Re-writing an attacker’s script — getting in practice

A ship’s engine telegraph from the Great Lakes Naval Museum. (Flickr/Steven Depolo)

Have you heard the story about the woman who realized she was being followed on a dark, deserted city street? It was the night before trash collection. She went to the nearest trash can, lifted the lid, and had a brief, animated conversation with the contents. Cheerfully replacing the lid, she continued to the next trash can, lifted the lid, and chattered away as if with a long-lost friend.

She also noticed that her stalker turned around and left.

This is one of the favorite stories told at nonviolent self-defense workshops. Then there’s the one attributed to Marj Swann, a leader in the pioneering Committee for Nonviolent Action in the 1950s and 1960s. In her student days she was heading home one night from the library with a pile of books in her arms. Almost home on a deserted New York City street, she heard footsteps behind her getting closer and closer. As she reached her door she whirled around and placed the load of books into the arms of the startled man behind her, with a loud, “What a relief that you came just when I needed you! These books are so heavy and I need to get my key.” By which time she’d found her key, opened her door, retrieved her books with a jolly “Thank you!” and went inside.

In both these stories the person targeted as victim re-wrote the script for the would-be perpetrator. Attackers know what their targets “ought” to do. The man who decided to be a mass murderer in a Georgian elementary school probably expected Antoinette Tuff to cower under her desk, or make a dash for it — a likely signal for his trigger finger. The signal never came.

These and many other stories show people refusing to do the expected thing. Stories are important in preparing ourselves for effective nonviolent responses to attack, because if we don’t hear of alternatives, the traditional script becomes hegemonic: react violently, or submit. Stories expand options and invite creativity.

Becoming okay with conflict

Training for nonviolent response to threat means facing the challenge of conflict-aversion. Many people are brought up to avoid conflict, sometimes at heavy cost to themselves and their loved ones. Such people are especially in wonderment that Antje Mattheus could find a way out when confronting a dangerous motorcycle gang in a deserted subway station, but she admits that she’d prepared herself for years through acting out in her head, and through play, stories of combat. Gandhi, a famously pro-conflict figure, especially liked to recruit soldiers to join the Indian independence struggle, because soldiers were more relaxed when performing nonviolent action in bloody street confrontations.

Military veteran and peace activist Albert Bigelow told me his inner reaction when a white segregationist was hitting him in a bus terminal during the Freedom Rides of 1961. Bert was part of the Congress of Racial Equality campaign to force integration of Greyhound buses in the Deep South. He’d been a ship commander in the U.S. Navy before becoming a pacifist, and he prided himself on his boxing skills.

At an Alabama bus stop, a mob surrounded the Freedom Riders and attacked them. One man used his fists to repeatedly hit Bert in the torso and head. Bert told me that what went through his mind in those moments was, “If I had even 15 minutes with this guy I could show him how to do some damage.”

In the turbulence of the mob scene, Bert suddenly realized that a number of the segregationists were standing in a circle watching his assailant try to get him to crumble. Bert’s nose was bleeding badly. Wanting to re-write the script, Bert turned away from his attacker and walked over to some watchers, held out his open hand, and asked for a handkerchief for his nose. Startled, they refused, and he continued to “work the crowd” in this way until someone gave him a handkerchief and the tension broke. Bert and his comrades walked calmly out of the terminal and re-boarded their bus.

Train yourself

We don’t need to be former U.S. Navy boxers to be able to expand our awareness when threatened. Even people brought up to be shy of open conflict can do self-training. Like Antje Mattheus, they can “rehearse” in their imaginations the roles they might play.

It helps to adopt a principle that I teach at Swarthmore College: “When a conflict erupts near you, move closer.” If a couple is loudly arguing on the street, or a fight breaks out at a sports event, move physically closer to it. For some people, crossing the street to get closer is a victory; for others, moving one foot closer is a shift. Even taking a moment to stay where you are and breathe might make your day.

And it is okay to sweat — the colder the sweat, the better. The point is to use your awareness to de-sensitize yourself to an old fear.

The late Bill Moyer, author of the strategy book Doing Democracy, happened to be claustrophobic. As a civil rights organizer, he knew he needed to be available for civil disobedience, so when the movement was gearing up for another campaign, Bill began his desensitization program: one minute inside his closet, then two minutes, then three and so on. By the time he was arrested, he was free to be his usual solidarity-building-self instead of absorbed in his own panic.

A young activist in Philadelphia embarked on another unusual self-training bravery program. He boarded trolley cars and stood near the front of the trolley facing the rear. He then spoke loudly to the startled passengers, arguing one side of a controversial topic. He spoke for as long as he could tolerate, then jumped off at the next stop. He’d congratulate himself and either took the evening off or, if he was pumped, wait for the next trolley and do it again.

He told me he did it by himself because he’d already overcome his fear when he did soap-boxing with other activists, assisted by the their solidarity. His next step, he felt, was to be able to do it by himself.

Practice with a team

I once trained anti-apartheid activists in New Zealand who demanded that their government withdraw its invitation to the all-white South African Springboks to play in their country: “Don’t import apartheid sport!” I learned they were worried about passionate rugby fans who threatened to beat up demonstrators. Part of my training program, therefore, was street speaking outside a pub full of passionate rugby fans.

Many of us learn more easily in a group, including that basic skill of self-assertion. I use the game of sock-wrestling as a training tool. The participants take off their shoes and form pairs of similar height. The pairs sit, facing each other, with space around each pair. I explain the rules: The object is to wrestle in such a way as to get your opponent’s socks off before they can get your socks off. Everyone must stay on the floor. No hurting. When someone in your pair has won, watch the others wrestling around you. Notice what you’re feeling the whole time. Then we’ll talk about it.

Through sock-wrestling, participants explore inhibitions to self-assertion. Other issues come up, including strategy. Plunging vigorously into the game with a group of people creates a pro-combat atmosphere and supports a debrief inquiring what might keep us from giving up. A second round with a different partner offers a chance to try a different attitude and new behaviors.

Group role-plays can also unleash creativity, especially if the facilitator emphasizes that there’s no one right answer in responding to a threat. The point is to invite participants to try out new possibilities, physically as well as mentally. I enjoy writing up the behaviors that people tried and then running the scenario again to generate more options.

The truth is, every real-life situation we encounter is unique. We’re far more likely to come up with something useful if we go into it with the attitude that there are multiple options. Like Bert, we can start out with an apparent calm acceptance of getting hit — itself both surprising and de-escalating. We can then switch to something else, like Bert’s asking for a handkerchief for the bleeding nose. If that hadn’t worked, Bert would no doubt have tried a third tactic, and a fourth and a fifth as needed.

Training can help us internalize strategic principles, like figuring out who is the leader, going on the offensive and reaching out for allies. But principles are solid, and creativity is fluid. One goal of training should be to unleash the creativity that is the birthright of every human being.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.