I grew up in a small West German village, Hamm an der Sieg. Without television or computers, my friends and I played outside and acted out adventure and survival stories. This daily practice taught me not to be afraid of physical encounters, and I developed a capacity for quick thinking and action. I didn’t know how useful that would turn out to be.
At 16, my mother and I moved to the large city of Hamburg. In the West Germany of the 1970s, motorcycle gangs — often inspired or even controlled by U.S. gangs — started to appear and at times terrorize people. There were newspaper articles calling for Zivielcourage, the courage to help when people were subjected to attacks.
I didn’t think of the motorcycle gangs as having anything to do with me. In Hamburg I went to school, explored the new city and was marginally engaged in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, Fremdarbeiterfreundschaftsprojekte (guest-worker friendship projects) and the anti-nuclear proliferation movement.
In the summer of 1973 a friend from my old high school named Ulla came to visit me. I was eager to show her my new world. We walked or used public transportation on excursions. As a young woman I received plenty of negative male attention and tried to avoid it. Whenever possible I made detours around construction projects, avoiding the gantlet of humiliating and infuriating catcalls and suggestive hand movements.
But when Ulla and I walked through an underground subway passage to catch a train we were so focused on each other that I forgot to pay attention. Suddenly we were surrounded by a group of five or six large men.
I remember the dirty, beige subway tiles on narrow, echoing walls; the odor of sweaty men and leather; big bodies squeezing around us in a tight circle; aroused laughter; hands groping my legs, crotch and breasts; pulling at my clothes; bad breath; urgent, dangerous excitement.
I feel instant fear and then drop into clarity. I feel responsible for Ulla. I try to look past the big bodies. Will anybody help? Moments ago the tunnel was full of people, but no one will come because we were pushed into a corner, and our adversaries are huge and members of a motorcycle gang.
I remember my father’s voice: “When someone in authority scares you, imagine them naked.” Wrong image, right message: These men are people with power as well as weakness. I imagine myself back at the street corner in my village of Hamm, analyzing the situation. I can’t fight the whole group, but confronting the leader could help.
I take a breath, open my eyes wide and sink into deep calmness detached from the frenzy of bodies and hands. I make myself feel tall and big — I am tall — and, just like when impersonating Prince Ivanhoe as a child, my body and mind grow more powerful. I ask in a loud, steady voice: “Who is the leader?”
I notice the small signals. The men’s bodies and eyes turn incrementally to a man who stands a few inches outside the tight circle, as if watching, allowing, guarding. He is a tall, blond-brown, bushy-bearded, wide-stanced man whose eyes smile with the joy of sex and power.
That is his weakness, I think. He loves power. And he wants people to know he has it. I want to make him prove his power to me. My thoughts are a millisecond quick, grounded in childhood play and the stories told by family members who survived two world wars.
I push against the muscled bodies, move inches closer to him. I need to be seen, be liked and not be an unknown sexual object. I look into his eyes, and my gaze remains locked despite the commotion. I see in him the internal conflict that power brings — joy and loneliness. I feel empathy for him, a joint longing for unreachable love and understanding. I speak loud without fear: “Please. Tell your men to get off us.”
My voice is dignified — no wavering, no provocation, a clear acknowledgement of his power to harm or help.
I am still. My eyes hold his and I am not afraid of who he is, what he has done. I accept. I feel we know each other. Surprise flits over his face. He blinks. His lips curl and I know he has chosen to help.
“Let them go.”
His voice is deep and authoritative. I feel the men’s reluctance to do as he says. I won the first round. The leader spoke and committed to me. Now I can’t let him change his mind.
Despite being pushed I stay locked to his eyes. With a slight nod and smile I communicate that he made the right decision, that I know how difficult it was to make. And again he says to the men, this time with aggravation:“Let them go.”
The circle opens. “Thank you,” I speak to his lips, and Ulla and I walk away.
I know not to run, although my heart is racing. We walk past a corner to a larger hall. We lean against a wall and tremble. I remember nothing else about the day.
As an activist and trainer I have discussed self-defense experiences with others and looked for common themes, for what professionals call “best practices.” One is a refusal to accept victimization as inevitable. Despite great odds, Ulla and I stayed calm, either because of natural ability or, in my case, because I trained myself through play. We didn’t follow the script of the attacker, which allowed us to develop our own strategy for protection, take the initiative and derail the attack.
I also know of times when someone’s strategy failed, and I know how important it is to not in any way to blame those of us who are hurt or killed. Nothing we did — walk in the dark, wear short skirts, become inattentive to our surroundings — and nothing about who we are — physically different or a member of a hated group — makes us deserving of being attacked. The attacker is responsible and wrong.
The subway event lasted only a few seconds and was primarily non-verbal, but a lot happened in that short time. I decided that calling for help, fighting or pleading would not work. I had to stay calm and not do what they expected from a victim. The group was too large and attack-focused to deal with as a whole, which meant my best chance was to deal with a person who had influence.
I then identified the leader and assessed how he might help. Most leaders, especially in gangs, need to prove their power to themselves and their followers. His face told me about the arrogance and joy of power, but I also saw loneliness and an inkling of humanity. By asking for his help I made the gang’s actions his choice, and I offered him the opportunity to prove both his goodness (even if it was hard to see while being attacked) and his “manhood.”
Using the calmness and acceptance I had learned by paying close attention to horrendous war stories, I was able to express empathy, openness and wisdom. By showing him my face and body, I also used my gender. To do that I walked a fine line — to be liked and win support but not to be identified as a helpless female. My physical and mental stance had to exude power, and my words had to be strong and calm and not play into their stereotype of weakness.
I communicated through never-wavering eye contact (which does not work in every culture), and a relaxed, open-body posture facing in his direction. With my lack of fear and hate, I created what we call in group psychology a “safe container” where he could connect with his own goodness and use his power against the group’s wish to victimize.
There’s nothing new about this strategy. Seeing the humanity in one’s enemies and winning them over has been done countless times, and it can be done countless more.
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