by Colin Maloney
I hesitated to tell this story, even though I think it’s important. I hesitated because I don’t want to come off as self-congratulatory, but two people I respect asked me to share it. I am also trying to be better about putting myself outside my comfort zone.
This is definitely a story about being outside my comfort zone.
I was waiting for a bus in downtown Seattle at the corner of 4th and Pike on Tuesday, November 15th, a week after the US decided in an act of self-destructive, nihilistic rage and despair to elect Donald Trump as our next President.
Suddenly, a White man accosted a young Black man standing next to me. His face was red, he had a gray crewcut, and he was bigger than either of us. The young Black man was standing with two other Black people, apparently also waiting for the bus. The White man appeared to be passing by. How they came to his attention, I don’t know.
“What are you doing, you little cuss?”
I looked at the both of them, not really comprehending what was happening.
The White man wasn’t slurring, but there was something about the cadence of his speech that suggested to me he’d been drinking. Anger, fear, and alcohol: never a good combination.
The young Black man said something back innocuous, not making eye contact with the man. The White man continued to try to engage.
I looked around, and even though there were lots of people around, I felt alone. No one else seemed to be paying attention.
I moved a step closer, and asked, directing to both of them, “You know him?”
The White man ignored me and continued to talk. He said, “Come on, man. I’m an NFL guy. Let’s go.” He did, in fact, look like he might have played, though probably during high school, a long time ago.
The young Black man said, “Nah, I don’t know him.” He seemed to be doing his best to look unconcerned, but I can’t say I know how he was feeling.
Since I’d clarified that there wasn’t any existing relationship here, there was nothing to necessarily explain the clear hostility other than racism.
So, I stepped in. Physically. I moved my body from making a triangle with the two of them to standing directly next to, and slightly in front of the young Black man. I looked at the White man directly and asked him what was going on.
Honestly, I don’t remember much of what he said next. I kept talking to him, though, asking what he was doing, what he planned to do, and why he was doing it. It was clear that nothing good was going to happen, so I asked him to leave, to move on, to not do anything that he’d regret.
I was grateful, then, when a White woman joined me and started speaking a little more forcefully than I had. Being someone who most read as male, I didn’t want to escalate a sense of conflict, and instead tried to calm the man who was drunk and clearly angry about something.
She said really clearly, “You’re drunk. Don’t do this.”
I continued to speak calmly and suggest he just move along. At this point, both of us were standing between him and the Black folks he’d been harassing.
Thankfully, the White man did decide to turn around and started to walk away, which brought a huge sense of relief, that at least today, there wouldn’t be any violence.
He’d maybe gone ten feet when someone, probably the young man he’d been harassing, said, “That’s right, bitch.”
The man turned around and started stepping towards us again, repeating the name he’d just been called.
The woman and I stepped up again and moved to keep him from getting any closer. The scene repeated, with us both drawing his attention. Taking another risk, I put my hands up, and gently stopped him from moving forward. Considering how angry he appeared, I feared he might hit me, especially now, but felt the need to “up” my response. Instead of hitting, thankfully, he asked why we were getting involved.
Instead of launching into a discussion of the history of race relations in the United States, or what it meant to be acting in solidarity with people who had experienced hundreds of years of state violence, I said, “You’re drunk, you don’t want to do this, you don’t want to do something that you’re going to regret.”
Another man stepped in at this point and said that he was calling the police. He had his phone at his ear, and either was speaking to a 911 dispatcher or was pretending to. I was also grateful for this intervention, as it seemed to jolt the man a bit.
Some buses arrived, and people around us started to move towards them. In this moment, the man again turned around and walked away.
I looked around to see if the young man was still around, but he was gone. His friends were gone too. I hoped that they were safely on the bus.
I turned to the woman and thanked her for stepping in. She thanked me for doing the same. Another man, White, thanked the both of us, saying that he’d been watching and had been thinking of getting involved. I said to the woman, “It’s a new world, we need to step up.”
The truth is, the world isn’t new, it’s the same world we’ve always been living in. That being said, folks with an ax to grind, especially White folks, are going to feel newly emboldened by the election of Donald Trump. They’re going to feel like their resentments are legitimate, and have been legitimized. I’ve already seen this just in the last week, the news confirms it, and we’ve also seen this happen before, in the wake of 9/11, and in the wake of the Brexit vote.
I stepped back, waiting again for my bus to come, but realized I still had more work to do.
I stepped forward one more time, to the woman, and to the man who said he’d been thinking of getting involved. “As White folks,” I said, “it’s really important that we step up.” They both turned, nodded, and said goodbye.
My bus came, I got on, and sat down. I realized, not for the first time, that this is where the work was — beyond my safe spaces and my Facebook bubble. Out in the street, every day, around both strangers and people we know. White people need to be able to intervene, and we need to be willing to intervene. We need to interrupt this kind of fear, anger, and violence. And we need to do it within ourselves as well so that we can be skillful about it, and so we’re not paralyzed by our own fear.
I was scared. As has been said before, courage isn’t the lack of fear, but the willingness to take action in spite of it. We all need to be brave and to support each other in taking action. You have help out there, but sometimes you need to be the one to act first.
“Allyship” isn’t about being, it’s about doing. In the next weeks, months, and years, we White folks are going to be called to DO much more than we may have thought we were capable of, and we need to show up.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Johnny Silvercloud/ Via Flickr