Remember why: A note from my past self in Extinction Rebellion

This post is time travel. It’s a message from the past.

Really. I am writing this in mid-August. The sun is hot. The days are slow and lethargic. The Czechs call this season “cucumber season,” because in our short growing season mid-to-late August is the only season when cucumbers are ripe and so many people spend their time pickling.

My pickling cucumbers all died of mold, so my children will go without pickles this winter. Such is life.

But the other thing about this season is anticipation. And this year that is more true than ever before. We’re working up to what we grandiosely call “the Autumn Rebellion.” It is supposed to be a massive worldwide uprising of people demanding truth, justice and action to avoid ecological disaster.

Creative Commons image by Carl Nenzén Lovén

Creative Commons image by Carl Nenzén Lovén

In London, Paris, Berlin and other western cities, it is supposed to bring transport and industry to a screeching halt. It is supposed shake the major state and corporate structures to their foundations and wake up their CEOs and legislators to the crisis. In smaller and less progressive places, like my own Prague, it is supposed to be the first major rallying cry, the days of love and courage with crowds of protesters, arrests and media coverage.

That’s the plan.

In the midst of a cucumber season with no cucumbers, I am filled with a bit of trepidation. Every day brings a fresh wave of new Extinction Rebellion volunteers. More than anything else, I fear they will be disappointed. They have finally risen, most for their first time doing anything even remotely activist. It’s the first real rising of public demand for change in a generation here. There were small protests, sure, but nothing that captured the hearts and minds of regular people beyond a committed (eccentric) few.

Beyond that, I am putting in far too much time and effort, more than is good for me. And I’ve already encountered some of the social ostracism I dread in any kind of group situation. I can’t help but look ahead with hope and anxiety side by side.

What will the first weeks of October bring? Will our dreams be realized? Will real change come at last? Will it be worth all the effort and sacrifice? Will anything happen at all?

That got me to thinking about sending a message to my future self. Because I know how hard it can be—in the midst of things—to remember the most basic reasons why we throw ourselves into something like this. I could so easily get caught up in worry, get freaked out over failures or be torn up over social rejection. So, if that’s the case, I hope this may help.

Here are the reasons I am doing this:

  1. All last winter I was so depressed I couldn’t move. Every day I took a nap for an hour and a half or two hours because nothing seemed worth it and my body and mind were saturated with grief and despair. When I found Extinction Rebellion that changed overnight. Finally there was something worth doing.

  2. I wasn’t in it to win. When I first joined in April there were ten active people in the entire Czech Republic. They were nice people, but I didn’t really think they could have hundreds or thousands of people active by the autumn. Neither did they. They just said that because it was a sort of goal to put out there. “A thousand people in the fall,” that’s what they said. But I was in it for the moment, for those ten and for whoever came each day.

  3. My role in Extinction Rebellion quickly became that of hearth mother. I am among the older members and that’s a new experience for me, the first time I’ve ever been considered “old” by any standard. I also know how to cook. It’s fun to bring cake, carrot sticks and homemade hummus to a meeting and hear the cries of genuine gratitude from a dozen twenty-something vegans who can’t get a decent meal most places in this city. All of my work has been about feeding the earth defenders, holding hands, nurturing, reassuring, even hugging, as well as teaching empathy and first aid. And no matter what happens in the end, that endless, nearly invisible work will have gone on the same way a mother’s nurturing work goes without guarantees, just because it is needed.

  4. We knew that a thousand people wouldn’t change government climate policy, even in one tiny little Eastern European country. We were doing it because it was the only reasonable and logical thing to do. We did it to be able to get up, look at ourselves in the mirror and not sob with shame and rage.

  5. So, now we have 250 active rebels and it’s August. While I was a raw recruit in April, I am now considered a hardened elder and as such I have to play politics and fend off criticism. But I still have to get up every morning and look in the mirror. So, my reasons haven’t changed that much.

Some people have great hopes for this fall. All around the world people are gearing up and hoping for a massive uprising to force governments and corporations into real action, so that we can survive climate change.

I am among those who hope. I cannot help it. But at the same time I know that no plan survives contact with reality and that things could go haywire in a dozen different ways. It could be far bigger than we expect. It could get ugly with police or football rowdies or impatient drivers. It could be depressingly apathetic and small. We don’t know.

I also know the foibles and imperfections of humans. Extinction Rebellion has built a structure meant to foster a regenerative culture with equity, inclusion and ethics at its core. But still the people running it are just as human as the rest, coming from and living in a society that is toxic, ego-driven and unethical. Will this structure, which looks so good on a flip chart, hold? Will we live up to our ideals?

This is my note to my future self. Keep to your values. Welcome each one. Defend the vulnerable. Stand in your own strength. Seek authenticity.

Remember your reasons. Remember that we do this beyond hope, not for what it might bring in the future but for our self-respect here and now. Don’t lose sight of empathy. non-violence and love.

I will publish this at the midst of it—just before the full moon—when I will likely be too busy to write. It will be a note from the past to myself and to all those working hard the same way.

P.S. This is present-day me again. I’m glad for the reminders. There are now 400 organizers. If they all bring a friend or two, we’ll have a thousand at the big event on Saturday. But the most famous Czech pop singer has died and his memorial service will compete with our actions for media coverage. A massive soccer match will draw six thousand drunk Brits and who knows how many drunk Czechs to the city. And the local Extinction Rebellion group is fractured by factions banning this or that person, including me, from key information channels. Much of it looks like utter chaos. And yet, I have vegan chocolate cake, a fresh batch of hummus, camping chairs, a tent and first aid supplies. Come what may.

A line drawn in stone

What precisely separates Extinction Rebellion from Nazis, Stalinists and other massive, disruptive movements?

There once was a young man named Thomas who grew up in poverty and without hope, until one day a leader and a movement came and gave him hope and something to fight for.

He marched and demonstrated for a better future. He worked alongside others like him and felt the thrill of idealism and the bond of solidarity.

But his movement was the Hitler Youth. And as an old man he gave me a warning.

In another time and another place, there was a seventeen-year-old girl named Marie who followed a more decentralized, grassroots movement. She too had seen hardship and despair all around her. This movement wasn't just against something. It was for something--for equality and justice.

She knew hope and was willing to die for her cause. As an old woman living in the ashes and rubble of the Soviet Union, she showed me the Stalinist pins she collected that year she was seventeen.

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

After decades passed and the world changed, there was a young student of nineteen named Jan, idealistic, yet savvy. He'd studied all of the history and he knew to be on guard against power-hungry leaders. He beat the pavement and struggled none-the-less.

His band of anarchists and revolutionaries organized a few anti-globalization demonstrations, kept their independence and managed not to fall into the pitfalls of the past. But finally bickering and exhaustion took them down. Jan left his ideals behind and joined the exploitative world of unsustainable business-as-usual he had once raged against.

Again time rolled by and now there is a sixteen-year-old girl named Josefina wielding hope against despair. There is a movement and a stark black symbol on a flag.

This time the fight is not just against poverty, hunger and injustice, though it is about all that. It is a fight for our very lives, for the last hope of a future where our children will even be alive.

If there has ever been a worthy struggle, this is it.

All around the world, people are rallying and demanding change. I have been in activism for thirty-odd years and I have never seen a movement grow like this, doubling in weeks, raising people out of quiet backwaters in the middle of a sweltering, lazy summer to come to meetings and organize action.

i was sixteen when I met Thomas and I didn't judge him because he had never been in it for hatred and he regretted it. And because I too wished for a movement that would give me hope. I only knew I didn't want to fall for something corrupted as he had and idealism seemed a discredited thing for a lost generation.

I was twenty-five when I sat with Marie and I had been an activist but I didn't feel I belonged anywhere. A lot of my friends said they just weren't joiners, but I wanted to be a joiner. I just didn't see anything worth joining.

There were causes and activist organizations, but many of them had all the warning signs of cliquish social exclusivity, abuse of power, cult-like dynamics, unreliability, lack of accountability or demands that were either too watered down and vague or too specific and exclusionary. Even Jan's movement, though I personally liked him, had many of those flaws.

Now, I am forty-three and I stand in awe next to Josefina on the front line of an Extinction Rebellion blockade. This is where I make my stand.

Here in the Czech Republic an internet meme recently appeared showing the XR hourglass symbol with the caption: "The Nazis had the swastika. The Stalinists had the hammer. The climate-ists have this."

And most of our rebels just laughed at it. They made fun of it and passed it around on the internet as a joke. "Haha. How twisted!" But I didn't laugh.

What is it exactly that separates us from the early Nazis or Stalinists or other "idealistic" movements that went bad and turned to genocide?

We either answer that question unequivocally or we have no right to call the likes of Josefina to stand with us.

We are vast and incredibly fast growing. We are uncompromising in our convictions and we're willing to do almost anything to achieve our goals. We are willing to disrupt the lives of ordinary people.

We demand sacrifices for the greater good and for the future. We are done talking and discussing. When climate deniers come along and want to engage us in a long discussion about the science, we send them a few documents and then block them on social media if necessary.

Ain't nobody got time for that. We are in a fight for our lives and the lives of our children.

So, what is it? What makes us the good kind of massive, disruptive mob?

We are non-violent. Sure, we are, but not every climate activist is. And many an idealistic movement started out declaring non-violence. We like to talk about Gandhi and the US civil rights movement. And those are good examples but not every social movement that starts out non-violent ends that way and some end up simply being the non-violent wing of something that goes bad.

So, I don't think it is a laughing matter to ask this question. We ourselves say we are facing the very real likelihood of massive death, caused by climate change. Is it so hard to imagine that in ten years, as the crisis deepens and great numbers of people are thrown into desperation for survival, that our massive, coordinated movement could become a force for hurt?

It is not hard for me to imagine and that is why I am determined to put my energies into a safeguard.

Non-violence is a good start. But it is the concept of Regenerative Culture, developed over generations of activist experience, from the US civil rights movement to the anti-nuclear blockades in the UK, through the anti-fracking movement to today's Extinction Rebellion, that makes this movement different.

As my readers know, I'm mostly blind and I've seen my share of social exclusion and bad human behavior in my time. When I walked into my first Extinction Rebellion meeting, I had my doubts and skepticism. I'd seen enough examples of flaky, egotistical and/or slapdash activist groups to be wary.

And that first meeting blew my mind. Not only were they organized but there was a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that I have rarely encountered in groups of any kind. I didn't know it then, but that atmosphere was no accident caused by the people in the room just happening to be well-adjusted and nice.

It comes from a consciously developed and conscientiously implemented practice called "Regenerative Culture," which incorporates social inclusion, mutual support, conscious awareness, rigorous non-violent communication training, social sustainability and self care.

The concept of Regenerative Culture is not a nice, fluffy extra added onto Extinction Rebellion activities to make good atmosphere at meetings and sing songs during blockades. Instead it is the bedrock on which the foundations of the movement have been laid.

That is why we are different and as long as we don't ever lose sight of it, it will guarantee we don't go either toward tyranny or toward dissolution. At its core, Regenerative Culture is that line, a line that must be drawn in stone, not in sand.

The fact is that everyone thinks they are the good guys. Thomas thought he was just reaching for hope. Marie thought she was standing for justice. Jan was convinced that his activist group, not the one next door, was the only hope for social justice.

And in Extinction Rebellion we are equally convinced that we are right. We have now ninety-nine percent of climate scientists saying we are correct that human activities are destabilizing our climate, that this will have devastating and lethal effects and that we have a few short years to change course. We have reason to be staunch in our convictions.

The difference lies in how we treat one another first and second how we treat others.

The elements of Regenerative Culture are:

  • Non-violence in action

  • Non-violent communication

  • Respectful behavior toward all, including those who insult, jail, beat or kill us

  • Mutual support materially and emotionally

  • Acceptance of everyone and every part of every one

  • No shame and no blame

  • Rotating roles of power

  • A focus on amplifying the voices of underrepresented population groups

  • Self-care and prevention of burn-out

It is impossible to convey the entirety of Regenerative Culture in one post. I will be posting more about this, including this week’s post on conflict resolution in groups for inclusive resistance, social justice and environmental defense here.

Talking to journalists:

A guide for direct action participants

If you are part of a direct action you may be approached by journalists. Whatever the goal of your action, you have some sort of message for the public. Your main target may be the government or a company but your second target is ALWAYS the public. Journalists are a stand-in for the public, whether we like it or not. Therefore, it is very important to know how to get your message across to journalists.

Before your action consider these things:

  1. Do you want all participants to talk to journalists or will you politely redirect journalists to your organizer?

  2. What is the most important goal of your action? What do you want? Make sure you can say it easily in one or two sentences.

  3. What is your message for the public? Remember that when you talk to journalists, you are also talking to average, uninformed people listening to or reading a news report. Some of them will actually want to know your message and support you. Treat them kindly.


When journalists approach you, try to figure out what kind of press they are. There are three types of press:

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

  1. Friendly press: Those who already agree with you or share your values, even if they don’t know who you or your organization is specifically. They will help you if they reasonably can.

  2. Hostile press: Those who have already set their minds against you and your values or which view your organization negatively for political, financial or other reasons. They will use whatever they can against you, including your silence or dismissal. 

  3. Uncommitted press: Those who have not openly taken a side for or against you and which may either be indecisive or trying to appear objective. There are no objective people. We all have sub-conscious assumptions and values. Uncommitted press will usually try to listen to your message, but they owe you nothing and they are often most interested in controversy and shocking details.

How to talk to the different types of press in order to get your message across to the public and to your specific targets through the media:

Friendly press

These journalists may happily publish your message and even specific information like your demands or the date and location of your next public event. It is important to be concise and clear. Keep your details in order and have your main message in written form to give to them. You cannot assume they know when the big action day is, no matter how much you have publicized it.

You don’t need to pander to them, but don’t take them for granted either. If you have time, you can give them interviews and even include some of your personal feelings.

It is better to avoid talking about organizational problems or internal conflicts. Uninformed people are always your audience and if you portray your organization as disorganized, it takes credibility away from your justification for disruptive direct actions. Finally, note that some hostile press might pretend to be friendly press in order to make satirical reports about you.

Hostile press

There are different types of hostile press. They may politically disagree. Their owners or major advertisers may be financially against your goals. They may be frightened and conservative with a lot of false assumptions about you. It is easy to think you should not talk to hostile press at all. However, it is important to remember that if they have come out publicly to talk to you they will probably publish or broadcast something from your action. And ultimately when you speak to them, you are speaking to their audience.\

If you react angrily to a rude and offensive journalist, thousands of people watching the video of your reaction will feel that you are angry at them or disrespect them. So, don’t engage too much with hostile press. They will use just about anything they can against you. Give your two-sentence statement of what you want and then a one sentence message for the public. Repeat it if they ask you for more. Be polite but firm.

Uncommitted press

These journalists may have false assumptions about you, your organization or your cause gained from those who are hostile toward you or simply from information confusion. If they state something incorrectly or show an incorrect assumption, resist the temptation to give a frustrated or irritable response, even if you have heard it many times.

Remember that uncommitted press may know very little about your goals or message. They may jump to false conclusions without meaning to. They will often be looking for what is most shocking and outrageous. You can use that to your advantage at times with creative actions, but it can also hurt you if what they get stuck on is some trash that fell out of your bag.  

Be ready to state what you want clearly in two sentences. Add a one sentence message to the public if you can. Avoid talking about organizational problems or disagreements within your movement. If asked about another faction that is pursuing the same goals as you, it is best to be vaguely supportive and avoid criticizing other groups, beyond stating your clear differences, such as, “We are non-violent. They may have similar goals but because they do not abide by non-violence, they are not part of our movement.”

Uncommitted press thrive on controversy and they will often look for controversy within your movement, which can be very harmful to your outreach and your message to the public. If asked to give personal feelings, you can state your emotions. “I’m sad.” “I’m very worried.” “I’m so angry!” Psychology tells us that if ordinary people hear you state your emotions starting with the word “I” they will be naturally empathetic. It is much more difficult when you have to accuse someone who is doing harm. It is good to start it with “I,” such as “I am angry that….” or “I am sad that our prime minister won’t do anything about this crisis.”

Finally:

Look at the camera, rather than the interviewer when possible. Avoid using words you wouldn’t want a six-year-old you loved hearing. And enunciate, particularly in crowds!

Trust... or the art of life amid crisis

I know how to trust.

Really I do. When I was younger, I traveled all over the world, met people who I didn’t share a language with and trusted them with my safety. I told people my story, my life, my vulnerability. I got rejected a lot or found that my story wasn’t important. And still I kept on being “naive.”

My children seem to be trying to train me not to trust. Since they grew out of toddlerhood and got past the stair gates, they have been getting into things, raiding the cupboards for slime-making ingredients, sneaking treats before dinner, hiding their dirty clothes and jumbled toys in the most ingenious places to avoid cleaning their rooms and memorizing my phone password every chance they get. I have learned that part of trust is trusting that kids will try to get sweets. electronics, dangerous chemicals and matches as soon as your back is turned.

Chick bird spring vulnerability trust - CC image via pixabay.jpg

Trust, in reality, means that if I give my first kid money to go to the store and buy bread and an ice cream, there is likely to be an armload of the worst junk food coming. If I give the money to the other kid, the money has a 50 percent chance of being lost on the way to the corner shop, but if it doesn’t get lost, the bread will come back along with a receipt for the devoured ice cream. Or at least the receipt will start the journey home.

But then again either might not happen. Nothing is guaranteed.

After many years break from community life and activism, I have joined an activist group again, this time focused on demanding emergency action on climate change from governments and corporations. It is a decentralized organization and yet one focused on coordinated, efficient and sometimes even risky action. It is also incredibly diverse, spanning the political spectrum and socioeconomic ladder. I sit next to students, psychologists, IT professionals, teachers and fast food employees in meetings. We don’t know each other and in order to accomplish the enormous task before us, we must trust each other.

I have to trust that our fellows will:

  • do what they promised, so that I can do my part in the work without having to wait too long on them,

  • not betray confidences to those that might stand against us,

  • forego temptations to pursue personal agendas that might harm our cause,

  • be honest,

  • care,

  • and not make careless mistakes that may endanger us all.

It is no small thing. I can see why a lot of people say they aren’t “joiners.” I am still more “naive” than most and the initial trust is not that hard for me. I trust that almost all of my fellows are good, conscientious and kind. I also trust that they are overwhelmed and busy. I trust that they will make mistakes and forget important tasks. And I trust that someday one of the few who are not conscientious will turn out to be an informant planted by institutions bent on bringing us down.

I am certain it will happen. But I also know that worrying about it will do little good.

After all this, you’d think I had trust down. But I don’t.

Recently someone in authority within the organization came to my group and asked us to do something that sounds like it could destroy much of the gains we have made over the past weeks. This person did not give details and insisted that authority and the traditions of the organization dictate that we must abide by these decisions.

I am confused. This is supposed to be a decentralized movement. How then, can we find ourselves under direct orders, required to follow instructions without understanding the reasoning? And part of the answer given is that things are bigger than we can see in the international movement. There are urgent actions needed for our goal and like soldiers on the front lines, there are times when we have to take orders as a matter of survival. Our mission to avert climate change is a matter of survival after all.

So, I am in a crisis of trust.

It would be immensely comforting to have a leader I could trust implicitly and automatically. That’s what my fiction is about. If you’ve read the Kyrennei series… well, I wish I had a Jace McCoy. But I don’t. We almost never do in the real world.

The reason Jace McCoy in the story—and his co-leader Dasha, for that matter—is so trusted and has the unswerving loyalty of J. Company is that he has been successful where so many others have failed. He has survived 40 years of guerrilla warfare against an immense foe. His gambles have almost always been right and he is a brilliant strategist and tactician. His people know that.

But they weren’t born knowing it. Each of them went through a process of becoming so loyal, including Aranka Miko. And in the end, he proves that her trust is warranted, no matter the cost to him personally.

Okay, that’s fantasy fiction. But that is why I wrote it. As dark as the Kyrennei series seems on some levels, it is actually a comforting fantasy to many. It is about the hope that we could have such trust among us in crisis.

And today there is no doubt that we are in a crisis of survival. I remember reading about the greenhouse effect in third grade science class in 1985. And now climate change is at the door and very little has been done since I was a kid to avert the looming disaster. Reports coming from scientists are increasingly desperate and our daily lives are being affected in ever increasing ways.

So, we need people willing to take risks and go into a massive struggle. We may not have a Jace McCoy but we do almost have a J. Company. There is one group that has achieved significant real results in forcing governments to take urgent action and that is the growing international movement of Extinction Rebellion. The structure and principles of this organization have been tried… maybe not for forty years, but they have been tested and have come through better than any of the many other organizations that have attempted this task. There is even a real-world sixteen-year-old prophetic voice of hope, just as in the my fantasy.

And yet I know that people are terribly imperfect. What I see right in front of me is a community movement poised at a fragile moment in new country and a leader with a heavy-hand and a plan that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t appear to follow the Extinction Rebellion model faithfully. And I am asked to believe that this leader is the genuine article. But I’ve only been with them for a few weeks.

Trust does not come easy this time, not even for me.

The morning after all this cames down I ventured outside to take a break from the messages online that bring troubling news. It’s chilly and bright with a stiff wind dropping the last of the blackberry blossoms.

And there in the duck house I found a miracle that I only thought might possibly occur. Baby chicks.

You see I have big black hens of the Australorp breed and I love them for many reasons. They’re hardy, have good homing instincts and they lay a lot of beautiful, large eggs with pale shells that come in handy for spring painting as well as eating. But they have one problematic breed characteristic. They are bad mothers. Apparently some people don’t think so, but my hens have shown absolutely no interest in sitting on their eggs in three years.

So, early this spring when one of the Indian Runner ducks that guard my vegetable garden against slugs started brooding and sitting on eggs, I replaced her eggs with the Australorp eggs. I have no male ducks, so she wouldn’t be able to have any ducklings, no matter how hard she sat on her duck eggs.

It was a fly-by-night experiment and I didn’t really think it would work. I also miscalculated how soon to expect the chicks and so I was completely unprepared for their appearance. The duck pen had not been secured and the chicks scattered out through the large holes in the wire fence into the empty lot next door. The adoptive mother duck could not follow them and she was frantic, calling them and flapping her wings, but the chicks ignored her.

I went out and waded through the knee high patch of giant nettles to herd the chicks back into the pen. Then I spent the next two hours shoring up the pen and catching stray chicks, which I could hear but couldn’t see because I’m ninety percent blind.

It would have been comic had anyone been watching me gingerly chase baby chicks around the yard while being careful not to step on those that stopped and curled into little gray balls. Oh yes, Australorp chicks are not handily yellow. They’re gray.

When I finally had everything that peeped contained, I peeked inside the coop. One of the chicks had fallen into the large water dish meant for adult ducks and was struggling to get out. The mother duck, thinking she had a duckling on her hand, was watching fondly, apparently assuming it was time for him to learn to swim.

I reached in to help the poor little chick out of the water but the mother duck struck at my hand with the speed and force of a rattlesnake. I jerked my hand back with a yelp of pain. I talked to her soothingly but continued to watch the chick, which was not drowning but should not be in cold water at all. Finally I made another attempt and earned a nasty bruise for my trouble.

Despite all my help in rounding up her adopted babies the mother duck was nowhere close to trusting me.

But my faith in the powers of life and mother nature was somewhat restored, even so. I could now ponder my own situation a bit more philosophically.

In some ways, I am like the mother duck. I have found something I passionately believe in and I have young, timid volunteers lining up with desperate hope in their voices. And anyone who looks like they might threaten that is libel to get bruised. I’m not particularly in the mood to take chances.

The tough little Australorp chick managed to get him or her own self out of the water dish and snuggle back into the mother’s warm feathers. He was still alive the next day.

I rigged up a small water feeder for the baby chicks in hopes that they would stay out of the adult water dish and made sure they had chick food. Each day I visit them several times, because the mother duck tends to accidentally upset the baby water container.

She doesn’t seem to be putting the chicks into the water as she might with ducklings. She’s keeping them warm and protected from the cold spring wind. And now she only hisses at me when I reach in to change the water and food containers.

Trust comes hard in these times. But I still believe in it, at least in theory.

An antidote to environmental depression

All I had to go on was a vague and anonymous Facebook notification. I followed my Maps app to the address but got lost when some of the Renaissance-era buildings weren’t numbered. A young Vietnamese immigrant with a child on her hip set me straight.

Finally, there was a sheet of paper taped to the mail box of a building in a narrow Prague street. A large Dagaz rune (which Ralph Blum called Breakthrough) tipped sideways was printed on the paper and repeated on one of the doorbells. It’s supposed to be a stylized hourglass, but my first impression was of the rune and a surprising good omen.

I rang, but there was no answer.

I gently pushed and the heavy wooden door creaked open. Inside was a dim hallway, like so many in the ancient city. A decorative railing ran around a spiral stairway and light filtered down from sunbeams coming through windows somewhere far overhead.

I passed a young man with long hair to the middle of his back, but then hesitated, glancing back at him. Prague is the kind of place where one might find new friends in a dimly lit stairwell.

“Are you with us?” he asked softly in Czech, addressing me in the informal grammar reserved for close family and friends..

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

“Probably.” I grinned, “if you’re the meeting.”

“Go right up,” he nodded and the welcome in his voice was again almost shocking to my battered nerves, accustomed to the acrimony and judgement so rampant in today’s society.

The sunlit room upstairs was filled with more of the same, open hands reaching to bring me into the circle, smiles and enthusiastic voices. I had come prepared for cynicism, long arguments, social cliques, power trips, poorly hidden political agendas and all the other problems that have plagued activism circles for decades. This friendly reception was already more than I’d hoped for, but would it turn out to be just a shiny package for the same old dead ends?

I took a seat and watched as the meeting unfolded. Someone took the lead but then quickly passed the speaking role to another. Everyone was introduced in 10 minutes. The agenda was on a board with precise times that were kept without strain. Plans and methods were explained with professional clarity as well as with heart. We broke into groups to discuss specific projects.

I have rarely seen an activist meeting run so well, reaching goal after goal with no sense of rush.

Activism? Who has time for that nonsense these days, you might well ask.

The focus of this group is no mystery—taking real, practical action to force government agencies and industry to behave responsibly on the climate crisis. It was nothing short of our survival at stake and for once the activist proposals were not merely about leaflets or poetry slams or rallies. The work on the table was practical resistance to destruction.

Instead of being frustrated by a long, acrimonious meeting and incremental pace as I had in countless community organizations before, I had to question whether or not I was ready to jump into this swift flowing stream.

This was my first Extinction Rebellion meeting—out on the expanding fringe of the movement in Eastern Europe. And I had to hand it to them. Excellent organization. Solid tactics. Laser-focused goals. And the flexibility to learn in a new country.

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

I have been struggling with deep environmental depression for years now. And a lot of that really is environmental—as in ecological. I grow my garden, hoard rain water, ride the train, recycle, try to speak up and all that. But it is clearly ineffective. For the past few years, I have looked for organizations to join off and on, but they were either inaccessible, just plain lazy or more serious about their donor’s goals than the real work at hand.

Keeping hope had become a chore. And a lot of serious environmentalists today have a lot of unpleasant things to say about hope.

So, is Extinction Rebellion just a bunch of well-organized naive idealists?

I might have thought so from just the one meeting. But deeper research reveals a strong foundation in realism and practicality. The movement is spread through local talks or lectures that summarize the status of climate science, describe the mounting effects of climate change and then outline the demands and strategy of the Rebellion. It’s a surprisingly anti-inflammatory, technical lecture to spread a revolution.

But even with level-headed words the scientific conclusions are pretty depressing. At the end of the talk, an opinion is given about whether or not we can still avert the worst effects of climate change even if we can generate the “political will.” The scientific jury seems to still be out on that. But there are plenty of reasons to believe we might not be able to stop a climate catastrophe that will seriously endanger our way of life and civilization no matter what we do today.

In the context of a motivational talk, this isn’t a logical way to convince masses of people. We are told that political and industrial leaders are ignoring the crisis and our best hope is to force them to pay attention and act through non-violent civil resistance. Yet we don’t even know whether or not it is already too late for them to avert disaster before they’ve even meaningfully started.

Still it’s real and honest.

Why do anything if the cause may well be hopeless? The Extinction Rebellion response is a question, “What does it mean to be human today?”

For me, it is about the quality of whatever life we have left. I have a choice. I can either live in a fog of depression and anxiety or I can do what needs to be done because it needs doing. Taking steps in the right direction is the only way out of depression I know of.

If that isn’t exactly a rousing pep talk, then so be it. Maybe the Rebellion is already rubbing off on me.

To my newfound co-conspirators in rebellion, I’ll give you some fair warning. I’m socially awkward, even a dork. I don’t do modern fashions. I can’t recognize faces and I can’t run as fast as I used to. I sometimes speak before I think and my daily life is pretty rugged at the moment.

But I have been in this kind of struggle before. I know about walking miles to distribute fliers and about herding cats. I know about long nights and the times when a lot of work goes for naught. I’m worth having around. I pack a good herbal first-aid kit and I’ve usually got food if you’re batteries are running low.

I have also always wanted to end my conversations and posts this way:

Love and courage! .

Something worth saving

There seems to be stiff competition in any contemporary discussion of climate change to see who can be the most demoralizing.

It may not always be conscious but if you’ve joined many of these discussions, you will know what I mean. You have the harried, frantic campaigners, struggling to put the latest data into scientifically correct but humanly relatable disaster scenarios to motivate the apathetic masses. There are the still uninformed, who have somehow managed to get through elementary school and at least several years of modern life without paying attention.

Then of course, there are the denialists, who buck science and insist that because some scientist somewhere was wrong about something, climate change predictions are clearly wrong. Some of those are wishful, magical thinkers. Some are cynical manipulators who have a plan for getting theirs while the getting’s good.

Greta Thunberg - Image from Greta Thunberg on Twitter

Greta Thunberg - Image from Greta Thunberg on Twitter

And there are the prophets of the apocalypse with theories about gasses released from under melting glaciers and tipping points. They claim they are certain we have only a few more years to live no matter what we do. It’s hopeless and no carbon-cutting measures matter in the slightest. All the while these prophets of doom are still having children and paying for their children’s college educations. Most of them are also doing it without much attempt to reduce their carbon footprint.

Finally, there is always someone ready to say humanity doesn’t deserve to be saved, whether we can or not. And that’s usually the point in the conversation where everyone either drifts away or descends into verbal trench warfare.

That cynicism pervades a lot of society, even beyond any considerations of environmental or social collapse. Post-modernism insisted that we grow up and cast off idealistic dreams of equality and interconnection. Now we are post-post-modern. Anything less than jaded nihilism is regarded as childish. And this self-righteous cynicism is taken to the point of illogical absurdities to avoid anything that smacks of vulnerability.

In this stifling morass, what could possibly provide any air movement, much less a breath of fresh air?

Well, something both childish and utterly logical, of course.

What is both childish and logical? It sounds like the first line of a weird joke. But the world actually got a real-life answer some months ago.

Greta Thunberg.

If you believe in science, imagine what a young, very intelligent, scientific and utterly logical mind must make of our world. For most of us, it doesn’t really bear contemplating for long. If stark reality were to be seen clearly by a very young person without any of the padding of social distractions and peer conformity, the result would have to be insanity.

When Greta Thunberg, a little girl in Sweden, first learned about climate change as a bright eight-year-old she was confused. Something didn’t add up. Her science books clearly marked out a problem with devastating consequences and a theoretical solution. It showed that adults all over the world knew all of this, and yet Greta heard no one talking about it. And she saw adults going about business as usual as if no such crisis existed, only occasionally putting something into a recycling bin.

Greta Thunberg - climate, environment, children, empowererment - from Twitter account 2.jpg

She went to her parents and then to teachers and finally to scientists a seeking the missing piece—something that would tell her it wasn’t really true, something that would explain the silence and lack of action she observed among adults.

Many children may have felt this disconnect, but they also feel the frustration and difficulty of acting outside of social norms. And that explains to them well enough why their elders dither. Greta has Asperger Syndrome, a neuro-diverse condition, which often results in a very logical outlook, great attention to detail and difficulty understanding social rituals and conventions.

Greta is that theoretical example of a logical, yet freshly innocent mind made flesh. Her initial reaction was sickness. She developed OCD and selective mutism. She was withdrawn and apparently disillusioned by age eleven.

But eventually she won a writing competition and became involved with a youth environmental group planning climate actions. During a phone meeting, she supported the idea of a school strike for the climate. If the kids really believed that their entire future rested on this issue, she reasoned, solving it should logically take precedence over education and everything else.

If science is real, why aren’t we acting like it?

But she couldn’t get support for the idea from others. A school strike required a lot of commitment and very likely some unpleasant consequences. Even though the other kids were activists, they weren’t there yet. They focused on organizing more standard demonstrations and Greta dropped out of the group.

Most kids—almost every kid—faced with their idea rejected by a group of friendly peers would be willing to let it go. But Greta, whether because of Asperger or because of utter personal stubbornness, didn’t care.

Last August, when her school year started, she didn’t go to school. Instead she took a small sign and went to sit by a wall outside the Swedish Parliament building. She was on strike.

I remember seeing the early images of her sitting there, knees drawn up to her chin. She is in ninth grade this year. One kid. Alone.

I was an activist inclined kid. I know all too well what it is like to have idea after idea shot down. I might well have proposed such a thing as a teenager. I too am often accused of being too logical, too brutally real. I was also a loner, willing to stand out from the crowd. I instantly respected her and recognized her.

But when I saw her there alone, I thought, she was sweet and sad. And I thought she didn’t have a prayer. One kid. Alone. The news media will do a spot on that, because she’s cute and the world will move on, I thought. That’s one reason I have never done anything like that—completely alone—even though I’ve been sorely tempted.

The difference with Greta is that she just did it. And damn the social reaction.

It didn’t matter that no one supported her or joined her at first. It didn’t matter whether or not her solitary protest would make any difference.

You can imagine what it would be like for a kid—in today’s fast-paced, entertainment-focused world—to sit there all day. Not playing on a phone, just sitting and looking at people with her sign, occasionally handing out fliers.

All day? Try five weeks.

This is what makes me stop breathing for a moment. She not only did it, did what very few of us would even consider doing. She did it for five weeks.

Some people supported her. Some attacked her. She was told that she should stay in her place. She was told she should go to school and become a scientist if she cared. She was accused of being a slacker. She was accused of being a paid activist, trying to milk people concerned about environmental issues.

Science already tells us what we need to know. We have less than a decade to change. We don’t need Greta to be a scientist to fix this. She knows it. And we know it.

She writes, “Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we have ever faced and it’s going to take everything from our part to ‘stop it’. But the solution is black and white; we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases. Because either we limit the warming to 1,5 degrees C over pre industrial levels, or we don’t. Either we reach a tipping point where we start a chain reaction with events way beyond human control, or we don’t. Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival.”

She got plenty of hate mail and in her responses on social media, you can tell she is vulnerable. It hurts her. She is a kid who has been excluded and bullied in some social situations because she was different. There isn’t one Asperger kid who hasn’t been.

But her response, unscripted and in her own slightly Euro-English diction, is the one thing I think might still save us: “Recently I’ve seen many rumors circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate. This is no surprise to me. I know that since most people are not aware of the full meaning of the climate crisis (which is understandable since it has never been treated as a crisis) a school strike for the climate would seem very strange to people in general.”

Instead of giving back hate for hate. She gives back comprehension for why others are uninformed.

Greta posts on Twitter and Facebook, stating her truth in her own words: “Many people love to spread rumors saying that I have people ‘behind me’ or that I’m being ‘paid’ or ‘used’ to do what I’m doing. But there is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself. My parents were as far from climate activists as possible before I made them aware of the situation.

I am not part of any organization. I sometimes support and cooperate with several NGOs that work with the climate and environment. But I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself.”

Greta says her actions were partly inspired by the students of Parkland and their activism for gun control in the United States. Because of social media, she in turn was seen and heard far beyond what my jaded assumptions where early on. Now, half a year later, there are demonstrations of tens of thousands in mid-sized cities all over Western Europe, primarily led by teenage girls, inspired by Greta.

The demonstrations in major cities, like Paris, have been twice and three times larger than the more widely reported “yellow vest” protests that struck down some climate friendly measures. The mainstream media has largely ignored this response but it continues to grow. In the US, the response has taken the form of groups of kids visiting Congressional offices and demanding support for the Green New Deal.

Will this change every thing? Did Greta single-handedly push us into a new era.

I hope so. But I doubt it.

If the media continues to ignore the amazing response to her strike by young people across Europe and the United States, then it may well fizzle within another year.

I too am overly logical and I am older. I’ve seen how activist things work and what it takes to last. I’m realistic.

But there is one thing that Greta did that will never be wiped away. She gave me the certain knowledge that there is something in the younger generation worth saving. Now when I see the spiraling mess of climate change discussions with the usual race for the bottom of cynicism and disillusionment, I think of Greta and the rest of it becomes obsolete.

She went to the Davos climate meeting and she told world leaders, “When I say that I want you to panic I mean that we need to treat the crisis as a crisis.”

It took 1,500 airline flights to get delegates to Davos, a sizable climate impact. It took Greta a 32-hour train ride. She never lets up with that logical approach.

Exclusion: The abled-privilege knapsack

Shutting down "the privilege Olympics"  should not be code for "screw the disabled"

You too are wearing an invisible knapsack. 

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh explained white privilege in terms of an invisible knapsack filled with unearned benefits and assets that white people carry with them almost entirely regardless of class, economic status, citizenship or other conditions.

It's a good analogy. I am now much more aware of my knapsack of white privilege and I can observe the effects of its contents on a daily basis. 

I have never seen a similar analogy used to describe abled privilege, but it is time someone did. In the last few years the necessity of acknowledging abled privilege has been shoved in my face ever more frequently. Even in social justice circles where such things are typically read, people with disabilities are continually being marginalized and silenced.

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

It is worth noting from the beginning that people carrying the white-privilege knapsack but not the abled-privilege knapsack or visa versa might well enjoy some of the benefits of the one they do hold, but there are assets in both of these knapsacks that are very difficult to enjoy if you don't have the corresponding assets in the other knapsack.

So, as a white woman brought up to be aware of white privilege, I can pick out instances of white privilege that I enjoy. These are not so much unearned privileges as they are privileges earned by every human but accorded only to those who are white--the privilege of driving or walking without a well-founded fear of being accosted by law enforcement for trivial or non-existant reasons or the privilege of relaxing into a social situation in which my race and culture is in the majority most of the time.

Having children who are not white has taught me even more about my own privilege and a few privileges I gave up by being part of a racially mixed family, such as losing the ability to shelter my children from the societal realities of racism and the very real dangers they face because of it. 

However, there are some assets in the white knapsack that I have pulled out broken or severely dented because of my disability. Unlike most white people, I am beset daily by the assumptions and prejudices of others, both unconscious and conscious. I rarely to through a day without being yelled at in public and someone pushes my "difference" in my face at every turn. 

I was once told explicitly that I was denied a job that I was qualified for because of my disability and I have wondered about the reasons behind many other rejections. I have faced social isolation, rejecting neighbors and hostile school teachers as well as accusations of stealing in stores.

I do not claim that it is the same as what people of color face. In fact, I know it is not the same. But people of color who are not disabled do also enjoy privileges that I cannot.

Please note that this inventory has very little to do with the actual health problems people with disabilities may have. It has everything to do with society’s reaction to and ultimate rejection of us. The benefits of privilege represent the minimum of respect earned by every human being from birth and this is true of abled privilege as well. It is our right to be treated with respect and dignity, to have opportunities and to be judged by our actions rather than by attributes we cannot choose.

So, here is an inventory of the abled-privilege knapsack with some prompts drawn from McIntosh's essay and the writings of Emestine Hayes.

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

If you are temporarily abled, you are wearing an invisible knapsack and in it you will find:

  • You can, if you wish, arrange to be in the company of people who view your physical body and neurological setup as normal and acceptable pretty much all the time.

  • You can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper or open a random Google search and see people of your shape or appearance widely represented.

  • You can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people that look vaguely like you.

  • Your body shape is reflected in media, movies, books, magazines, online and in most people's imagination as good and capable, even if sometimes not perfect. As a result, while you may have insecurities or anxieties about your looks, they are not a barrier to social interaction.

  • Beauty, handsomeness, masculinity and femininity are personified by people of your general appearance and body shape. 

  • You can be fairly sure of having your voice heard in a group, even if most of the group has different abilities, body shape and speech from yours.

  • Authority most often rests in people who look like, speak like and perceive the world like you.

  • You do not need to make an in-depth study of the social habits and customary communication methods of your immediate neighbors in order to avoid daily conflicts of misunderstanding and unintended offense. 

  • You can criticize the government and talk about how difficult it is to access basic services without being seen as a moocher, a whiner, ungrateful or a burden. 

  • You can go home from most meetings of organizations you belong to and social gatherings you attend feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, rejected, unwanted, unheard, barred at a distance, or dismissed.

  • You can attire yourself, if you choose, in a way that most people in your community seeing you and hearing you speak will assume that you are capable, responsible and trustworthy until proven otherwise. If you happen to belong to a group where this is not always true, a community of people who do look and sound like you and where you would be respected and trusted does exist somewhere in the world. Even if you don't live there, the knowledge that such a community exists bolsters your courage and self-confidence and in most cases you could move to such a community if outside pressure became too intense.

  • People make eye-contact with you and you are able to make eye contact with them. People make small-talk with you and you are able to make small talk with them. This initial social contact often leads to social connections, builds bridges and defuses potential conflicts. 

  • While you may have been teased at school, your chances of suffering from extreme bullying or complete social isolation in childhood are dramatically reduced. Your chances of suffering from PTSD and other acquired barriers to communication with others are significantly reduced.

  • Teachers at schools and universities almost always look like, speak like and perceive the world like you do.

  • The vast majority of students and teachers all through the education system sense the world, communicate and access textual materials in the same way that you do.

  • The entire education system is custom made and designed with scientific precision to benefit your type of brain and calibrated to meet the needs of your particular senses.

  • The language and writing system of your culture was designed by and for people who communicate and perceive language in the same ways that you do.

  • Public buildings, including schools, were built using models of your body, to make them comfortable and easily accessible to you.

  • You have probably not been called a burden. You were not called a burden to your school while you pursued your education.

  • If you are denied employment for which you are qualified, you can be pretty sure it isn't because of an attribute you did not choose and which does not affect your job performance.

  • If you are given an award, you can be pretty sure it is something you deserved rather than a publicity stunt by the patron of the award. 

  • You can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that you got it because of disability hiring incentives.

  • If your day, week, or year is going badly, you need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it is disability related.

  • You can choose public accommodations without fearing that you cannot enter or will be treated with disrespect in the places you have chosen.

  • When you plan social engagements, your way of getting to and into the venue is the same as that of most of your friends and you don't need to strategize, beg for assistance from friends or go to extreme expense to get to or enter the social venues your peers take for granted. 

  • You can always ensure that your living, schooling, work and or social environment will be among people you can communicate with and among which you will be considered "normal" if you desire.

  • You can always find a living, schooling, work or social venue that you can physically access and fully participate in locally if you desire. 

  • If you should need to move, you can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing which you can afford and which you can personally enter and use fully and from which you can get to schools and places of employment.

  • You can be pretty sure that your neighbors in such a location will view you as a full adult, if you are over 18 years old. .

  • You can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that you will be able to access merchandise and that a reasonable portion of it will fit you and be usable by you.

  • Whether you use checks, credit cards or cash, you can count on not being infantilized, shamed or dismissed by cashiers and other people you interact with in public..

  • You can arrange to protect yourself from harm most of the time.

  • You are twenty percent more likely to finish high school than a person with a disability who has similar intelligence. You are twice as likely to finish college.

  • You are at least three times as likely to have any sort of job than a person with a disability and much more likely to have a job that is of some interest to you, that provides some social prestige, that pays your bills and in which you can progress for a career.

  • You are half as likely to be hungry as a disabled person. 

  • You are a third as likely to be a victim of sexual assault and half as likely to be a victim of violent crime as a person with a disability from a similar social or economic group and geographical area. You are half as likely to be a victim of domestic violence.

  • You are twice as likely to have family and friends nearby or who you can contact in an emergency. You are likely to have a circle of friends to enjoy leisure time with and to network with for mutual benefit.

  • You are twice as likely to have a long-term relationship. You are many times more likely to have children.

  • You can swear or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer letters without having people automatically assume these choices indicate low intelligence, shaky mental state or poverty.

  • You can be temporarily out of work or sick without being called a burden or assumed to be unemployable.

  • You can do well in a challenging situation without being called "an inspiration" or used to further the religious or social agendas of others without your consent.

  • With education and credentials, you could become an an acknowledged expert on people who look, speak and perceive the world differently from you and you would not be asked why you did not choose to study your own group.

I am sure I have missed some. It's a large knapsack after all. 

This is one of those posts that will inevitably draw flack. It isn't that I don't care. I have simply decided that the amount of verbal shrapnel I'm getting in "progressive" circles these days for being an uppity person with a disability has reached a point where the potential flack from this post won't be a significant change. 

So let me lay it out there. I am sick of the dismissal of people with disabilities in activist circles. I am sick of being told, "you are white so you need to practice being silent for a while," when I have been silenced, dismissed and sidelined my entire life.

I am sick to exhaustion of being excluded, rejected and sidelined in supposedly progressive groups because I didn't take an insult or bullying in silence and answered back withotu profanity, without insults but nonetheless with unpalatable truth. . 

I get what people of color, indigenous people, speakers of languages other than English and people living in absolute poverty are talking about when it comes to wanting those with privilege to stop yammering about their perspective on society, their perspective on history, their perspective on underrepresented people and their perspective on social justice long enough to listen to the perspectives of those less heard.

I get it because while I have the privileges in the white-privilege knapsack, the English-speaker's knapsack and the resources-beyond-bare-survival knapsack, these are usually not enough to be heard without abled privilege. 

This is not "the Privilege Olympics." It is not a matter of whose usurped privilege is worse. It is almost always so different that it cannot be compared. Still mentioning "the Privilege Olympics" or equivalent is routinely used to dismiss and marginalize people with disabilities in activist circles.

We have huge, life-threatening threats to people of color. The crises for people of color are so extreme in some places that there can be no other priorities or even distractions.

Many of us, myself included, have agreed to this, stepped back and ceded precedence because while there are life-threatening and devastating issues for people with disabilities as well, the numbers seem to indicate that our problems are at least statistically less severe. We activists with disabilities have often felt that we can wait a little while and trust that our progressive activist communities would do their best to include us in the meantime. 

But that trust has been misplaced. 

Not once but again and again. Not only do people with disabilities encounter a lot of social exclusion, bullying and discrimination in society at large, we encounter much the same atmosphere inside social justice organizations and groups claiming to be against bigotry and hate. 

My experiences and the experiences of those I have spoken with are clear. People with disabilities are welcome in these groups primarily as mascots or symbols. We are not respected for in our fields of expertise and study. We are often silenced and rarely given a voice. 

I've been told that my voice and experience are not welcome in progressive and social justice groups on multiple occasions. Usually this was not specifically because of my disability but rather because of my race. I was told that as a white person I am privileged and my role is not to speak. As a blind person, however, given that no other people with disabilities were present or given a voice, I felt that our voice was needed. 

I have been rejected quickly from several groups when my politely phrased protestations against being silenced were regarded as going against group authority. I never used profanity or insults against others in my responses. I did not talk over others but only refused to be entirely silent.

For that reason, this inventory of the abled-privilege backpack is necessary. I welcome any additions that others may find while rummaging through it. 

Make a scene: From bystander to assertive witness

At dusk on Monday evening, I set out for the ESL class I teach a mile and half from home. I rode the diminutive two-wheeled electric scooter that I use to get into town, puttering around the corner by the store run by a Vietnamese family.

I can't drive a car or ride a bike in traffic because I'm legally blind. I can see well enough to navigate safely at walking speed on the sidewalk but not much more. And due to a joint and bone condition I can't walk more than half a mile without intense pain that lasts two days. So the scooter is the best way for me to get around.

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

As I passed the store an angry shout stopped me. "Get off the sidewalk, you stupid cow! You get in the road, right now!" A man was screaming at me in a harsh, ragged voice from a house across the street. 

I knew even then that most people would say I should ignore him and keep going. But as soon as the words hit home, I couldn't hear or see, even as well as I normally can. I recognized the symptoms of a PTSD trigger and struggled to fight the wave of dizziness and disorientation. That meant first I had to stop to avoid running into a lamppost.

"I'm calling the police! You should be arrested, you pig! Get off the sidewalk with that scooter!" The man was still yelling. And I had heard the same thing from another man just last week. In this small town, rumor travels fast and there seems to be an epidemic of people accosting me about my mobility device. 

To be clear, I have been very careful in the year since I've had this scooter. I've never come close to bumping a pedestrian, even though many of our sidewalks are no more than a foot wide. A wheelchair or a standard disability scooter with three or four wheels could not navigate on the sidewalks here and the few people who use such devices travel in traffic. But the traffic is also very bad, crowded and fast. It isn't safe for a person who can't see well. I have small children who still need an adult to accompany them to school. I have no real choice about whether I use the scooter or where I use it.

I have been afraid that people would judge me harshly and so I have made an effort to yield to anyone else on the sidewalk and to go extra slow around dogs and small children. Yet finally my fears have been realized and s group of people are lobbying the city to forbid me to use any wheeled mobility device on the sidewalks. 

"Do you want me to come down there and push you into the road!" The belligerent man threatened. 

I know what my husband and my friends would say. "Just ignore them. Mainly, don't make a scene. Whatever you do, just don't make a scene."

"I can't ride in traffic. I'm visually impaired," I finally called over to the man.

"Then stay the f--k home!" he fumed. "I'm dialing the police right now!"

"Fine. I'll show them my disability ID," I told him and moved slowly, shakily away.

I couldn't exactly make out the figures of people in front of the store several feet away or the figure of the man yelling at me. But I could hear by the shuffling of shoes on pavement that there were witnesses. By their quiet shuffling, I figured they were embarrassed and also hoping to avoid "a scene."

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

I have made a scene too many times in my life. I have been told over and over again not to make a scene--by my mother, by my husband, by my friends. Mostly I try not to, but there are times when a scene is just what is needed.

For the first 20-odd years of my life I experienced extreme social ostracism and isolation, which resulted in a kind of long-term PTSD, which is different from most PTSD because it doesn't stem from one traumatic incident but from repeated threats over the long term.

The result is that when I am threatened with social isolation, my brain shuts down. I cannot think clearly and talk my way out of the difficulty. Instead my brain can only do fight of flight. And that often means I scream back at whoever is harassing or threatening me and sometimes at anyone at all, if the attacker has managed to make him/herself scarce. The result tends to be more social isolation. Who wants to be around someone who is always making a scene after all?

In this case, I managed to fight the PTSD symptoms. I have been working on that. After 20 years of trying, I can finally respond relatively calmly... sometimes.

But the thing that stands out to me most painfully in the entire incident is not the belligerent man, but the bystanders.

I cannot count the number of times, I have been harassed, belittled, demeaned or even physically attacked in public due to my disabilities and bystanders have been silent or even made excuses for the abuse. I have been told I should not be allowed to have children, because clearly a visually impaired person cannot be safe with children and I watched with helpless horror as a group sat around discussing how valid that prejudice might be, while I was told to be quiet and allow others their say about my validity as a parent.

I have made many scenes, but I have also waited, hoped and prayed someone else would make a scene first.

When I saw the video of Sam Carter, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Arcitects, stopping a concert and making a scene (including quite a few F-bombs) because he just saw someone sexually harass and grope an unwilling woman in the crowd right in front of him, I started sobbing. The same thing happened when I read the story about waiter Michael Garcia who told a diner he could no longer serve him after the man said loudly "Special needs children need to be special someplace else" in a Houston restaurant where a five-year-old boy with Down Syndrome was eating with his family. 

These are rare and famous incidents. It is unfortunate that they are famous because they are rare.

There are a few more incidents like this though that weren't caught on video. Some years ago, I was riding a street car in Prague when I noticed a white man who was clearly intoxicated harassing two young, dark-skinned children. There have always been issues with pickpocketting on the street cars and dark-skinned people are often blamed. But these children were standing away from other people and wearing school backpacks.

I went up to the man and tried to put myself between him and the children. I told him to stop. He pushed me roughly out of the way with astonishing strength. I turned to the other passengers on the street car, who were sitting quietly with their faces averted. I asked them to help and then turned back toward the man who was pushing the children physically toward the exit. The street car stopped with a jolt at a station and the doors opened. 

I told the man I would call the police and demanded that he stop harassing the children, who were clearly younger than 10 or 12. Instead he grabbed the backs of their necks and threw them out of the street car. The driver, apparently wishing to avoid a scene, slammed the doors quickly and started the street car moving again. I did call the police and they said there was nothing they could do after the fact unless the street car driver was willing to get involved, which he was not. 

Often making a scene does not stop the harassment or abuse and thus many people tell me it is useless and a worthless waste of energy.

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

I can't speak for those children because I was never able to locate them again, but I for one would not feel it was useless if a bystander had stood with me against the threatening man harassing me on Monday night. 

It is easy to say we are against racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and all the rest. It is not easy to stand up and make a scene, to call a stop to harassment, ostracism or prejudice. It is in many situations damn scary.

I have been a bystander and I have sometimes stood up and sometimes things have happened too fast. I was confused, was afraid or had my own PTSD to deal with. I have wished I had been quick enough to say something or simply show by where i positioned my body that a vulnerable person did not stand alone. Sometimes I have managed to do it.

Once when I was a college student and I was first able to go out to a bar for a drink, I stood at a bar waiting to be served behind a group of three Black women with British accents. The bar tender was serving drinks to people in front of them but then he skipped them and asked for my order. I was shocked. I had talked to the girls and knew they were waiting to order. I slammed my fist on the counter and demanded that he serve them immediately. (This was even before I'd had any drinks, mind you.)

Certainly, there can be times when making a scene actually embarrasses the person you are trying to defend or the person is so triggered by past trauma that they do not realize you are trying to help and they lash out against you. But I for one am certain that some attempt to stand with the vulnerable is better than no attempt. We are not perfect but we can stand up for our tribe. And if our tribe is multi-hued and many splendered, then this is what we must do.

A friend told me about a recent incident in which she was out with a friend who has a condition that causes her eyes to move strangely. A child came up to her in a store and said, "Your face is ugly and you have weird eyes." The woman threw down her shopping and ran out of the store crying. 

I do understand. I have been told many times that my face is not appealing and my eyes appear strange. I have overheard conversations and simply watched as groups of people turned away and excluded me. When you live with a vision impairment or other condition that makes your face different from those around you, it is a common enough problem.

My friend went to the child's mother and told her what had happened. The mother replied that the child's words were simply true and not harassment. My friend objected and asked her to teach her child not to comment on people's bodies or... well, she would have mentioned skin color, except the mother and child happened to be black and she assumed they already knew that.

We are all fallible and small children do say things that are insensitive without understanding.  I have heard the understandable anger of black people when a small white child commented loudly that someone's skin "looks like chocolate." They rightly say white parents should teach their children to refrain from making stereotyping comments. The same applies to all people when it comes to commenting on disabilities and body differences. It isn't necessary to shame children over insensitive comments but it is necessary for witnesses to say something.

What is important is not that we never make a mistake or that a child or even an adult never speaks or acts out of ignorance. What is important is that when you know better. you stand by those who are vulnerable. Stand up and if necessary you should indeed make a scene.