Take a stand or take a seat? Storytellers confront hate and injustice in the face of family, friends, and even employers.
Guests: Megan Hicks, Donald Deeley, Kitty Hailey, Marjorie Winther, Steve Clark, Denice Frohman, Cathie Berrey Green, Amanda Feifer O’Brien
Photo: Johanna Austin
Is “slacktivism” real political action, or just feel-good futility? Jumping into political activism can be intimidating and time consuming, but utilizing civic-minded technology is a great place to start. One app helps people stay informed and in contact with representatives with just the click of a button.
The Path of Peace Resistance
Cathie Berrey Green has participated in large and small-scale protests since she was 16. In a time of great political anxiety, what can people learn from her? Step one: keep your cool.
Read the transcript
Jamie J: Welcome to Commonspace…a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY…bringing you true personal stories about the pressing issues of our time. I’m your host Jamie J. As the American revolutionary figure Thomas Paine said: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
News montage: “You will not replace us!!! You will not replace us!!!”…Fox news alert right now, new information and video on that car crash we’re looking at in Charlottesville…(car crash sound, screaming)...(Donald Trump) “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides…on many sides.”
Jamie J: Confrontations around race and politics are all over the headlines, leaving people arguing at the dinner table…clashing in the streets…and for the most extreme…even killing…over their differing ideologies. It is overwhelming…even shocking…to think that as a nation we’re not moving forward with the shared core values that make room for all to pursue the freedom and happiness our founders envisioned. According to the southern poverty law center, some 917 hate groups currently operate in America. Nine-hundred-and-seventeen. And guess what? Of that number, 40 operate in Pennsylvania…and a number of those are right here in our “City of brotherly love and sisterly affection.”
And it’s not just about people belonging to hate groups that have differing ideas around race and politics. As you’ll hear today, it can be your family…a neighbor…your co-worker…or anybody else, who silently, behind closed doors…believes in something very different than you. And when it comes up in conversation, or suddenly, in a passing remark…. What then? What do you do?
Denice Frohman: I want you to think of the spaces and the places that you have access to everyday. Your classroom, your office, the dinner table, the bus ride home…when you're in the grocery store, and the comments that get made around you that you do not interrupt.
Jamie J: that’s poet Denice Frohman, one of today’s storytellers…asking us to think about those times when we come into contact with someone whose beliefs are so different from our own, that we feel a bright red dividing line has been drawn. Do we stay silent? Or do we interrupt? Or in the language of today’s show…do we disrupt?
Confronting someone with differing ideals could mean losing a friend or loved one. Your job, your dreams could be threatened, and tragically these days…you could even lose your life. So how do we handle these situations in a way that is appropriate, yet safe? And if we don’t interrupt, what are the consequences for our daily lives, and for our society as a whole?
Today on Commonspace, we’ll hear more from Denice, along with Megan Hicks, Donald Deeley, Kitty Hailey, Marjorie Winther, and Steve Clark, as they tell stories about moments that required them to make a decision to disrupt…or not.
Jamie J: So…I think it’s safe to say that our very first ideals about the world around us originate in the home…usually learned from our parents. But what happens when what they believe…just doesn’t feel right to you? How do you question your parents? How do you disconnect from their beliefs and still love them? They’ll always be family, but…here’s Megan Hicks story, three assassinations…
It was a Friday morning in late November, 2nd period, Algebra One. We heard the loudspeaker crackle in the ceiling. And the vice principal’s voice came through. He said “Teachers, students…”. We were all expecting an announcement about the prep rally or the football game that night. Instead he said, “We’ve just received word that President Kennedy has been shot. The president has been shot and he is dead. School is dismissed, extra-curricular activities are cancelled. Please take your assigned busses home.” Well I sat there on the bus going home that day, looking out the window, wondering what I was supposed to think about all this. I mean, all around me I saw boys and girls crying visibly, volubly, as if…as if it were a family member, or a personal friend who’d been killed. I thought, I guess a terrible thing has happened, but it’s not like I knew the man, it’s not like it’s going to affect my life personally. But then it hit me that all these kids probably lived in houses where their parents had voted for John F. Kennedy. My mom and dad hated the man. They were ardent Nixon supporters. I remember that 1960 campaign. It was so close, my mom and dad held out hope until the last votes were counted. But when all was said and done it was the Ivy Leaguer, from Harvard, the rich kid, who went to the White House, not their man Nixon. Now my mom and dad, like Nixon, had grown up in humble circumstances. We lived in Orange County, California, during the 1960s, but mom and dad grew up in Oklahoma in the 1930s, during the great depression - in Oklahoma, where the Jim Crow laws were observed and enforced. This separate but equal approach to race relations, well my mom and dad thought it was working out just fine, thank you. And then this east coast intellectual John Fitzgerald Kennedy comes in with his federal government to integrate southern lunch counters, southern schools, southern affairs that were just none of his business. Sitting there on the bus going home from school that day, I thought, well, he got himself assassinated. I suppose that’s a terrible thing. But it all washed over us pretty quick, I mean thanksgiving was coming up, and then Christmas, and by the time the new year rolled in we were all accustomed to saying “President Lyndon Johnson.” Of course, my mom and dad hated him too, he was just plowing right along with that civil rights act that to their way of thinking was driving America into the ground. I mean, a week didn’t go by now that there wasn’t a demonstration, a march, a sit in, a protest…oh, not in Orange County, and not at my school, it was an all-white school, but all you had to do was turn on the TV and see this country was going to hell. “What do those people want?”, my mom and dad would ask. “That Martin Luther King he’s just whipping everybody into a frenzy, I’ll tell you what, he needs to go back where he came from and then they’d remember where they came from…somebody needs to shut that man up.” And in April 1968 someone did shut him up for good. Our next-door neighbor was absolutely jubilant. She said, “Haven’t I been saying this is gonna happen? Haven’t I been saying he’s asking for this? That man got no better than what he deserved.” And my mom said “Well, he won’t be giving any more speeches, but the you know the real pity is now the man’s a martyr.” My dad said, “Megan pay attention here, this is what happens when you stand up and rock the boat. You challenge the status quo and you make yourself a target. He got what was coming to him I hope you understand that.” I didn’t understand a thing. At the time of King’s murder, 1968, I was a freshman in college…a very sheltered freshman, living in a home where all the answers had been determined long before I was born. But in my classes, there didn’t seem to be any answers, just more questions. At home, a disagreement meant somebody left the conversation angry. In my classes we were encouraged to disagree. To argue our point of view to explore different perspectives, to sometimes change our minds. Man, all I wanted was for somebody to tell me what I needed to know to pass the tests. I thought, I can’t think about this now, I’ve got papers, I’ve got files, and I can’t even vote for three years so what difference does it make anyway, I’m not gonna think about it. And I didn’t think about it, until June…when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Now I knew my mother and father hated Bobby Kennedy worse than they hated his brother John, and it looked as though, until that bullet got him, he had a good shot at the white house. I heard about it on the radio, driving to my sociology class. Kennedy had just won the Democratic presidential primary in California, and on his way out of the convention center he was shot and killed. The announcer said “Today has been declared a day of mourning. Those who wish to honor the life and work of Senator Kennedy are encouraged to drive with their headlights on.” You know, at this time, I honestly didn’t know what I thought of the man. But in that moment, there alone in the car, alone, with no one to cue me about how I was supposed to feel, how I should act…that was when I knew one thing. That was the moment that I knew that to stand up and speak for what you believe in, it is obscene to think that that constitutes grounds for homicide. In that moment, I realized it doesn’t matter if I embrace your philosophy or totally reject what you’re saying; you standing up and speaking your truth should not get you shot. I sat up a little straighter in the driver’s seat. My hand trembled a little bit as it left the steering wheel, and I reached for the dashboard. Oh, it was a tiny, timid political statement. But it was my first. And I remember it viscerally, what it felt like, to grab that knob for the headlamps, to pull it toward me, and to drive with my high beams on all day.
Jamie J: That’s Megan hicks, a professional storyteller who’s been sharing her stories here in the us and around the globe in libraries, schools, juvenile detention centers, festivals, and house concerts for over 30 years. Megan told me that sometimes a single act can be seismic, and I agree wholeheartedly. Now, Marjorie Winther had a very different experience growing up. Her father’s ideology cast him as an enemy of the state…and she felt like the world hated her whole family for it…you see Marjorie’s dad was….well I’ll let her tell you….
It was always said in a whisper: "He's a communist." I mean I grew up during the McCarthy era, during the witch-hunts. And I remember my sister and I were very little, like three or four, hiding in the hallway as men in black suits asked my father to name names. "Do you know so-and so? Is he a communist? Do you know so-and-so?" And my father was white knuckled, shallow breathing, angry. He said, "I’m not answering your questions. Go ask him yourself." I’d never seen my father angry and I was scared. At that time people thought that communists were gonna take over. And that communism was death squads and uninspired architecture. It was confusing for me because the world was in this hysteria about the red menace and the red menace was sitting at the table! This benevolent man was an enemy of the state, and I knew what people thought about communism was oppression. What my dad thought it was, was that the capitalists were parasites who were sucking the wealth that rightfully should have gone to the workers and that without them there’d be plenty for everyone and there would be peace and justice. So it was confusing because the world hated us and I remember not knowing what was going on and my father had a round face and these pink cheeks that were very warm and-- I used to like to touch his cheeks and I thought, "That must be what it means to be a pinko!" So eventually the McCarthy era ended and things got more open. The peace movement started. With the peace movement though, the whole thing was coalition building. I remember we went to a peace march, I was about nine, and my whole family was at a peace march and I remember the organizer being very angry with my dad, going, "Tom! It's a coalition! The message is “Peace now!” It's not “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Mihn, NLF is gonna win." So you couldn't be really frank about what you believed and as things went on, there were a lot of secrets. You guys, a lot of you were too young to remember the sixties, but do you remember the Weathermen and then they became the Weather Underground and they were in hiding. Well I know where they were because my father sent us to this communist summer camp and the Weather people showed up as our counselors. Yeah, true. True. It was a weird summer camp; we didn't do archery or horseback riding. Basically, we did organic gardening and read from the Little Red Book. But they did, they taught up how to build a sauna where you heated rocks and poured water and you'd run in the lake, so we were all running around naked that whole summer and that was-- that was how that was. So what made it difficult, though, was, how do you rebel? Like when you're a teenager it is your job to rebel, right? Hakuna—you know, circle of life. How do you break the rules when there are no rules? I mean, there were, like, you know, don't eat grapes and lettuce, you know farm worker, but you know, how rebellious is that to have a salad? How is that a line in the sands? But because we couldn't-- I couldn't run away and be a hippie cause my father took us to Haight-Ashbury. I was 12, he was hanging out in the coffee shops listening to Phil Ochs and my sister and I were running around unsupervised in Golden Gate Park. You know, how do you, do you rebel? But eventually, I did find a way, and what had happened was I was seventeen and I wasn't digging school at all, and so I dropped out of high school, a lot of people don't know that I do not have a high school diploma. I have a master's degree so they never ask me about it! (Laughter) Anyways, so I hitchhiked around with my girlfriend. We ended up living in a school bus. It was in the Baja peninsula of Mexico. It was twenty hippies all living there and you would think my dad would be-- no, he was not upset about that actually, because he had just read The Greening of America and he was running around telling everyone he was “consciousness free” but we were on this bus and we believed that we didn't use the word "I" because we were all part of something, so you know, I got kind of tired of it because I wanted my full component of pronouns so I left and eventually got into college, a special program then. And it wasn't until years later that I found out my dad was upset. Not that I’d dropped out of high school. This is what he was upset about: we were arguing. We were both in the Chicago teacher's union, different factions so we were always fighting. He was old left, I was new left. We couldn't see eye to eye. But he said to me, "Um…Margie, do you remember when you believed in God? I was so scared you were so scared you weren’t gonna grow up to be a dialectical materialist." Things have changed since then, and it's not quite as secretive. Like remember the kids in Zuccotti Park and talking about the 1%? I mean, they were talking about the capitalists. They weren't hiding, they were sitting there and they were open and my dad would have been very happy about that. And I went to the climate march. 400,000 people. And they're carrying signs, "Capitalism Kills," I mean they weren't hiding. It was out in the open. So I’m going to tell one last story about my dad cause shortly before-- he was already in his seventies and he'd gone to a pancake breakfast of the independent voters of Illinois, we're from Chicago. And he met a young community organizer with a funny name. This was in the early nineties and he said, "You know, Barack. You should run for office." and Barack said, "Never thought of it! Think I will." So there you go! The rest is history. Thank you.
Jamie J: So now I know who to thank!!! After teaching school for more than twenty years, Marjorie now plies those skills at the Philadelphia gas works company, where she does corporate training.
Jamie J: You’re listening to Commonspace…a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY. It’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. This and other episodes of Commonspace are online at iTunes or Stitcher. Please subscribe, and you’ll have episodes of Commonspace delivered to you as they’re released….don’t forget to rate us.
Also, we want to hear from you. You can share feedback for us, as well as your own stories at www.acommonspace-dot-org. Or you can join us live at a First Person Arts / Commonspace storytelling event. For a calendar of events go to First Person Arts-dot-Org. I’m your host Jamie J.
Jamie J: So…we’ve heard stories about family members who have different ideals from our own… but family loves us right? They can deal! But what about finding yourself in a political disagreement with a stranger standing over you with scissors, about to cut your hair?
To put this next story, by poet Denice Frohman, into context, I want to remind you all of Colin Kaepernack’s story….
Colin is a biracial NFL player who knelt during the national anthem this past season to protest police brutality toward African Americans. Now the NFL is kicking off a new season without Kaepernack on a roster. So has his protest cost him his football career? In an interview with the NFL network Colin said, “If they take football away…I know that I stood for what is right.”
Now, Colin’s action was very public…most of us don’t protest in front of millions. But what about navigating a touchy situation in a not so “national television” way? Denice Frohman’s predicament required a lot of delicacy, because, again, the person she disagreed with was in the middle of cutting her hair. Here’s Denice…
I was in South Philadelphia getting my hair cut. I take my hair very seriously. And I had walked into a new place, I do try to give my money to black and brown businesses, I was not able to this time... It happens. And I got my hair cut by this new woman; pretty sure it was two white women in the shop. And we were talking - and she was talking about the training she had to become a hairstylist. And Colin Kaepernack, the football player that took a knee - that was sort of swimming in the national discourse - and he had just made an analogy about cosmetologists and folks that need more training – right? To hold a like, a makeup brush, something like that - they need more hours of training than police officers need to hold a gun. And so the analogy popped into my mind, and I said “Wow, that reminds me of Colin Kaepernack and has a really good analogy about this.” And she goes, "Well, who's that?" and I said he's the football player so and so. And she goes, "Oh yeah, that a**hole." and I go, "Oh boy." And we're looking at each other in the mirror, face to face. And I can't go nowhere, and she goes "What's your analogy?" and I’m like "Well, he said police officers need less training that cosmetologists." and she goes "Well, my brother's a cop." and I go, "Oh, boy" she's got my hair in her hands y’all. She's got my hair in her hands. We're not going nowhere and the point of this story is that I almost didn't say anything. She said her brother's a cop, but don't worry, he's a good cop. Never gonna forget that. "He’s a good cop, trust me, I know". I wish they could just see it from the other side. You know, from our side. She's looped me in now to "us". So, that's a problem. And she kept saying the word "good". As if your goodness absolves you from, you know, from acting on white supremacy, or racism, or sexism, right? If you're good and you go to church on Sundays and you take out the trash when you are supposed to and you get A's, you can't be racist, right? We need to all let loose with that - when men are confronted with rape culture - well, "I’m a good guy". Right? Like we need to stop the idea that your goodness absolves you of being called out. And so, I almost didn't say something, which is also an important part of the story. Which is also why I’m calling myself out. It would have been a much more comfortable haircut experience, which is how I pamper myself. To not say anything and I was asking her questions for two reasons. One, to find out what do you believe? Like I don't know you and I’m trying to figure out how am I supposed to approach this conversation if I do engage and second, to buy myself time to figure out am I engaging? And the thing that popped into my head that made my decision for me was I was neutral enough figure for her to feel comfortable enough to make that comment around me. She wouldn't have said that around somebody brown, black, or visibly brown, right? And so I had a responsibility in that moment. And so if something gets said around you, you have a responsibility in that moment to interrupt it. And then you have to come to terms with how much risk you're willing to take. See, I’ve come to peace with that. There are certain things I’d die for. Point blank, period. Wasn't always that way, you know. But then you don't say anything and you go home, and you die a different way anyway, so…and I think that if we do intervene more, that is part of the work that we all can do.
Jamie J: Denice Frohman is an award winning poet, writer, performer and educator. She was the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, and performed at the White House in 2016. She also works with the Philly Youth Poetry movement, and tours the country performing at educational institutions, non-profits and cultural arts spaces. She’ll be back to close out our show with a remarkable poem.
Jaime J: OK, risking a bad haircut over politics is definitely a little scary…but not too damaging in the long run – hair grows back! But come on…the reality is, engaging someone you disagree with can actually be dangerous. Which brings us to Donald Deeley’s story, about his very first official journalism “gig”, covering an Iraq war protest. From his vantage point, he had insight into both sides. By the way, early on in his story, he mentions something called a “FOIA request”…that’s the “Freedom Of Information Act.” The Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It’s one of the most important tools citizens have to keep track of what the government is up to. Here’s Donald…
I don't know. The work that you do, the life that you live, these things mark you. And there are moments when you find out where you stand, what kind of class you're in. About 10 years ago I started working for Rustbelt Radio. It was Pittsburgh indie media’s weekly radio news hour. And my first job for them as sort of a journalist and reporter was to cover the protest against the Iraq war. So this is 2006, it's three years the war has been going on. And the movement's been building up steam, people are pretty dissatisfied with it at this point. And it's supposed to be an easy gig. You know, go to the speeches, record the speeches, walk around, talk to everybody that's got things to do. Go to the final event. Take notes. The first wrinkle that comes up is a few days before the march, the FBI, due to a FOIA request, reveals that they've been spying on the organizers of the protest under terrorism charges.
And this is, you know, that, "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists!" period of time and it kind of makes everyone real nervous, because Graham Greene put out that idea that there are two classes of people: those who may be tortured, and those who may not. And in Greene’s formulation, Americans absolutely may not be tortured. Terrorists, though…terrorist trumps American. So when I showed up at the protest to start recording people and getting their stories, everyone was kind of nervous. And all the speeches mentioned, "Uh, yes, the FBI has been spying on us but uh, don't worry, we're still gonna march, we're still gonna do everything." And people were a little less willing to talk to me because like, "Oh! Here's this complete stranger with a microphone asking for our names. Do we really want to go on the record right now? What is the record right now? Is it a permanent record? Does that actually exist? We thought our teachers were lying to us!" Strange world to be in. But the event went on; people gave their speeches; there was the march. We all marched to the destination. And we all arrived in front of the Qdoba. The Qdoba wasn't the actual destination; it was at the military recruitment center was on the second floor of the building that the Qdoba was on the first floor of. But I’m sure it looked real weird to everybody having their lunch, that suddenly this mob of people very angry and chanting things and the riot police come in. And they're in there like, "Is there a run on queso today? What's going on?" And the cops came in and they had the full, the full kit on. Like black armor, face-masks on so you can't see their faces, their badges are covered up so you don't know which cop is which and they've got their shields out there. And there were plain-clothes cops there, too. And they rushed in and they grabbed some guy off the street, dragged him into a stairwell and beat the crap out of him where everybody could see. 'Cause that's the other part of it. The first part is you tell everyone, "Oh you're gonna stand up, you're gonna say no to the government? Well, you're on the enemies list now!" The second part, though, is "you know you have a lot of people who are sort of in the middle, well, you know it's freedom of speech let them go talk." So it wasn't a protester that got snatched. It was just some random guy who happened to be nearby to send a message to all the locals, "Hey, these people, it's fine for us to attack. And if you let them near here, if you let them into your community, we're coming after you too." And that's very strange space to be. Suddenly to realize, "Oh! I thought I was safe. I thought this sort of thing doesn't happen to me." But the third spot of these divides coming in, came when I actually saw the cops themselves, the ones in the riot gear. And some of them shoved over a row of little girls. Four teenage girls and they weren't-- to their credit they weren't trying to do that. They were just adjusting some of their riot gear and they happened to knock these girls over. And one of the cops, to his credit, tried to help one of the girls up but he couldn't. I mean literally, physically couldn't help her, because all the gear prevented him from getting down to actually help her up. And from his body language I could tell this is not what he wanted. This is not what he signed up for. But he had signed on to be part of that side. To be one of the people who comes in and either does the torturing or doesn't do the torturing. And as the cops were there the crowd kind of started to run away and I was like, "Ah, geez. This is my first gig. I don't want to be the guy who gets attacked, who gets stomped down. But also I had a job. And I had a microphone. And so as everyone was running away from the cops, I ran towards them because you're marked by the work that you do. And my work was to get the story. To get the words and to bring them back out.
Jamie J: Donald Deeley left the reporting field, and is now an adjunct professor at Temple University, and Moore College of Art and Design, where he teaches first year writing and creative writing.
Jaime J: We definitely live in a time of escalated political tension. Protests are fraught with danger. Remember, just a few weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, a 32-year-old woman was killed, and at least 19 were injured, when a far right white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters there. And just a few months before that, two men were stabbed to death on a Portland, Oregon subway. Their crime? They intervened to stop a man in an anti-Muslim rant against two women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. If that doesn’t make you think twice about intervening I don’t know what would. But what about that saying…”Evil prospers when good men do nothing?”
So in an effort to explore how to intervene in such situations safely, we reached out to Cathie Berrey-Green. Cathie has a long history of participating in, and training people, in non-violent direct action and blockade techniques. She’s been doing social and environmental activism for over 30 years, on such issues as environmental racism, indigenous rights, stopping nuclear testing, free Tibet - which involved her leading a die-in in Tiananmen square during the summer Olympics in Beijing, China. So we asked her about the Portland subway stabbings, specifically, how can one de-escalate such a dangerous confrontation….
Cathie Berrey-Green: There is some great literature out there on de-escalation tactics and how to do just that. And one of the examples that I had read that really resonated with me in this situation was being able to just sit with the girls and talking with them just in general, like just bringing attention to who they are and just being human with them and letting them kind of know not everybody agrees with this. But then there is this side where you also have to let these bigots and racists know that that's not acceptable as well. And unfortunately I’m not even sure how one does that safely. I think you make the best decision you can in the moment and I think it's important to try to stay obviously as safe as you can to fight another day, but in that situation you can't account for that much hate and really that much crazy at the same time. And I’m not even sure standing in front of them would have helped because I feel he probably still would have attacked them as well.
Jamie J: In that kind of situation, how can you help the person being berated?
Cathie Berrey-Green: It's kinda two pronged: lowering your own voice, talking through a calm voice, for the person who is being the aggressor, filming it is really important, making sure you're documenting things that you're seeing. And then also letting the person that's being targeted, attacked, letting them know that they’re not alone and that there's people there who do support them. I think it also depends on where the situation is, you need to talk with the folks that are being attacked - do they want somebody to intervene? If you went on the subway and this was happening a lot of people's first initial response is to call the police, well that's not really safe for a lot of communities and a lot of people, so really finding out from the person who's being attacked, what it is that they want you to do and assessing the situation. I mean I don't even know on that subway what people could have done different.
Jamie J: That’s longtime Philadelphia social activist Cathie Berrey-Green. Go to Stitcher or iTunes to hear more of our interview with Cathie.
Jamie J: Our next storyteller, Kitty Hailey, encountered dividing lines at her job. She was a teacher in Camden, New Jersey when the school was taken over by the Black People’s Unity Movement a sort of Black Panther-type group in the early 70s. The group was outraged by the fact that the school, whose student body was almost totally black, had a faculty that was 90% white. The group felt that black children should be taught by instructors who would teach them “who they were” and not who “the man” wanted them to be. Kitty admits that although she could understand their position, their presence, while fully armed, posed a clear danger. Well, the events that followed literally changed her life in more ways than one.
Kitty Hailey – OK, I’d like to call this remembrance of a story, “how I became a professional investigator, how I got married and divorced my second husband – all at one time”. I started my professional career as a hippie chick with the long skirts, and the long hair and the love beads, the whole thing…kinda like what kids do today with piercings and the tattoos, but without as much commitment. We could change whenever we wanted to. And I became an art teacher, because that’s what I trained to do. I went right here to the University of the Arts, which was Philadelphia College of Art, and that’s what I wanted to do. And I started teaching at Camden High School. Now, for those of you that are of my age, you’ll know about this, for the rest of you it’s ancient history, but this was the time of ABSCAM, the Chicago 7, Kent State, ok? All the rioting, the Black Panthers, Bob Dylan, and The Lovin’ Spoonful. It was a great time, it was fabulous! I mean it was a good time to be teaching. However, Camden High School, across the river in beautiful downtown Camden, New Jersey, was 90% black, and the teaching staff was 90% white…and somethin’s gotta give. And my first year was the year that it gave. And it gave really bad. One day, the equivalent of the Black Panthers, the Black People’s Unity Movement, took over the school. And somebody with guns went in, grabbed the microphone, made an announcement, and said, “All the teachers to the library, all the students to the auditorium.” Now, you don’t mess with me. OK? I‘m being paid to teach. Ain’t no way I’m going to that library. So everybody went to the library, but Kitty went to the auditorium. I was probably the only white face in the auditorium. But I got some cred that day, ‘cause I stayed with my students and I would not leave them. However, for the next four days, there was rioting, there were sit-ins, there were people marching around the school with guns, and of course for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and so the SWAT team from the Camden police department decided they would come with their bigger guns and their bigger men, and they came into the school and they won, they took over. Which was sad, because this was a time of understanding, this was a time of growing and I was really connecting with my kids and we were talking about black artists, and the background of their history and they were becoming people, and it was beautiful. And they expected me to teach with armed security every four feet down my hallway, SWAT team members with helmets and vests and rifles and it was frightening, it was terrible. So there I was standing in front of my classroom, trying to teach, waiting for kids to come into class, and the lieutenant of the SWAT team comes walking down the hallway, saluting his men as he walks by, I mean the epitome of the Gestapo, and he had the audacity to look at me and say, “Hey little lady, anything I can do for you?” And I got it, I got the undertone, I got the whole sexual vibe, I was really turned off. And I stood there, and at the top of my lungs I said, “Yeah. You can get you and your f***in’ pigs out of my hallway.” And I felt good, I felt powerful. Ok, I married him. I taught him a thing or two! But before I did that, I said “I don’t date a pig!” And so he left the police department. Now that’s about as good as you can get, so I felt pretty good about that. And it was good, and it should have been good for a long time, and it should have been a beautiful story, and we should have gone into the sunset together. But you know that charm that he turned on me that day? He turned it on a lot of other women too, and it got a little bit old, and one day I said well I just can’t take too much more of this, it’s um, it kinda hit its limit.” So, we had a divorce, and the day that it was all over with he came to see me and we stood there looking at each other, and he looked at my eyes and he said, “I don’t know what to do now, what do I do for you now?” And I looked him in the eye and I said “Get out of my hallway, mother***er.”
Jamie J: Kitty Hailey remains a full time private investigator to this day, and is also a frequent storyteller at First Person Arts events. You’re listening to Commonspace…a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, and it’s been funded by the Pew Center For Arts and Heritage. I’m your host Jamie J…and today we’re hearing storytellers who encountered people with differing ideals, and how they dealt with them. We’ve heard about encounters within families, at work, and even at the hairdresser….
So next up…what to do when getting ahead politically could mean attracting some unsavory constituents….
News Announcer: “He may disavow them all he likes, but Donald Trump’s allure to racists is rearing its ugly head in these final days of this contentious campaign. Last night a mob scene in New Orleans, after the former KKK leader and US Senate candidate squeaked into a debate on a black college campus. David Duke is one of Donald Trump’s biggest and least welcome fans in Louisiana.”
David Duke: “I will be Donald Trump’s most loyal advocate to make sure his nominees go to the Supreme Court.”
Jamie J: Steve Clark learned an important lesson we can all benefit from early on in his “political career” (air quotes), while running for high school class president. I think we all can benefit from it. Here’s Steve…
Uh, so I’m white. And I grew up in northeast Philly, which is also pretty white, and I went to Father Judge High School in Northeast Philly, which is also very white. And not only am I white, but like I’m awkward and ungainly so like, I had a really interesting high school experience. I have a twin brother, when he made the varsity basketball team, I made the varsity Model United Nations team. And I always wanted to be cool and fit in, and my sophomore year, it was announced that we could run for student council for the whole school, and I thought this is my chance at the big time, this is my chance to be cool. So I made a poster with my name, and the only - like - art that I had to decorate the poster was the clip art in Microsoft word 97. So I found a lightning bolt and I kinda plastered it all over my sign, and I put them up throughout the school, and the next day at school, I swear I was getting looks from kids - some kids were nodding at me as if they agreed with what I was doing - and eventually I found out, a friend of mine came up to me and said "Steve, you know that image is the insignia…” - although he's was in high school - so I doubt he said insignia – “…of a local white supremacist group. If you keep that up - you know - you have a good chance at winning. And this put me in a difficult situation because I wanted to win, but I’m not a white supremacist.
So I took all the signs down, and I lost, and I faded into relative Model UN obscurity. But three years later, I was a freshman at the University of Scranton. Woot, woot. And I had begun to make a little bit of a name for myself because what was considered awkward and weird in high school was considered interesting in college. And so like I would trip sometimes, and I was tall, and you know in the cafeteria at peak dinner hours I would sing Avril Lavigne as loudly as I could. So I decided that when it was announced that we could run for student government that I was gonna run for class president. And again, I had to make a poster, and I was like - I’m just gonna like totally like be myself. So I ran - the main thing I did was that I cut - still technology's not that great at the time. I cut an actual picture of my head and glued it on to Avril Lavigne's body. Like do you remember, she had like the wife beater and the tie and to be fair, our torsos didn't look too different at the time. And I said "It's not complicated, vote for Steve!" I was like, there are ten other groups running, and there's no chance that I’m gonna win. And on the day of - I guess someone in the election committee like saw an anomaly. And they were like, "you're doing okay - like keep going - like you're in second place." which might have been illegal tamper-whatever. So I kept going, and at the end of the day they were going to announce the votes, and I was so nervous. And by 9 lousy votes - 9 votes - we won. Right? And I was like so surprised - this is news to me that I can like be myself and people will support it in some way. Thank you guys very much.
Jamie J: Steve Clark is a writer and educator, and a two-time "Best Storyteller in Philadelphia" winner.
Jamie J: Standing up in the small places – at home, work, school, the community…can hopefully impact the larger group. You see, I think there’s a road leading from hate thought to hate speech, and finally…to hate crime…not everyone takes that road, of course…the vast majority of us don’t…but sometimes it’s in those small places, when we don’t take a stand…hate takes root, and blossoms into the unspeakable…let’s bring back poet Denice Frohman:
This next poem is about the Charleston shooting, South Carolina…Dylann Roof walked into mother Emmanuel church and murdered nine black church members for no other reason than his own hatred of anything that didn't look like himself. I had no intention of writing about what happened, I was sort of stuck in my grief…and my brain, what it did, when his name popped up, is I put him sort of in this extreme white supremacist - which he is - KKK bubble in my mind, and I threw it away. And said, well I don't know anybody like that there's nothing for me to do. I became more uncomfortable with that sort of a “letting me off the hook, there's nothing for me to do.” And I think we're faced with that same question. And so during this poem, which is really an open letter to white supremacy…I want you to think of the spaces and the places that you have access to every day…your classroom, your office, the dinner table, the bus ride home, when you’re in the grocery store…and the comments that get made around you that you do not interrupt. See Dylann Roof is not anomalous, we know that more than ever now. He exists on a spectrum, and he is an extreme version of white supremacy and racism. And what exists on this side of the spectrum is Dylann Roof’s version of that ideology and on this end is the microaggressions and the comments that fester. See, no one interrupted Dylann Roof’s ideology along the way, and so he was just on the same train. And so while you may not know a Dylann Roof, you know someone who that maybe can become that in your circle, we all do. And so think about the times you chose not to say something…no matter who you are, because we are all privileged in one kind of way…where is your suffering not placed, where is the suffering of other folks, where you can maybe you can step up. And that is what I am faced with today, and that is what I want you to do.
The Hour Dylann Roof Sat In The Church
By now, you know their names, their cheekbones—
the tender hands they offered when you walked in.
You know the quivering strength of prayer and the art of making god listen.
How faith can summon weary backbones into pyramids.
And you know that grace still lives in a church that’s had to rebuild itself before—
a church that’s cleaned more blood off the walls than you have ever fantasized of.
That is to say, you’re not the first white boy to feel
small and create chaos in someone else’s home.
This church is old – much older than you,
Wears the audacity of freshly coated white paint
As if to say any ill that smudges
us will be for all to see.
Did you hear the echoes when you walked in? Did you feel the pastor soothe the trepidatious voices of ghosts burnt and hung in the name of better days?
So they opened their song for you – shared in head nod and bible verse –not knowing they let in what they spent so much time praying out
Tucked away nearly 400 years of lessons on what it means
to let a white man get too close.
All the bullets in all the world belong to them, yet doors softened for you—what an unearned miracle.
Do you know what it means to welcome a familiar terror and hope it got enough God on it this time to leave you be? Is there some word greater than “noble”?
Your predecessors hid their faces, threw Molotov cocktails from afar
But your ugly is the kind that gets to know what it's about to kill.
In that hour, were you studying them like elk?
Were you surprised when they prayed for you, even as you preyed on them?
Did they greet you with too many, “come on ins”?
Did you imagine abandoned prayers?
Did your teeth clench when they said, “god forgives you”?
Did your jaw tighten when they said, “bless your heart”?
Did their soft voices almost provoke the rage out of you?
Did you wonder how the hell they were still standing?
Did you wonder why God hadn’t made good on the fire next time?
Did your skin itch when the congregation
said your name like it was worth keeping?
Did you look at their hands? The folds of their skin?
Did you panic then?
Did you forget who the animal was?
Did your feet become hoofed, and back sporting a new tail?
Did the gun begin to rattle?
Did the heavy metal fever and sweat?
Did the script get hazy?
Did you forget your lines?
Is that when you almost walked out?
How many crosses did you have to burn
in your head to remember what you came for?
How many of their names did you have
Did your hands turn black after you threw your gun down?
Did the bullets pull themselves out of their skin, and chase you out? Is that why you ran?
Why you could stay for bible study, but not to see what music God
still offers the dead to keep them warm?
Did you hear your father say, “Good job son”? Did you hear America whisper, “Good job son”?
Did you hear every history textbook write your name?
Did you wink at the police when they searched your pockets?
Did you say, “Hey, brother”?
Did they say, “Hey", back?
When you realized they were enjoying you, was it then that you shot them all?
Was it then that you couldn't say you enjoyed them too?
When you see god, will he tell you how bad you smell?
Will you say you already know?
A stench like this isn’t made overnight, y’all
takes a whole lot of handsand much longer than an hour.
Jamie J: So what has the greater cost…silence? Or disruption? Everyone has to decide for themselves. But whatever you decide in your moments of conflict…be strong…stay safe…we’ve all got to live with ourselves…
You’ve been listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, and it’s been supported by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Commonspace includes a monthly broadcast and podcasts available on iTunes and Stitcher. Please subscribe, and while you’re listening, give us a rating! I’m Jamie Brunson, host, producer, and co-writer of Commonspace. Elisabeth Perez Luna is the Executive Producer of Commonspace, and co-writer. Special thanks to Naomi Starobin, who executive produced this episode.
Our Commonspace team members are producer Mike Villers, Dan Gasiewski of First Person Arts, and Associate Producers Jen Cleary and Ali L’Esperance. Our studio engineer is Al Banks. Our archivist is Neil Bardhan. The theme music is by Subglo. Special thanks to Zuhairiah McGill, director of the First Person Arts event Sincerely Philadelphia, which brought us that wonderful work from Denice Frohman.
Additionally, before we end this episode, I have one last important shout out. Our most recent Commonspace episode, called Gentrified, featured stories from our Commonspace live event by the same name held at Fringe Arts. During the episode we neglected to give props to Donna Oblongata, who directed that event. Donna worked tirelessly with the storytellers we featured on air to develop a stellar live performance around the topic. Thanks Donna! We love ya! If you’d like to listen to Gentrified, it’s online at www dot A-Commonspace-dot-Org.
Thank you so much for listening.
Suggested news clips for intro montage
The city of charlottesville was reeling sunday, trying to understand how the college town was suddenly engulfed by chaos and violence as a white nationalist rally turned deadly, claiming the lives of three people. Slate, aug. 13, 2017
Torch-bearing white supremacists descend on uva ahead of “unite the right” rally. The torch-lit rally recalled a similar event that took place in may amid a continuing dispute over the proposed removal of the statue of confederate gen. Robert e. Lee from the park. At least one person was arrested and others were treated for minor injuries as fights broke out at a statue of former president thomas jefferson. —slate, aug. 12, 2017
Unidentified man launched into a xenophobic, racist rant on a manhattan-bound q train tuesday afternoon, threatening a fellow rider to “get the f--k out my country before I murder your whole f--king nation.” —gothamist, aug. 11, 2017
Fbi investigating ied blast at minnesota islamic center. —star tribune, aug. 6, 2017
Apparent trump supporter arrested after alleged “political argument” assault in d.c.
Police arrested a trump supporter after they say he beat three people near dupont circle after a heated political argument.” The man was wearing a “make america great again” hat, which sparked the interaction that’s now being investigated as a hate crime. -dcist, aug. 1, 2017
Suspect named in phoenix lgbtq center arson.3tv/cbs 5 phoenix, july 26, 2017
Hate crime charges for california man after allegedly pelting muslim women with coins, slurs.
—los angeles times, july 27, 2017
After july firebomb attack, michigan family weathers third suspected hate crime—wjrt, july 26, 2017
Texas activist targeted in apparent anti-trans assault, carjacking. - associated press, july 25, 2017
“we’re going to lynch you”: two men charged after alleged assault on interracial couple. . —gothamist, july 12, 2017
Woman arrested for accused malicious harassment of middle eastern neighbors. —spokesman-review, july 13, 2017
Upstate new york man charged with hate crime after threatening black minors with hatchet handle.—utica observer-dispatch, july 10, 2017