Two days after we put up that yard sign, someone climbed our fence and stole it. So we put up another one.
Then that afternoon when we were all outside getting ready for the wedding, a man we didn’t know walked by shouting that all lives mattered. His aggressiveness was so startling — so utterly bizarre — that I almost laughed. Some people.
A little later, my older son left to run an errand. Almost immediately, he called us. The man was walking back, my son said, and when he’d driven by him, the man had yelled, flinging his arms wide and then lunging towards the car.
It was like he wanted to hit me, my son said.
We could hear the man bellowing all lives matter before he even reached our house. Without thinking, I walked into the yard to meet him. I had no idea what I’d say, but I knew I couldn’t cower in the shadows while he yelled us. I needed to see him, and I needed him to see me.
As I approached the fence, I called out a greeting and asked his name.
“It don’t matter what my name is,” the man blared. “You read your Bible!” He stepped closer and jabbed his finger at the sign. “Read your Bible! Quit being a hypocrite. All lives matter, not just freakin’ Blacks!”
“Of course they do,” I said quietly.
“You’re damn right they do! So quit supportin’ ‘em. Stand up for your damn self!”
He turned abruptly and I, unwilling to let him walk away without some sort of rebuttal, called after him, “I hope you learn to let other people talk, too —”
“No, I’m not!” he said, cutting me off. “I’m tired of this bullshit!”
He flapped his hand at me in disgust and stormed off, and I headed back to the house.
I’d almost reached the porch when, suddenly overwhelmed and short of breath, I sat down in the yard. What had just happened? What kind of a person screams at complete strangers?
My older son pulled into the drive then — after he’d called us, he’d circled back — and my older daughter held up her phone. She’d recorded the whole thing.
Within minutes our collective flabbergasted silence soon gave way to incredulity and indignation and, with emotions soaring sky high, we turned on each other.
Someone should follow him.
No, let it go.
But we need to know where he lives!
No. He could have a gun.
You saw how he acted!
He’s not going to do anything.
You don’t know that.
In the end no one went anywhere, but I was reminded of the Beautiful Trouble seminar the two older kids and I had taken a couple years back where we’d learned tools to effect change through nonviolent means.
“We put that sign in our yard because there’s a problem,” I said. “What just happened proves it. Of course there’s going to be trouble. It doesn’t feel good, but racism doesn’t feel good either.”
I was shaken and unmoored. What was the right way to respond in this situation? How should we proceed? I had no idea, but one thing was clear: For this sort of backlash, we were entirely unprepared.
The next morning I woke early, my mind racing. Should we have reported the incident? Was our family in danger? Was it safe for me to go running by myself? And then—
Oh no! That man had been standing only inches from my face and I hadn’t been wearing a mask!
Downstairs, I opened Facebook and shot a message to a friend who’s been active in the BLM protests. I needed some coaching. How were we supposed to respond to this sort of aggression? When should we engage? When should we hide?
It felt a little nervous, sharing what had happened. Would he, like my husband, think me foolish for getting so close to an irate stranger? Would he tell me I’d worsened an already volatile situation?
I needn’t have worried. My friend wrote back without even a hint of reprimand. Instead, he took what happened seriously — more seriously than I even had. There’d been a few cases of harassment (even death threats) since the protests and he named specific trends to watch for. He pointed out that tampering with a sign is not just a minor inconvenience (as I’d framed it in my mind) but an actual crime. He parsed the video, pointing out the ways in which the man’s language reflected the ideology of white nationalists.
And as to how we should respond? Take down license plate numbers, he said. Figure out where people lived, if possible. Film all interactions, and do so openly since being filmed tended to keep people from doing anything too stupid.
It was basic information, really, but just knowing what sorts of things to look for, and how to collect the necessary information, reduced my anxiety tremendously. If this happened again, at least I’d have a plan.
When that man yelled at me, part of me felt stricken. Raised in the Mennonite peace tradition, it’s been hammered into me that the correct way to solve conflicts is through peaceful means. We dialogue. We speak calmly. We listen. We reconcile and forgive. We are supposed to make peace, not goad complete strangers into apoplectic fits. Clearly, I’d done something wrong.
In the moment, my immediate gut reaction was to de-escalate the situation and find a way to have a productive, rational conversation. And afterward, I felt ashamed. It was all my fault. If I’d been better prepared with the right words — the right logic, the right expressions, the right tone, the right body language — maybe there could’ve been a better, more constructive, outcome.
And yet why should I expect anything different? Since when does speaking out against an injustice go over well?
Having that man’s rage trained on me was transformative. The fear and bewildering confusion I felt in that moment were both illuminating and galvanizing. I’ve never doubted there is racism, but discussing it in measured tones — in my Sunday school classes, writing groups, anti-oppression equity task force meetings, and blog posts — is one thing.
Feeling it is another thing entirely.
This story has no tidy ending. I’m still conflicted. I worry that putting up a sign worsens our country’s deepening divide. I worry that things are already too fargone. I worry about what may happen if we don’t take a stand.
So to close, here are a few gems that have helped ground me….
*Bryon Stevenson on how America can heal. (The Ezra Klein Show) I’ve listened to this podcast twice, once by myself and then a second time with the rest of the family. If you can only pick one thing from this list, let it be this. It’s long but it’s so good that I wish it was longer.
*The documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble is well worth it. We watched it as a family the other night, with lots of stops and starts so we could explain and discuss. (And today the NYTimes published his last writing: Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.)
*Rednecks for Black Lives (NPR) gives me hope.
*Regarding the Portland BLM protests, here’s a short documentary about the Wall of Moms and their switch to Black leadership.
*This is a local report on the deepening divide in our area: A Valley Between Them. (The Harrisonburg Citizen)
*And, oh hey! Sign solidarity! (The Harrisonburg Citizen)
This same time, years previous: the quotidian (7.30.18), iced café con leche, the quotidian (7.31.17), injera and beef wat, my deficiency, a pie story, joy, blueberry torn-biscuit cobbler, a quick pop-in, Indian pilaf of rice and split peas.
Have an unexpected day off work and am catching up on your blog. Thank you so much for speaking out, marching and sharing helpful resources to educate whites on issues of racism. I am so proud of you. You have inspired me. When I read this blog entry it seems your pain and shame is just a taste of what people of color experience for speaking out or standing up to racism. May the struggle only embolden your compassion and commitment. Thank you my friend!
Love how you are digging into this – I am learning from you. I especially appreciate your frankness about the hard parts!! People who won't dialogue just make my Mennonite SO CONFUSED.
I just finished reading Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy. Probably going to watch the documentary next.
Tried commenting through Bloglovin and not sure it went through. I'm so sorry that this guy yelled at you in your own yard. That's really awful. I read it too quick at first and didn't see the yelling about "freaking blacks." Yeah, just nope. Not ok. But I feel like the advice your friend gave you isn't likely to help you with your frustrated neighbor. Filming him and labeling him as a potential "white nationalist" isn't going to heal any divides. Racists don't become less racist by being told how racist they are. They change through getting to know a wider variety of people over time. I have a hard time seeing how taking your friend's advice would lead to increased unity and seeing each others as frustrated humans instead of as enemies.
Hi Ellen! The purpose of IDing the guy (and other people who are harrassing BLM protestors — there have been a number of cases) is to track the organized white supremacist activities in our area and, hopefully, make everyone safer.
I just read this good story that you and your family would enjoy that revolves around racial issues. It is called Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens. It is a story set in 1976 in Missouri, and the main character is a 15-year-old boy. Really, really good, and I promise you and your family will like it.
Just put it on hold at the library. Thank you!
You know, actually I listened to this as an audio book, but I don't know if you are into those. It is fun because of the accents and such. The great thing about this book is that there are more! The next one to read is The Life We Bury. Then read (or listen to) The Heavens May Fall, and then The Shadows We Hide. There are two more, but I did not like those quite as much. The ones I mention here, I am positive you will like!!
Why can't we all just get along? So scary to see the anger that's been inspired in our neighbors these days. Kudos to you for continuing to try to find a peaceful way to deal with it all. Don't give up. There are lots of us loving people out here, we're just the quiet ones, trying to find a way through all the craziness.
Have been following your blog for years, and am always inspired by your courage and energy.
Please don't be down on yourself about that interaction. Expressing what is right and just with a sign on your own property is your right. If that man wants to fly a rebel flag on his yard (and my guess is he likely does) it is his right. In this case he is the one who overstepped by confronting you aggressively in front of your home. Of course engaging in calm dialog is the best way to diffuse a situation, and when attending a march you are prepared with your mental script. But it's much harder when you are unexpectedly confronted at your own home with your children present. Mama bear kicks in. Change isn't easy and it is accomplished only with millions of uncomfortable steps forward. Thank you for being an inspiring warrior for change.
I'm so sorry that happened to you. Sadly inappropriate behavior. Glad you have people you trust that can help you navigate how to figure our what to do. Love your blog and reading the things you post about, but I cannot stand with BLM. All lives matter. Jesus thought so and so do I. I believe the lives of the unborn are just as important. And so is the family unit. BLM feels like a bill going through Congress that is so very very good in its intentions and what it initially proposes, but then other secret "addendums" get tacked on that have nothing to do with the original bill. Not supporting BLM doesn't mean a person is a racist – although the "gentleman" you had the encounter with very well may be. It means I am wrestling with this just as everyone's else is, and am wanting to love my neighbor as myself while holding to my other values. Thanks for be willing to confront your neighbor and show him that is not how we dialogue about disagreements. And thanks for reading my thoughts – whether you publish them or not. Blessings.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You are certainly not alone! I know many thoughtful, loving people who share the same concerns.
About "all lives matter" — I hear you (and you're right!), but this conversation is not about all lives, it's about Black lives.
And about your concern regarding some of the BLM components:
A friend recently pointed out that most people join an organization (church, political party, etc) never expecting to agree with everything and yet when it comes to BLM, concern over like-minded thought is paramount. Here's the thing: Within our established organizations, we feel comfortable. We know what rings true and what doesn't, and we're accustomed to navigating that jumble. With BLM, it's all new. As we struggle to make sense of it, every little discrepancy becomes magnified.
Her insight helped me understand why I was so tied up in knots — it was normal to feel this way about new things! — and gave me some much-needed perspective. I realized that if I wait to act until there's a movement that I resonate with 100%, I'll never go anywhere, and it allowed me to stop worrying about the things I didn't agree with, or were less convicted about, and instead focus on the goodness and truth of the BLM movement that does resonate with me.
Maybe I’m reading your comment incorrectly. Many people misunderstand the meaning of BLM, which is:
“whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.” Howard University Law Library
I would also refer you to this blog post:
and the very eloquent comments.
I did not understand BLM until reading these comments and doing further research.
Of course ALL lives matter. That is not the point of BLM, it’s to stop all the senseless things that police and other uneducated people perpetuate upon black people.
Until POC can walk out their door everyday and not fear that they won’t return alive, we aren’t doing this right.
Thanks for reading.
I've been reading your site for so many years – and I'm longing for a real sit down on the porch conversation (at six feet apart, of course!). I'm back in the rural (just over the mason dixon line) community where I grew up, since quarantine. I've been leading groups of local friends in meetings on having complicated conversations about race and racism (over zoom, no less) — struggling to sit with how I was raised to find points of connection with everyone – in the face of the kind of actions and energy you describe. No answers – but thanks for being out there.
Wow, Chepkirui. This is inspirational — thank you for sharing. And if you're ever in the area, let me know. For real. I would LOVE to get together.
I don't know what to say, other than thank you. For so many reasons, thank you. xox