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If you see something, say something

Guest post by Samantha (Sam) Levinson

When my Rabbi first told me about Kitty Genovese, it was my Sophomore year of High School. After that he would often invoke the story of her murder while witnesses stood by. He would use Kitty to make a point about personal responsibility, accent a story about not standing idly by, bring a world issue, (from) so large and confounding, into the understandable space of a New York City apartment block. I imagined that since 1964 clergymen and women, from all different faiths, used her story to deliver lessons from the pulpit. We would become better Samaritans because of Kitty, quicker to speak out for the voiceless and organize on behalf of the helpless.

These clergy people understood the bystander-effect, they knew that their congregants would be horrified by the story and in the weeks following would be more likely to intervene and pursue justice, but that eventually they would slip back into their routines and Kitty would be a distant memory. I loved that social justice could so beautifully mingle with religious values and that leaders of faith could create the congruence for us. They could switch seamlessly between “loving thy neighbor as thyself” and Cain asking if he was in fact his brother’s keeper, to the stifled voices in the throats of Kitty’s fellow tenement dwellers, and beg us to do better.

Just like the holy texts the Kitty story has mutated and evolved, the facts more ambiguous, but the insight into human behavior and abdication of responsibility still matters. As my fellow congregants and I took heed, I would reflect that this was what made religion incredible. It was an answer to societal problems that felt too difficult to understand; a road map for doing better next time around. Kitty’s story was neatly packaged; we didn’t speak out, we should have, and next time we will. Americans love lessons after all; the “redeeming end” as a professor I had once called it.

Then, this summer, a young man, Kevin Sutherland, was stabbed to death by another young man, Jasper Spires, on the Washington DC metro, and I was rattled. I couldn’t shake this story. It became a staple of all my conversations those following weeks, trying to get people’s takes. I devoured every article that came out about the case, trying to understand. As a young woman pushing all of 5 ‘2’’ (and that’s being generous), I always found comfort in the metro cars that had the most passengers. I would power walk late at night on the platform, scouring the car with the highest ratio of people to empty seats. A healthy mix of men and women, young and old? Jackpot. I’d settle into my seat assured that I was safe because there were witnesses. So that’s why I couldn’t reconcile the story of the young man with my world-view; there were people in his car.

They were not alone, Kevin Sutherland too had witnesses. What happened? Had they forgotten Kitty? Had too much time passed between the last time they had heard her story? This happened in a space-and anyone who is familiar with public transportation can testify- that has signs plastered on the walls commanding that “if you see something, say something.” I would dominate family dinners posing my questions, and my parents would caution me that we didn’t know enough details. “We don’t know the full story, Sami. You don’t know what you would have done; be less quick to pass judgment,” they warned. But then we found out that the perpetrator was all of 5’5″ and 125 pounds, and this changed things. I’m in a family where all three children have wrestled, so we know weight. We know what cutting or gaining weight looks like; we know what height and weight make you optimally fit to win, how much muscle you can carry with the least amount of fat, and we know that when I learned about Kitty Genovese, I, the 5’2″girl, was wrestling 10 pounds above this perpetrator. At this point I stopped talking about the incident because it just made me too sad. Instead, I carry my pepper spray onto the metro cars, resigning myself to have to be my own witness.

But this past week, Kitty and Kevin both came back to me. I was walking to class at IU when, at the central clock, I saw a young man screaming at a student in a hijab, that her Prophet was a baby rapist, that she was worshiping a false religion. He yelled and yelled while I stopped and watched. Other students also stopped and watched, mouths agape. I imagined they felt something similar to what I felt; stunned, horrified, scared, confused. I knew that Trump was OUT THERE talking about Muslim databases and that white supremacists were feeling that they could come out of the woodwork. I knew the things that crazy facebook friends were posting were now the sound bites coming out of the mouths of people with degrees from fancy institutions, with jobs that came with fancy titles. I knew this, but that day at the IU clock everything hit too close to home.

Here we were at a liberal institution, a bastion of knowledge, tolerance, and progressive ideology, and I was watching a man scream with hatred at a young Muslim woman. Was it as shocking to her as it was to me, or had she been told in her mosque, that had ramped up security in light of the recent rhetoric, to expect this, to be vigilant? All this time I fingered the silver Star of David that hung from my neck, my only identification piece signaling that I too was a minority religion in this country. I had the luxury of being able to shed or take up my different identities in the spaces in which I felt comfortable. I’m half Latina, but am mostly asked why I am so tan. I understand that I have an easier time navigating University than other minority students. Maybe if Trump begins to deport 11 million people, someone will be yelling at me at the clock, telling me to go somewhere I do not know. But here was a woman who could not shed her identity as a Muslim student; being called out in a supposedly safe space — and we watched. We watched until a student grabbed another protesting man’s sign and ran with it. It distracted the yelling student, and it felt like relief. This was such a physical, emotional reaction to intolerance and it felt right. We smiled; we cheered. But the incident still festered in my mind.

I walked into my Law and Morality class, (the irony which is not lost on me), and had a really difficult time believing the freedom of speech Evelyn Beatrice Hall quote: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” The freedom felt hollow that day. I didn’t want to defend that man’s right to harass young women, I wanted to revoke his privileges, to silence him, to declare Indiana University immune from his hateful rhetoric and silence him. I wanted to say to that young woman, “I’m sorry I didn’t say something.” I wanted her to know that just because he was pontificating from University property did not mean we were complicit, even though our deafening silence must have sounded like it. I should have, right? If all Muslims are supposed to bear the burden of responsibility for a few bad actors, then all IU students should bear the burden of this man’s words.

Isn’t that the line of reasoning we’re unfortunately letting see light these days? But here’s the thing; we can’t just let in the voices we like. That would be America and us at our most scared, reacting with weakness instead of strength. That man should be allowed to spew hate if he wants to spew hate. He’s still an asshole, and it doesn’t make him free from condemnation, and I’ll probably be one the voices defending his right to do it, BUT, we can drown out his voice. If we see something, we can, and we should, say something. The real antidote to offensive and hateful speech is more speech, we can not shield ourselves from being offended, but we can counter the voices of hate and intolerance with the more powerful voice of love and acceptance. Be mindful of the community you want to build and the people in your midst who need assistance, show the minorities that there is plurality that wants to be inclusive.

Be aware when you need to educate yourself, or others, so that the rhetoric that has its day is respect. If he’s going to use his first amendment right to demonize a student, then we can use ours to demonstrate that we do not agree, that what he is doing does not go unnoticed. We can articulate that our silence around that clock did not mean acceptance. We can resolve, once again, to do better by the minority voices in our communities. It’s the striving to lend our voices toward winds of justice, that make America great again, whether late at night on a city block, in a metro car on the 4th of July, or around a clock at a public university. That should be the real trademark of American character, not cowering in fear, but rising to the occasion, even when it’s difficult. Maybe it has been too long since you heard stories about the likes of Kitty and Kevin. I too had forgotten, and I know that we will forget again, but let’s endeavor to remember a little longer this time. Let’s try to stave off complacency a while longer until we make it back to a place, maybe religious maybe not, where again we are reminded about what we can do when we listen to the better angels of our nature.

sam levinsonGuest post by Samantha (Sam) Levinson. Samantha is a college senior at Indiana University from the DC area. Sam can be found marathon training or falling asleep during yoga class when not reading. You can visit her website (www.SamanthaLevinson.com) to see what exactly she’s reading and some other fun facts.

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