As I watched the poll results come in on November 8th, I felt fearful. I was scared for myself, for my friends, for my friends’ friends, for my neighbors, and for my fellow Americans who are the outsider in a homogenous community somewhere out there. The anti-LGBTQ massacre this summer in Orlando was still buzzing in my head. I kept thinking of a recent anti-muslim hate crime in New York City, where I live. A woman dressed in a hijab had been set on fire in the middle of 5th Avenue in the days surrounding September 11th. She wasn’t hurt, but the audacity of the act stung me. Over Labor Day weekend, a young woman was shot dead in my neighborhood because she refused a man’s advances. On Halloween, a young lesbian couple were assaulted, again in New York City, after revealing to a cat-caller the romantic nature of their relationship.
When I get cat-called, my impulse is to set the man straight and let him know I’m gay and therefore not interested. “Oh – no, no, no, you’re wasting your pick-up lines on me, sir,” I want to say, “Pass.” But, it’s becoming too easy to see how that situation might play out with violence. If I keep my sexual orientation to myself and respond politely, it could encourage the man and that could end in sexual violence. If I pretend that I don’t hear him or flat out reject him, that, too, could end in violence. I am paralyzed.
I also know that while I can pull off 20 push-ups at the gym, I am a 5-foot-tall woman and I can easily be overpowered by nearly any man. How do I speak up?
On the subway or a crowded street, I witness conflict. Sometimes the people engaged in the conflict are clearly together and sometimes they are strangers. The conflict might be racially charged, or a public display of domestic violence, or involve people who are in an altered mental state. I want to step in and help, but I know that engagement often leads to escalation. I also know that while I can pull off 20 push-ups at the gym, I am a 5-foot-tall woman and I can easily be overpowered by nearly any man. How do I speak up? I’m scared that if I do, I not only put myself in danger but I escalate the situation and increase the chances that the conflict ends in violence. I am paralyzed.
In the wake of the election, I have been searching for something to do about this. In the days immediately following, friends from across the country reached out to me to check-in. I felt supported. I reached out to others. I pledged small monthly donations to the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. It didn’t feel like enough. I heard stories from my friends of their personal trauma and their fears. I saw guides for self-care, for activism, and for community involvement circulating. I passed the resources on to people in my network. It still didn’t feel like enough.
I learned what to do, though: speak up and address the other passers-by. “Hey! Am I the only one seeing this?” “Hey! Are we going to let this happen?”
I went to a women’s self-defense workshop. Sure, I learned a few moves I could use in a physical assault but I also learned what I could do as a passerby to de-escalate conflict. We all feel paralyzed in the face of violence. It’s natural to feel shocked and freeze up. I learned what to do, though: speak up and address the other passers-by. “Hey! Am I the only one seeing this?” “Hey! Are we going to let this happen?” It doesn’t directly engage the perpetrator and fuel their aggression. Instead, it changes the environment. It sends a message to the perpetrator that we are a community and our culture does not allow violence. We have to practice speaking up, though, so that our reflex to freeze doesn’t win.
I joined Nightingale and it feels like something. I’m donating my time and skills to the website because I believe that it can make a difference. Nightingale will make connections between individuals, organizations, and causes. It will help fortify the community of anti-fascists, anti-racists, anti-homophobes, anti-xenophobes, anti-islamophobes, etc. etc. etc. It’s a platform to speak to each other and together underline, underscore, and shout: “Hey! This is not okay! We’re not going to let this happen!”