly and said, “Oh leave her alone. She will only get a lot of publicity and that is what she wants.” As the crowd quieted, I thought “Thank you, lady.”
About that time something else significant happened. Another man made his way to me. He was short and round without a Yarmulke on his head so he was not clearly identifiable as Jewish. He said all his Jewish relatives had been killed in the Warsaw ghettos and this was not the time to fight, that I was too fine a woman to be wasted here. At that moment, I gave up my power. I thought he might be right given what he had gone through. I allowed him to pull me away from the group of Jews which he was not a part of. Very quickly, the crowd attacked the Jews. I latter found out nevertheless that the police got the six men out of the park safely.
So there I was walking through the park, bullhorns screaming “Six million Jews were not enough!” arm in arm with a man who had lost his parents and all his relatives to the Nazis. He had survived because he had been out of the house when the Nazis came. He had hidden on a rooftop till he finally made an escape. As we walked, he would talk, then stop, take my face in his hands, and say, “Look at those blue eyes. Where did you come from? No one helped in the Warsaw ghetto; no one would give us a gun to protect ourselves. You have changed my life and given me hope.” He would then kiss me and cry, repeating over and over, “Look at those blue eyes. Where did you come from?”
I tried to explain how I came to be there but he was too emotional to really hear me. About that time, we happened upon a Moslem man who was scared and confused about what was happening in the park. It is really hard to imagine the level of hatred that permeated the atmosphere. I was scared walking arm and arm with a Jew and a Moslem. I was worried that someone would attack us. We just kept walking at a good clip till we made it out of the park into a mostly black neighborhood where I suddenly felt safe. What a contrast to what I was taught as a child—to be scared of black neighborhoods and feel safer in white neighborhoods. This was just the opposite.
I spent some time getting to know both men. A little later, I met up with my St. Louis RCers including Allen. We each shared our experiences. Only Allen and I had made it into the park. On the drive home, I took a number of listening sessions as I sorted through my feelings about that day’s experience. As I shook with fear and grieved how my young son could have lost his mother, I could feel parts of the old terror from my childhood peeling away. I was reclaiming my voice and ability to think in stressful, frightening situations.
To my delight, when I returned to my everyday life, I discovered that talking to a boss or boyfriend no longer had the power to scare me in the way it once did. Little by little I was giving up the “little girl voice” that I had long used to protect myself when I felt in danger. It was slowly being replaced with a fuller, louder voice of an adult female. Best of all, I was proud of myself and could hold my head high. I could be counted on. Interrupting racist jokes became easier and easier. Eventually, I became more and more elegant in the way I did it.
Over the years, I have never forgotten the young supremacist whose eyes flooded with tears when I said, “I care about you too.” This was just the beginning of what I was to discover again and again—the more violent the bigot, the more deeply hurt as a child. Through all my years of helping others overcome racist thinking and behaviors, I have always found that a terrible hurt lies at the core of their prejudice which most often has nothing to do with the group they are targeting with their prejudice. This vital truth is a crucial ingredient missing from most anti-racist programs and other social justice programs.