I’ve written that while I was growing up, my brothers called me The Mink. The nickname came from a whipsmart temper and fiercely competitive nature. Over a lifetime of developing maturity and a human nature seasoned by decades of caregiving and workplace collaboration, my tendency to react with spit and fury is largely vanquished.
But a lifetime of lessons learned from that sibling rivalry as well as participation in competitive sports also taught me how to deftly defend against intimidation attempts of many kinds. With America tautly wrapped in a culture war of immense dimensions, one can hardly turn around without bumping into someone angry about something.
The street scene
Anger has spilled into the streets the last three months. Protestors inflamed by a series shootings by police of black unarmed citizens are competing for the right to be heard on issues of civil and racial justice in the face of violence toward people of color. Before that, professional athlete Colin Kaepernick “took a knee” during the National Anthem in protest of police violence toward black citizens nationwide. His actions served as a prophetic litmus test of public attitudes. Yet rather than choosing to recognize the truth behind Kaepernick’s actions, his critics branded him unpatriotic and even blamed him for disrespecting the military, whom the football player never even mentioned. That’s how racial gaslighting works. Paint the racial messengers as dividers rather than acknowledge the specifics of their concerns.
AS a result of such cynical deflection, even angrier people are trashing and looting cities out of rage toward the refusal to admit there is even a problem with racial injustice in America. The Stevie Wonder song “You haven’t done nothin’…” captured that exasperation way back in the 1970s.
We are amazed but not amused
By all the things you say that you’ll do
Though much concerned but not involved
With decisions that are made by you
But we are sick and tired of hearing your song
Tellin’ how you are gonna change right from wrong
‘Cause if you really want to hear our views
You haven’t done nothin’
Thinking all the way back to the 1968 Olympics, I recall watching the black, raised fists of Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the podium. That display was a direct expression that America was ignoring something important about its conscience. Here were two accomplished black citizens representing their country, yet back home they were treated as second-class citizens. That’s still the issue in America. But thick-headed people refuse to accept that there’s anything wrong with racial discrimination and the economic and social pain it causes. In fact, there are white supremacist groups still claiming that they want a segregated society.
These ugly forces are creating conflicts with a far more corrupt complexion. Now counter protestors comprised of largely all-white “militia” members are showing up with guns to intimidate crowds while claiming to support for the police and “protect” store owners. Yet even these efforts are intended to distract from addressing the racial injustice behind it all. The same goes for politically blaming Black Lives Matter for being a divisive force in society. It’s just more gaslighting on the part of authoritarians bent on keeping perceived privilege and control in place. That’s why young kids feel vindicated in shooting people dead in the streets of America. That’s why racist mass shooters enter Black churches or mosques and gun people down.
The police in places such as Kenosha even with these vigilante groups, suggesting a corrupt vein of racist leanings within the force itself. What else explains the police allowing a seventeen-year-old kid to wander the streets with a long rifle shooting people in what his lawyers claim as acts of self-defense? More likely selfish defense. Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha from Antioch, Illinois of his own accord, then confronted people there while armed, used his weapon to shoot people, and retreated back to his hometown accompanied by his mother, who was also suited up for vigilante activities. All of that activity was premeditated to result in violence. And all these vigilante countermeasures are efforts to deny America’s ugly history of racial injustice.
People just itching for a fight
Just over a year ago, I wrote about an unfortunate confrontation that came about because a man jogging over a bridge in Benton Harbor, Michigan objected to my choice to ride a bike on the same sidewalk. I’d ridden on the sidewalk because my the grating section of the bridge threatened to puncture my road bike tires. But the jogger was so irate that I’d passed him on the sidewalk he shouted obscenities and threatened me with bodily harm. All because I’d neglected to see a sign that said “Walk Bikes on Bridge.” But I wasn’t alone in that action. Plenty of other visitors to that town during a large triathlon even rode their bikes acros that bridge.
But the angry jogger wasn’t through with me. He showed up around the corner of the bank where I was getting cash from an ATM and proceeded to challenge me to a fight. He used all sorts of threats to bait me into a confrontation, including political and social intimations that he’d assumed about me. Yet rather than dissolve into an angry rage, I judiciously thought about the fact that there are cameras everywhere, especially overlooking an ATM machine at a regional bank. Plus in all my years of fending off competitors, I realized there is no claiming honor in a fight if you throw the first punch. Yet I also believe that throwing the first punch is the best strategy if you’re going to fight at all. Instead, I backed him down verbally and went on my way.
Admittedly, I’d made a mistake riding across that sidewalk on the bridge. Out of curiosity, I went back to check and saw that there was a white one-foot sign where the twenty-foot-wide asphalt path converged into the four-foot sidewalk. My concentration was fixed on navigating the bump between the path and the sidewalk, so I missed reading the sign. My mistake. Still, I think that jogger’s reaction was a bit over the top. Something also tells me he was itching for a fight and looking for an excuse to start one. That seems to be the overall mood in America these days.
Aldi lot mistake
That brings me to an encounter I had yesterday while pulling out of an Aldi store parking lot. The long lot drops down a short driveway connecting a series of outlot road. It was late afternoon and there wasn’t much traffic around. But I neglected to look back and to the left before steering down the incline onto the driveway. A vehicle approaching from the left laid on the horn in aggressive fashion, so I hit the brakes as he passed. The driver glared at me and drove on.
As he headed past us in his Countryman Mini, I made note of the American flag shirt he was wearing. We followed him out of the retail complex and turned right toward an intersection about a quarter mile down the road. “You know,” I said to my wife. “From my experience, those guys wearing flag shirts are most prone to road rage.”
“I don’t think so,” she corrected me. “You can’t make generalizations.”
Ahead of us on the road, Mr. Flag Shirt Guy braked and sat at the stop sign even though the road ahead was clear for him to travel on. His turn signal was not on, but I was planning on turn right toward our home. There was a group of young kids on bikes crossing the street to our right. Mr. Flag Guy didn’t budge as we rolled closer in our Subaru. Maybe he hates Subaru drivers, I thought to myelf. He was staring at me in the rear view mirror as we came to a stop. So I did the wrong thing. I gave him a quick flip of the Old Italian hand gesture. I knew it would trigger him, but The Mink in me sometimes comes out in odd ways.
He immediately pulled his car to the right, almost plowing into the kids. Then he parked his car into the middle of that street with its wheels in the crosswalk. My car’s wheels were turned that direction in anticipation of heading home, but I swerved back and kept driving west instead. Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw him climb out of his car, clearly looking for some sort of confrontation. My driving mistake back in the parking lot had pissed him off so much that he felt there was some sort of point to be made. I wasn’t going to stick around and hear him out.
I’ll admit that my own course of action at the stop sign was not all that admirable. I should stayed back even farther, and let the whole thing go. But the behavior of the angry Flag Guy stuff has become so predictable and tiresome it almost seems wrong not to confront it. As a cyclist for 20 years, I’ve dealt with drivers buzzing and honking at us in life-threatening attempts at intimidation. It’s all about some weird sense of road ownership and a selfish desire not to acknowledge the humanity of another person.
As a runner, I’ve even been chased by an angry guy who threw a knife at me. So I’ve long borne witness to the effects of irrational anger in this world. I’ve learned to temper my own reactions when dealing with people in public, in most cases forgiving mistakes on the spot. That’s a better way to live.
And recently, I wrote about a guy down in Florida paddling his kayak while yelling at a Mexican guy swimming with his kids. All these angry types have the same prepossessive attitude.
Prepossessive: an attitude, belief, or impression formed beforehand : prejudice. 3 : an exclusive concern with one idea or object : preoccupation.
I’ve been in plenty of driving situations where a person in front of me makes a mistake by not looking before they pull onto a street. Sometimes I raise my hands to say, “What’s up with that?” We all do it to some extent. Earlier this week a woman driving while chatting on her cell phone and sipping her coffee nearly ran me down while I was running west of our house on Tanner Road. She made no attempt to pause at the stop sign as she roared out of her subdivision. That made me mad, but I assumed she never saw me in the first place. That’s common when you’re a runner. It’s not that easy to see runners or cyclists in certain traffic situations.
It’s hard to turn the other cheek and let this stuff go every day of your life, especially when prepossessive anger is being shoved down your throat and barked about on Twitter and other social media. Prepossessive anger has been turned into a political movement where the goal is to intimidate the other side and “win at all costs” even when if it means shooting people dead in the streets to make that point.
Small acts of resistance
That’s the other reason I wanted nothing to do with Mr. Flag Shirt Guy. Had I gotten out of the car, he could have easily pulled a gun from his hip holster and shot me dead. Even if you’re the initial aggressor, if someone fights back the law says you have a right to shoot them. The militias believe that. The police seem to believe that. Even the President of the United States seems to believe that. He hired America’s military to chase away protestors, lead him across the street and stand there with a Bible upside down in his hand while claiming to stand for all that is great in America.
The message is that no one shall resist his power and might. Yet it is small actss of resistance that serve to confirm the anger of those eager to start a fight these days in America. Hence the hate directed at Colin Kaepernick. At AOC. At Biden. At democracy. A small act of resistance is what got Jacob Blake shot in the back seven times. So you better watch out. This is the reality in America now.
But if this country hopes to regain its conscience, it is vital that the prepossessive anger of the police and all other authoritarians be challenged for what it is: a selfish desire to claim superior motives and hide behind the American flag for protection.
As for Mr. Flag Shirt Guy and all the others flying flags as a political statement in America, the American Legion guidelines for flag display specifically recommend against many current practices employed by so-called patriots. These include:
(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.