The thermometer read 102 degrees. Two-year-old Christina lay in bed crying, her tan face reddened with fever as she turned her head from side to side trying to find a cool spot. Berit hung the phone on its cradle and turned to me: “The night nurse said we should give her Tylenol.”
“I just checked the medicine chest,” I said, “and we’re out. I’ll drive over to Green’s and get some.”
Fortunately, Green’s was an all-night drugstore on 52nd Street and Baltimore Avenue, only a few neighborhoods away from where we lived at the time, Powelton Village.
I found a parking place on a residential street about a block from Green’s. It was past midnight; we’d been asleep when Crystal woke up crying with fever. I hurried to the drugstore, made my purchase, and started back along the dark and nearly-deserted street of typical Philadelphia brick-row houses.
Ahead of me I saw a group of young men hanging out on the sidewalk. For a second I thought it might be smart to cross the street to avoid them; this was a solidly African-American neighborhood, and for all I knew they might be turf-conscious and not that friendly toward a white guy. I shrugged my shoulders: It’s my right to walk wherever I want to, so I’ll just continue on the direct route to my car.
There were five or six of them, pretty much occupying the whole of the narrow sidewalk. As I walked into their space one of them stepped up to me and pushed me against the wall of the closed-in porch attached to someone’s row house. Surprised, I stared at him as he pushed me again and said something I was too scared to understand.
Oh, shit! I thought to myself. I’m in trouble, and I’m clueless about what to do. My heart pounded so loudly that my ears didn’t seem to hear anything they were saying. My eyes registered the others in the group stepping closer to me, and I felt my anger rise closely behind my fear. George, think of something!
Instantly I was transported back three years earlier to Miami University in Ohio, where the Freedom Summer training took place in 1964. Rev. James Lawson, a battle-scarred veteran of the civil rights struggle, was explaining to 400 of us some techniques of response to attack.
“Let me tell you about John Wesley, the English Methodist preacher,” Lawson said. “He was used to being mobbed by hostile crowds and developed a technique for handling it. Wesley first of all threw off his hat so the crowd could see his face and he could see everyone in the midst of the chaos. He then scanned the mob to identify the ‘leader.’ Wesley believed that every mob however disorganized had somebody within it who was a potential leader.”
Lawson continued, “Once he got an intuitive sense of who that was, he forgot about everybody else and put all his energy into communicating with that person. If the shouts were too loud for him to be heard, Wesley did eye-to-eye contact, completely focusing on this person who was a potential leader. And, every time, that person would do something to turn the mob away from beating Wesley, sometimes saving his life.” (Antje Mattheus described using just this technique in her guest column last week.)
Lawson’s story was what I remembered in that split-second on 52nd Street, and since I didn’t have any other ideas, I decided to try it out.
I scanned the group of young men and, trusting my intuition, decided the leader wasn’t the guy who was pushing me and being in my face. I figured the leader was another young man, who was standing back a bit with a thoughtful expression in his eyes. Channeling Wesley, I focused my energy on him.
“Why are you doing this to me?” I asked. I allowed my anger to show in my voice and at the same time held my hands out and down, palms open. “I came out to get some medicine for my baby.”
My voice rose. “She has a fever! She needs the medicine. Why are you hassling me?”
The guy who’d taken the initiative hit me a couple times in the shoulder, not very hard, as if mainly to get my attention while he kept saying whatever he was saying to me (which I still wasn’t understanding). My heart went on pounding, but my backbone was straighter and a calm was growing inside. I had a plan; I was acting. I looked even harder at the guy I hoped was the leader.
“I’m a dad,” I said, raising my voice some more. “I’m trying to do right by my baby. She needs the medicine. I came to Green’s down there.” I motioned with my head in that direction. “Why are you stopping me? I need to get home!”
“Hey, man,” said the thoughtful-looking one to the one who was pushing me. “Let him go, man.”
The pushing guy turned around to address the other. “Why, man? He ain’t got business on our block.”
I suddenly realized I could hear what they were saying. And look at the bodies: There was a subtle dance going on.
Another guy stepped into the argument, and I saw the energy had shifted. No one was looking at me; they were looking at the pushing guy and the leader. My hearing went blank again as I continued to focus on the leader. He glanced at me, then turned back to the pushing guy and said something. Somebody seemed to agree with him, judging from the body language, and a couple of them turned their backs on me. It was all about their argument, now, and I started to edge away.
I’m a huge white guy and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t suddenly invisible to them, standing in a small circle three feet away. Still, no one did anything about my continued edging across the sidewalk into the street and then, walking more rapidly, I headed down the center of the street to my car.
My heart gradually calmed down as I drove home, praying my thanks to Jim Lawson and John Wesley and the entire tribe of Methodists and the God they worship, and most of all, to the guy who, whether or not he really was the leader of his friends, stepped up at an excellent time.
“George! I’m up here,” Berit called as I entered the house. I took the stairs two at a time, bringing the Tylenol to Christina’s bedroom where Berit was waiting. She looked at me closely, then said, “What happened?”
“Berit, don’t ever let someone tell you that nonviolence training isn’t useful. I have a story for you.”
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