How can we handle dangerous encounters in a fair and nonviolent way, especially when inequalities of race come into play? I have wrestled with this highly charged problem most of my life.
The recent killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman reminds us: the mythical figure of “dangerous black male stranger” still lives in most white people’s conscious and unconscious minds, which results in blacks often being blamed for crimes they did not commit. African Americans are nine times more likely than whites to be convicted when charged with the same crime.
Martin’s death could have easily been avoided had Zimmerman not possessed and used a gun, or had his town watch group included interracial community-building and nonviolent intervention.
Nonviolent action reduces injury and saves lives, but is hardly noticed by the media or even by us. When we recall success stories, we learn from each other to tailor responses to different situations and become aware of personal and collective perceptions, including racial assumptions. In Germany, as a teenager, I was attacked by members of a motorcycle gang who were the same race as me. In Philadelphia a few years later, I faced a potentially dangerous encounter with three black teenagers.
I am white. I was born in Germany, where the horrors of German-instigated wars, holocausts and my family’s struggles inspired me to be an activist. I learned and used effective, nonviolent ways to deal with power differences. I came to the United States in 1974 to be an organizer with the United Farm Workers. One year later, I began working with Movement for a New Society. I moved to 49th Street in West Philadelphia, a border street between poorer African Americans and better-off whites. I just turned 20 but had already traveled widely. Education was free in Germany; a university spot was waiting, should I return. I believed that if I worked hard I could do almost anything. Later I learned the name for this: privilege.
One hot summer day I was walking to a friend’s house for lunch. The streets were deserted, especially Warrington, a wasteland with scrubby weeds on one side and majestic Victorian twins hidden by shade trees on the other. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain on my arm. I heard the clatter of stones. I looked around and I saw three lanky, black teenage boys under a tall sycamore.
I squinted against the sun: 15 or 16 years old, ill-fitting jeans, old T-shirts. They picked up more stones and one by one threw them at me. One hit my leg. It hurt. I felt jarred, indignant and scared.
“Hey girlfriend! Nice breasts!”
I was wearing a tight white blouse. I wondered what to do. The tomboy in me who loved to wrestle wanted to go over and smack them. Bad idea.
Run? No, too dangerous. Running shows fear, plus I was wearing sandals — no traction. They would outrun me and, excited by the chase, they would… Three against one, not good. I also sensed that focusing on running, which is a life-saving tactic in many situations, would lessen my ability to de-escalate, deflect an attack, stand up for myself and find a better, unexpected solution.
Momentarily we stood still, separated by a hot street, gender, race and life. I took a deep breath and let my body and brain be still.
Two boys thrust their hips back and forth, imitating intercourse. “I like your ass!” This was accompanied by another well-aimed stone. My thigh stung. One boy stepped forward.
I forced myself to relax, to enter a trance of openness. I walked towards them. Arms dropped and puzzlement spread over their lean hard faces. They have seen the bad part of life, I thought.
“Hi! How are you?” I asked in my most authoritative voice before anyone else could talk. I looked from face to face, eye to eye, open, not aggressive, keeping all three in view. One young man stood out, taller with more authority. His face was worn and rough, eyes red.
“Hi, I am Antje.” My voice was slow and easy. I took the youngest boy’s hand. “What’s your name?”
He mumbled something and looked at his worn shoes. Next I stepped closer to the one I pegged as leader, locked eyes, and saw anger and pain.
“How are you?” I asked. He didn’t answer.
I noticed discomfort in all of them.
“You talk funny,” the youngest said.
“I am from Germany.”
“Oh, like in Hogan’s Heroes.”
I didn’t know what that was. Hands went up in a mock salute. “Heil Hitler!” “Heil Hitler!” They elbowed each other and laughed.
I cringed. It hurts to be a stereotype. I asked: “Is that a movie, or what?”
“She doesn’t know TV!” the youngest said.
I focused on the taller boy’s eyes. “I don’t like you throwing stones at me. I don’t like when you talk with disrespect.”
“You wearing a bra?” He said. I felt him looking at my breasts.
The younger ones giggled.
I forced myself to not react. Ignore the provocation. Ignore anger and fear. Reach for new space.
“You never told me your name,” I said gently. No answer, but his eyes traveled to mine.
I smiled. Soft. A bit sad. I thought that each of us felt disrespected and angry. I was angry about being harassed. They were probably angry at me — at women, at whites, who had more power, money, education, clothes.
“Listen, I have to go soon.” My voice was kind and finite — teacher, mother, older friend.
Tension had slowly shifted. Soon it would be safe to leave. The taller boy appraised my face. I did not look away.
“You live around here?”
I nodded, pointed northwest. “And you?”
“Springfield and 52nd,” the youngest said with eagerness. The older gave him a disapproving nudge. Then a smile spread over his face. A change had taken place.
“Listen, I know this place where we can smoke some dope. Make out.”
His voice was sexy, rough and low as if suddenly aware that he could be overheard.
Slow, real slow, I told myself. I nodded acknowledgment, gave a lazy smile and then shook my head. With formality I said, “Thank you for the invitation. I can’t go. I am already late.”
I spread my arms in a universal gesture, meaning, “Sorry, that’s how it goes.”
“And,” I said, letting my eyes rest on each face. “I wish you a good day.” I used the lesson I had just learned: my accent was unexpected and my politeness disarming.
“She really talks funny. ‘I wish you a good day.’” The youngest imitated.
“Bye.” I turned slowly and walked as if I had no fear which I judged showed trust and therefore respect.
My heart fluttered. I listened for noises — footsteps, loud breathing. Cicadas rattled their rhythmic song. After I passed two buildings I turned. They were still near the tree. I waved.
“Come on, we’ll have a groovy time.” The leader’s voice was flirtatious, teasing, but not angry.
“Thank you. See you around.” I waved again. Next time I turned they were walking in the opposite direction, talking intensely. I felt spent.
My former neighbor Steve’s words came back to me: “I have never been anywhere but West Philly.” Steve was my first African-American friend. I proposed a trip that would get him out of the city. “We could hitch-hike. It’s cheap,” I had said.
He’d looked at me with disgust. “They would kill me,” meaning white people. He was angry, disappointed that I would consider putting him in such danger, and that I was so clueless I didn’t know we lived in two different worlds.
My stomach lurched in recognition of his truth, my naiveté, and his pain associated with being black and poor in this society.
I can’t be sure whether the stone-throwing would have escalated into severe violence, but the boys were revved up. I was at least potentially in danger, and I did not want to enact the thoughtless script of the scared white person, but be respectful and take care of myself. Walking or running was an invitation for them to come after me. Ignoring them could have felt judgmental and belittling. They exuded emotional pain. Where was the win-win response?
Walking toward them and introducing myself gave me more power and at the same time showed respect. Often violence and danger can’t be avoided, and there’s no simple formula. It helped that I’d been in tough situations before and learned from them, and I’d also learned from others’ stories, including Steve’s about West Philly. I think that my openness and unexpected reaction helped this time. I was fortunate, and am grateful that I can share what happened with me on Warrington Street.
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