Defense on the streets — stepping into conflict

A public pillow fight in Warsaw. (Flickr/Kuba Bożanowski)

A public pillow fight in Warsaw. (Flickr/Kuba Bożanowski)

I blush to tell this story, because it shows my clumsy and fearful side, but friends tell me it’s a useful example for exploring how people can have each others’ backs in situations of threat.

I could hear the young woman’s voice clearly: “Stop it! Stop it! Help!” I’d left the windows of the second floor open to catch the breeze on this hot night.

“Call 911!”

I cried out to my granddaughter as I rushed down the stairs toward the front door.

The voice sounded far enough away that the woman was probably on the other side of the street, I reasoned as I opened the door and stepped onto the porch. I couldn’t see anything at first so I walked to the end of the porch and peered across the dark street. The light from the streetlights was filtered by the trees along our sidewalks.

Then I saw her, across the street and down to my left, struggling with a young man. “Stop it!” she yelled again.

I immediately felt two conflicting urges: to intervene on her behalf, and to stay safe. There are a lot of guns in my city and I don’t want to get shot. I decided to act, but to be cautious at the same time.

On the edge of my porch I took a deep breath, aimed my voice at the fighting couple, and said the first thing that came into my mind: “I’m watching you!”

Both of them stopped for a second to look at where my voice came from, saw this tall white man standing on his porch, and went back to their fight.

I stood there, embarrassed by what I’d said. Surely, George, I told myself, after all these years of studying Gandhi and King you can come up with something better than that! Still, I wasn’t dead yet, so I decided to make another move.

I walked down the steps from my porch to the sidewalk. Confident that something better would come from my mouth this time, I took a deep breath and yelled.

“I’m still watching you!”

This time the two stopped longer, looking at this strange white guy in what looked like disbelief. Then the man hit her and they went back at it.

Again I berated myself for my lack of creativity while I advanced toward the edge of my sidewalk. I didn’t see a gun yet. I was still alive, so I took another deep breath and out came — you guessed it — “I’m still watching you!”

This time the couple stopped completely, nonplussed. I heard doors opening on my block as neighbors who had heard me came out on their porches. Good, I thought, reinforcements. The energy is really shifting now.

I started to walk into the street — still cautious, but willing to keep closing the gap between them and me.

Just then a tall, older African-American woman moved down the sidewalk toward the couple, walking with measured steps and great dignity. She reached the couple and hooked her arm around that of the girl. She started to walk her away from the young man who stood with his arms dangling at his sides, seemingly at a loss. When they had moved a few yards away from him, the older woman turned slightly in his direction and said firmly, “We don’t treat our women that way.”

I retreated from the middle of the street, then sat on my front steps breathing a sigh of relief.

So that’s what it was about, I reflected: I was a placeholder, filling in until something happened that would really make the difference. My clumsy words and hesitant steps didn’t prevent me from doing my job, playing my part in the larger drama of the evening.

Stepping into the conflict

What happened that night supports Gandhi’s belief that the best defense is an offense. A staple of urban legend is stories of people reacting to the sounds of trouble by ducking down, laying low, double-checking the triple-lock. I understand that; at least half of me was right there. The trouble is, if I don’t have somebody else’s back, it becomes less likely that they’ll have mine when I’m in trouble. As Barbara Smith demonstrated a few neighborhoods away from mine, the only real security is collective.

The beauty waiting to be discovered is how we can influence the unfolding of conflict. We can intervene imperfectly and still notice the combatants losing their momentum, the doors opening and people coming onto their porches, the entire force field shifting because of our willingness to engage.

But how do we make that real if we’ve been brought up — as many have — to be conflict-averse? I usually expect conflict aversion to show up especially among people from middle-class suburbs, but it really is more widespread than that. I’ve even seen hard-shell activists who read their Ward Churchill back away from conflict when it shows up in everyday situations.

The good news is that most of us can desensitize ourselves to the fear of conflict. One way is to keep finding stories where people, despite sweaty palms and pounding hearts, have stepped into conflict. The late social scientist Kenneth Boulding, with his tongue in his cheek, used to declaim “Boulding’s First Law”: “Whatever has happened is possible.”

The choices we make in daily life offer a convenient training ground. My rule is: When I become aware of conflict, I move toward it.

My flexible application of that rule has to do with how far and fast I move.

On a good day I can move very fast and get right in the middle of it. I once stood in front of someone holding a gun on someone else. On a bad day, moving an inch in the direction of the conflict is my big achievement.

The power comes from making that choice, over and over. Instead of backing away from that loud argument in the subway or the bar, move toward it even a foot or two. When I do that, I pay attention not only to the environment but also to how I’m doing. No one has died from sweaty palms. The sweat deserves my willing placement of attention. Bit by bit, I learn to breathe, and the risk of panic subsides to mere fear.

No courage without fear

A lion tamer I met in Holland straightened out some confusion that held me back. He took me to his house and, when I asked, showed me scrapbooks from his work in circuses with bears and the big cats. When we came to the photo of him with his head in the mouth of an enormous lion, I exclaimed, “What a brave man you are!”

“No, George,” he said with a smile. “My lion tamer colleagues are courageous, but I’m peculiar. For some reason, ever since I was a boy I’ve been in love with cats. When I work with a lion, I don’t see something scary; I just see a big pussycat.”

“To be brave,” he went on, “it’s necessary to be scared. When you’re frightened and do something anyway — that’s courage.”

For most of us there’s nothing more predictable than that someday a conflict will get close enough to us for us to get scared. That’s our opportunity to practice courage. That’s when we’ll build our skills nonviolently to take care of ourselves and each other, by finding a way to engage.

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