Violence, Silence, and Complicity
This true story contains homophobic and misogynistic violence, slurs, and threats. Take care of yourselves while reading. Blessings, y’all….The Pop Culture Preacher
Silence in the face of violence, implied or realized, is complicity.
Complicity will be the death of America.
We are living in a new, insidious age when systematic violence will hold the highest office in the land. Violence of this kind is not new, it’s just revealed itself broadly, out in the open for everyone to see. So, let me say this again — complicity will be the death of America.
You don’t have to be silent.
Yes. I am looking at you. Yes, you have a voice and volition. You – don’t be silent any more. Yes, you must speak up and interrupt violence when you see it in your shopping center, hear it in a joke around your holiday dinner table, or know of it when your kids tell stories of what happened at school today. In our America we see violence, every day, against women, against people of color, against Muslims, against gays/lesbians/bisexual/pansexual folk, against trans* folk, against the poor, against the elderly, against people who live with special needs, against immigrants. In America, violence happens every day.
Your silence is complicity and we can be complicit no longer.
This is my story.
I’ve never told it publicly. I have been complicit and I have been afraid.
But, the time for that is long past.
This event happened in 1997 in the same room Vice-President Elect Mike Pence slept in during his fraternity years at Hanover College a little over a decade prior. Make of that what you will.
Here we go.
First, I am responsible for this: the fraternity house was closed to the public and when he said, “I’ll sneak you in,” I said ok. He, B, and I were newly together. It was exciting. I was game.
Second, the truth is this: being where one is not supposed to be does not excuse or legitimize violence.
Now, the story: B and I curled up in a vacant bunk in a corner of the rack room. It was very late, or incredibly early, depending on your perspective on the day. Plenty of guys were asleep or passed out. The room was full and no one knew I was there.
B and I drifted off, and then – a noise. A dull thud from across the room. The thud became regular and monotonous as a man in my class pounded, with his fist and foot, on the frame of a bunk across the room.
Then, he yelled.
“Get up, faggot!”
He yelled at the man in the bunk, his fraternity brother. My ears perked. B’s breathing changed. B was awake.
“Get up, faggot!” the man in my class yelled again.
B’s arm tensed. He heard it too.
“Come on, R!” The man named his target. “Get up and get down here!” A wave of nausea flooded me. I know R. He’s in my class. Hanover College is small — we ALL know each other. The man kept yelling, taunting, teasing, ridiculing with words and slurs and threats all while beating on R’s bunk.
It went on and on.
No one moved. Not a soul.
Were they all that drunk that not even this storm could stir them? Or, was this so normal, so commonplace in their brotherhood that they’d learned to sleep through the harassment of R for their own sake?
I don’t know which.
We laid there, B and I, listening for I don’t know how long. The man wouldn’t stop. And no one did anything. And I couldn’t live with that any more.
I moved, swiftly. Up, out of B’s arms. Out of the bunk. Up on my feet. One step. Two steps. Three steps. Go. Now. Quick. Determination. Go. Now. Quick. Go. Stop him.
But I only got two steps away.
B grabbed my belt and the back of my jeans. He yanked me into back into bed and held me tight, mouth pressed against my right ear. He said, “You can’t do that. They can’t know you’re here. They can’t know you’ve seen this. If they know you’re here, I can’t stop what they’ll do to you.”
You know, the scariest thing in the zombie show and movies* – it’s not the zombies. It’s when the people are scarier than the monsters.
“I can’t stop what they’ll do to you.” What does that mean? Does it mean they’ll beat me or rape me? Does it mean they won’t physically touch me, but I’ll live with threats and intimidation for the rest of my college days, or longer, to ensure I’ll keep their brotherhood’s secret?
I don’t know which.
I didn’t know in the moment and I don’t know now.
So I laid there. Silent. Listening to that man in my class hurl slurs and threats at R until, sometime later, the rack room door opened and another man entered swiftly to whisk that man away. I heard whispers of “the traveling chapter consultant.” A representative of the Phi Gamma Delta national office was present in the house that night. That’s why the house was closed to visitors.
I don’t know what happened after that, other than this: I laid there, awake, until the first morning’s light. I made my way out of the room and down those three flights of stairs as fast as I could. “They can’t know you’re here. They can’t know you’ve seen this,” rang in my ear. “If they know you’re here, I can’t stop what they’ll do to you.” Go. Now. Quick. Determination. Go. Now. Quick. Go. Run home.
I ran home and didn’t look back.
And I left R behind. He was home. He didn’t have any place to run.
I’m sorry, R. I was afraid for my own safety, too scared to think clearly. I didn’t know what to do.
That’s why it’s important to think about these things beforehand, to be prepared. Here’s the thing – there were lots of options for interrupting the physical intimidation and verbal violence that was happening. My silence was complicity and we can be complicit no longer.
- I could’ve gotten up and interceded by standing with R, helping him leave, or confronting the man who was threatening him with the full knowledge that I was putting myself at risk. It’s important to educate yourself about how to be a non-anxious presence and how to protect yourself if you are willing to intercede in situations where you might be bullied or attacked.
- B could have gotten up and stood between R and the man, helped R move to a different space, or confronted the man. Any man in that room could have done this. B was the man’s peer and being someone’s peer is powerful. Your peers will listen to you in a different way than they will another. Eventually, one of the man’s peers did come and take the man away. If you see or hear one of your peers being violent or bigoted, you have particular power to intercede.
- B or I could’ve notified the national staff person who was in the house so he could intercede. One would hope he would’ve interceded. In any given situation, if you know the people in power, like staff, managers, teachers, administrators, officials, and the like, you may know whether or not they will use their position and power to intercede or not. There are systems at work – an entire system may need to be held accountable. You may have to apply pressure before people in power will intercede.
- B or I could’ve called campus security or the police. We must fully acknowledge that calling the authorities is not always helpful to the person being victimized. This is important: We must acknowledge this. Again, there are systems at work – an entire system may need to be held accountable and we see that happening today. Still, calling the helpers and garnering the support of people trained in deescalating violence is useful, often crucial and critical.
- B or I could’ve talked with fraternity leaders, campus security, the student affairs office, the dean, or the college president, or any combination of these leaders, the next day in order to curb and prevent such events from happening in the future. We could’ve pushed for accountability. Again, violence is inherent in our systems. If we stay silent, we perpetuate it.
- There are other ways, I’m sure, that I could have acted.
Our silence will not save us. Silence will not save America. Complicity will be the death of America when the land of the free and the home of the brave becomes the land of the submissive and the home of the fearful. But you have power to change the course of history. We each have a sphere of influence. We each have a voice and volition. Use yours. We each hold power and can leverage the power we hold in this world for the common good. Complicity does not serve the common good. What power do you have? Will you use it?
*Think about it –
- In 28 Days, the most terrifying part is when the people reach a community only to find the people there are dangerous. I had nightmares about that movie for weeks.
- And, in The Walking Dead, please – give me a thousand Walkers over Negan, or the Governor, or the barbecue queen at Terminus any damn day.
But here’s the truth, y’all. Zombies aren’t real. Our monsters are real, and they’re people, like you and me. We have to use words and reason and relationship, compassion and courage and resolve to survive.