by David A. Johnson
I’ll tell you a secret – you may not believe me, but I’ll tell you anyway. There have been times I have felt more out of place in the States than I have in any of the countries where I have lived and worked in Africa or Central America. At least in Burundi or Sudan, I expected to feel alien, not to understand or be understood, so the experience was not a surprise. But in the Bay Area? Even here, there were moments when my alienness came unexpectedly and shockingly to the fore. This is one of those moments.
As I saw it developing I felt an ache of separation, for surely here was a situation in which I could not intervene. Being a white man, I told myself that any attempt to step in would make things worse, inflame the violence already bubbling to the surface. I would like to think that had I been on my own, I would have tried but I am not sure I would have, perhaps the gulf would have been too big, too scary to try to bridge by myself. But I was with my wife Ranji and my good friend Roxy, two women of color, so it felt more doable.
We were walking towards Roxy’s car on Grand Avenue in Oakland, saying good night after having dinner together, when we heard raised voices coming from half a block away. We could see two figures, a man and a woman barely more than silhouettes in the dim light, both voices audible from where we stood. Although we could not understand the words, the anger came through clearly. He had her backed up against the wall continuing to shout and making threatening movements with his arms.
How often we walk past arguing and homeless people in the street – it’s so easy to tell ourselves that it isn’t our concern, to dismiss them. I stood watching, battling the growing anxiousness within me, unsure if or how to intervene. Then, when he hit her, the decision seemed made for me: I felt it viscerally, I simply could not stand by and do nothing. I immediately started down the block toward them, without a clear plan of what I was going to do or say. Ranji reached out and held my arm, stopping me after a few steps, unsure if now was a safe moment to intervene or if I was the one to do it. The gulf seemed pretty wide – both in race and class – so how could I step into a fight between two African-Americans without throwing oil on an already burning fire?
The woman shoved the man away from her and they stood apart, continuing their dispute, their voices still audible to us. We were trying to figure out what to do, as we saw the couple step apart. Another white man crossed the road to us and told us he was a retired police officer and commented that the only thing to do was to call the police. The three of us were pretty clear that, short of a life-threatening situation, bringing the police in would not resolve the situation safely, even for the woman involved.
When the woman suddenly started down the street, leaving the man where he was, an opportunity to step in seemed to have come. Not that it seemed any safer, we realized that we were approaching possible danger, but we were doing so in choice and awareness. Without discussing what we would do, we split up, Ranji and Roxy approaching the woman and I walking up the block to the man. Although I desperately wanted to help resolve the situation, I was anything but confident – in fact I felt terrified. What do I say in a situation like this? How do I bridge the gap? I could see him tense and narrow his eyes as I approached, and I searched frantically for the right words. Then, as I realized with sudden clarity that there were no right words, only my intention to see him and connect with him, I relaxed. I said, “Looks like you’re having a rough night.” He paused, a little surprised at what I had said, and then let out a deep sigh, “Yeah… really shitty night.”
With his sigh, the tension drained from the situation for both of us. His shoulders relaxed and he stood a little taller and my hands, unconsciously balled into fists, unfurled. Suddenly, the gulf which I had told myself separated us irremediably, no longer seemed impossible to step across. I listened to his pain and his frustration, and as he trusted that I was listening with compassion he told me more. I felt grounded, fully there and no longer on alert. He told me how sometimes things got so bad that it all overtook him and he did things he didn’t want to do. I heard his heartbreak, his despair and longing for a different life for both him and his partner; I could see him as fully human and my judgements of him faded. I didn’t say a lot, just let him talk and occasionally made a guess about what was up for him. As he spoke his anger and agitation melted into tiredness and sadness.
After fifteen minutes or so, the couple were ready to talk to each other. She had told Roxy and Ranji that they had missed the chance for the shelter that night and had nowhere to go and nothing to eat and the frustration had been too much. They loved each other and sometimes it was all just too much. Now, having been seen and heard by others, they could talk and decide together where they would head for the night. Roxy gave them a blanket and some food from her car and they made their way off down the street with their shopping cart.
As we stood by the car and watched them disappear toward the darkness of the highway overpass, I looked around and felt an intense sense of connectedness – with the couple who were walking away together, with this neighborhood which usually felt so unknown, and especially with Roxy and Ranji. We stood together, our arms around each other and shared a sense of celebration at what had just happened.
This was clearly a situation in which our NVC training helped us contribute to the kind of world we want to live in. It didn’t provide us with a template of the magic words to use; there aren’t any. It did give me confidence in the power of the intention to connect with another human being – a confidence which has been borne out countless times in my life – and from this connection my sense of alienness dissolved. I am not claiming it was anything life-changing, but by providing me options other than responding in fear and reactivity, I was able to give the other man the experience of an interaction that was maybe a little different than he had had before. Then again, maybe that’s what life-changing is – the accumulation of experiences that are just a little different.