SO MUCH HAS been written about race and class and crime in the past few weeks, and it's about damn time.
Some might agree that a tragic upside of the chaos in Ferguson is that it’s focused America’s attention on our unresolved dysfunctional dissonance. At least until Brad and Angelina’s wedding, anyway. (Oops, they eloped!)
What interests me most is not whether Michael Brown stole or paid for his Swisher Sweets but how his unnecessary death has brought out the harder questions: If we are committed to the ideal of social justice, what are we doing to actually make it happen? Are we honest with ourselves about how race affects our daily interactions? Would our values or opinions change if there were a gun pointed at us?
My friend Mariela Orellana Nemanich had the chance to face some of those questions head on when six young men stepped out of the shadows and surrounded her outside her home in the Victorian District last Monday night as she was unloading groceries from her car.
The first thing she noticed was that they appeared to be teenagers, maybe 14 or 15. They seemed clean cut. She also registered was that they were black, in the same way she observed that one of them sat astride a gold bicycle.
“At first I thought they were friends of my daughter’s, kids who have been coming over to my house since they were little,” she described later.
Those of you who have ever sat on a neighborhood committee or in a PTA meeting with Mariela know that she is a magnificent force of social and economic justice in Savannah and beyond. A petite powerhouse originally from Jersey City via Columbia, she volunteers as a prison translator and advocates for immigrants’ rights. She and her husband, Todd, proudly call themselves the “leftiest of liberals” and have lived a block from the downtown Kroger for 16 years, which is to say they have seen Savannah at its most enchanting and nefarious.
Mariela is someone who is deeply sensitive to the prickly tangle of race and crime. When she realized these weren’t familiar school chums looking for a playdate, she was hesitant to assume she might be in danger.
“I guess my gut told me to get back in the car, but I didn’t want to profile them,” she sighed as she told me about it the next day while sipping tea at Forsyth Café.
So what did she do when one of the boys pointed a gun at her head?
“I looked at him and said, ‘hi.’”
During the unsuccessful mugging (she only had four bucks) and attempted carjacking (the gunman couldn’t figure out how to start her Prius) that followed, Mariela kept up a jokey patter. She hoped it would not only humanize her to her attackers, but make them understand that she saw them as fellow humans, too.
“I told them I loved Martin Luther King and his teachings, that I voted for Obama TWICE, that I’m one of the good guys! So how about you go mug some racist, right-wing s.o.b. instead of me?”
It wasn’t until the lookout on the gold bike shouted “Someone’s coming” and the boys scattered that she realized how terrified she’d been. After she filed the police report, she wrote up what happened on Facebook the same evening, drawing much gratitude for her safety from every corner of the community.
But as the comments reached into the hundreds, so came the criticisms: There was a lot of chest-thumping about if she’d had her own gun, this would have gone very differently. Wouldn’t it have, though? Just what Savannah needs, more bloody shootouts.
A few scolded her for being naive, and someone even called her a “libtard” (that IS a new one!) for believing that her lifelong commitment to civil rights would mean jackshit to a criminal who just wants money.
Most fascinating was the accusation that Mariela’s nervous plea to her attackers to leave her alone and go after a “right-wing s.o.b.” makes her a bigot.
Good lord, cut the woman some slack—she had a gun pointed to her head.
Mariela clarified later that what she meant was “just take the car and go mug someone who hates you, not someone who cares for you, like I do,” but the quibbler insisted that she had quickly abandoned her ideals of equality under duress.
“Well, if the muggers had been white skinheads I would have said I’d voted For Palin and McCain,” she retorted on her feed.
Not sure that would’ve helped, but the crux is that empathy—the attempt to identify with and understand—is a valid defense when threatened by violence, even the language gets clumsy. I believe that appealing to the thugs’ sense of social justice is at least part of the reason Mariela is still alive, and those who want to dicker over her word choices are missing the point.
Politically correct lip service isn’t the same thing as working towards diminishing the disparity between the cultural privilege afforded America’s white citizens and its people of color. In Savannah, there is opportunity every day to bridge that gap.
True to her ideals, Mariela is handling any post-ordeal trauma by channeling it into the same compassion that she’s displayed for decades: When police looking for the suspects that evening rounded up an innocent young black man for her to identify, she tried to soothe the frightened boy.
Rather than let this incident make her fearful of leaving the house, she has redoubled her efforts to address crime by creating community. She’s galvanizing a citizen’s deputy brigade and is partnering with the Rape Crisis Center to host more gatherings to help citizens become more aware of their surroundings.
To stake the claim of love over fear, last weekend she celebrated her birthday with an “After-Mugging Party” in the square a block down from the attack. She steadfastly confirms that she will not be buying a gun, but admits she’s stealthily keeping her eye out for a gold bike.
And though she promises to honor her intuition in the future, she would not now or ever assume criminality based on race alone.
Though the SCMPD’s new super ninja street patrols and its typical “lock your car, stay in lit areas” admonitions may help prevent crimes, it’s only such willingness to choose empathy over apathy that will unravel our social and racial issues.
It’s no secret that our nation and our charming little city contain plenty of ugliness lurking in the shadows. The best defense we have is to shine the light.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.