Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Women at the wall in Friendship Park, Tijuana, Mexico. Photo © Bill McLaughlin.

soy de aquí

y soy de allá

I didn’t build

this border

that halts me

the word fron

tera splits on my tongue

from “Where You From?” by Gina Valdés


Hope is the last thing you’d expect to find in the faces of people trapped in the border city of Tijuana. They’ve traveled from all over Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and beyond in hopes of finding a life in the promised land of the United States. They endure hardship, suffering and loss. Stuck at the border, some for months or years, they wait. And hope.

Bill McLaughlin captures that hope in a series of portraits he made late in 2019 before the Pandemic shut the border even tighter and challenged what hope the migrants and refugees still had.

McLaughlin left his home in Chenango County, took a train to San Diego and then the trolley to the border to meet and photograph people a world away from the rural landscape he calls home. He is passionate about the land and talks reverently about the bonds one forms by planting and cultivating. He’s primarily a painter but began photographing landscapes in and around Chenango County, which connected him with people, and he expanded into making their portraits. He became fascinated with what he calls “the power of the portrait, people looking right back at you.” 

The cover of the photozine available for purchase. Photo © Bill McLaughlin.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin was hearing about the humanitarian crisis at the United States southern border and was upset. Photos in the media “showed migrants as dangerous, threatening, in the worst possible condition,” McLaughlin says. “It was a terrible misrepresentation, combined with hateful rhetoric, a formula to otherize people.”

Not for McLaughlin. “I wanted to put a face on the tragedy; take what I’d been doing about making portraits and apply it to the greater good.” 

For McLaughlin, the atrocity that moved him to act was the drowning deaths of Salvadoran Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, as they tried to cross the Río Grande in June of 2019. The photograph of their bodies, face down in the shallow water, was seen by millions and sparked outrage. But people soon went back to their lives and the outrage faded.

So he went to Tijuana. Once there, he connected with Hugo Castro, who led relief efforts in Tijuana for Border Angels, a San Diego-based volunteer group that provides aid for migrants on both sides of the border. Castro helped put him in touch with shelters providing support to migrants stuck in Tijuana as they awaited an opportunity to cross legally into the U.S. He rented an apartment in Las Playas, on the coast west of the city where the border wall reaches the sea. From there, with the help of Castro and others, he was able to go into Tijuana each day and connect with people in shelters. He even stayed a couple of nights in one of the dozens of shelters in Tijuana.

McLaughlin was impressed by the warmth and compassion he found among people who have nothing. “Here they are, 1,000 miles from home,’ he says, “food insecure, future insecure, they can’t go back, they can’t go forward and the camaraderie among them was really inspiring.”

He doesn’t speak a lot of Spanish, so communicating his aims in making the portraits was not easy. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that many migrants are fleeing danger at home and in Tijuana, and do not want anyone to recognize them in a photograph. But many were willing to pose for portraits and when they did, they showed their resilience, faith and hope.

The road leading to Shelter Embajadores de Jesus in Scorpion Canyon, Tijuana. Photo © Bill McLaughlin.

The portraits show people of all ages, from children to grandmothers. In most of them, there is a slight smile, tinged with sadness but not self-pity. McLaughlin only identifies them by their first names. Ruth, a mother from El Salvador, looks away from the camera with a slight smile, and a face that shows wisdom without resignation. In another striking family portrait, a. young Mexican mother holds her small son in her arms. He is looking at her, but her young daughter, perhaps five years old, looks straight at the camera, cautiously, curiously. The mother also looks directly into the camera, a slight smile showing hope. And faith.

One young man from Honduras thought long and hard about whether he should have his picture taken. After pondering it overnight, he approached McLaughlin in the morning and said yes, he’d like a portrait of him and his family. His family turned out to be him and his wife. The portrait shows a proud man, looking directly and confidently at the camera, as if posing for a formal portrait. McLaughlin compares it to the formal portraits immigrants to America traditionally made upon their arrival in a new land. The young man’s wife is also looking directly at the camera, but a little more apprehensively, as if the journey and the experience weighed more heavily upon her. McLaughlin would like to give them a copy of the. portrait, but he doesn’t know what happened to them and cannot find out anything about them.

But it’s the photograph he missed that haunts McLaughlin. One night, after the daily religious service at the shelter, he sat talking with a young woman in the dark. “She was maybe 19,” he says. “It had taken her months to get to the shelter and she was pregnant the whole time. She had the baby in the shelter but lost it a month later.”

He was struck by her attitude. “There was a sadness about her, but it wasn’t a neurotic sadness. She was not being a victim. She struck me as still hopeful.” 

She agreed to have her portrait taken the next day, but in the morning, McLaughlin couldn’t find her. He has no idea where she is now or what happened to her.

What has happened to her, and the young family man from Honduras and all the others who look out from these moving, affecting portraits? Some may have made it to America. Others may have lost hope and gone away. Others are still waiting in Tijuana. Wherever they are, McLaughlin’s portraits remain as a living reminder, at once static and vital, of lives lived on the border of hope and despair. 

Note: An exhibition of McLaughlin’s portraits, “Living in Limbo, Portraits from the Border,” was on display recently at Hamilton Center for the Arts in Hamilton, NY.

No other shows are planned right now, but a photozine is available for purchase.

More information about McLaughlin is on his website.

More information about Border Angels is on the organization’s website.

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He was among a group of volunteers who went to Tijuana to provide humanitarian aid a few months before McLaughlin’s visit. The poem by Gina Valdés uses the word “frontera,” which means “border” in Spanish.


On November 22nd, 1963, shots rang out in Dallas, Texas, that ended a life, a presidency, and an era in which we as Americans believed in so strongly: an era of hope, of dreams, and the illusion of a safety in which such things could happen elsewhere, but they could never happen here. The world mourned, but none so much as we did.

This was our horror, in our home. Grief washed over the nation, and it lingered. Christmas passed barely noticed. New Year’s Eve celebrations were non-existent. It seemed almost blasphemous to allow ourselves to experience any joy after the magnitude of what had occurred.

And then, after six long weeks, four young men from England landed at the newly renamed John F. Kennedy airport, and with an explosive sigh of relief, Beatlemania was unleashed. Like a shaken Etch-A-Sketch, the oppressive pain of the nation seemed erased overnight as the country exploded in joy at this new musical phenomenon. Their music and images were everywhere. The country could not get enough of the Beatles. After what we had been through, we needed them, and we needed what they allowed us to be.

Volumes have been written about the impact of the Beatles on this country. Most, if not all, mention the timing of their arrival, finally giving our country permission to shake off the shackles of grief that had paralyzed us after our national tragedy.

Which brings me to Bernie memes.

After the most painful year in our lifetimes, a year of more than 400,000 lives lost to a pandemic, thousands of businesses lost, millions of workers left with significantly reduced income, if any at all, the trauma of the most controversial American presidency, racial protests set against the glorification of white supremacy, and terrorists invading the Capitol, the lone image of Senator Bernie Sanders, sitting by himself in a folding chair, clad in a practical winter coat and mittens, has become the 2021 version of Beatlemania.

Within hours, a phenomenon spread like wildfire across social media. People have seized on Bernie’s image and had a field day inserting it everywhere: album covers, classic paintings, movie scenes, locations ranging from the Last Supper to local pizzerias.

After the trauma of 2020, it’s so good to breathe a sigh of relief, laugh and just have fun.

Even old curmudgeons like me have joined in and laughed out loud at the creativity, the humor, and the plain old absurdity of the craze. 

By next week, I’m sure it will have worn out. I doubt very much that Bernie memes will have the lasting impact on our culture that the Beatles did.

But God, we needed this right now. We really needed this.

Mike Donohue is a father, grandfather and friend who hopes for a better world for his family and loved ones to live in.  He is a licensed chemical dependency counselor, former professional musician, political moderate, and has published articles related to local music, addiction recovery, and human rights.

A segment of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21, 2017, in front of the Newseum building on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Newseum, featuring exhibits highlighting the history of journalism and freedom of the press, closed at the end of 2019 after 11 years. The First Amendment prevails. Photo © Jim McKeever.


On Jan. 7, the day after pro-Trump insurrectionists invaded the U.S. Capitol, my West Coast brother went on his regular shift driving for Meals on Wheels.

The first client he spoke with, a man in his early 80s, asked how my brother was dealing with the shock of what had happened at the Capitol, where five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died in the violence.

“I’m sad,” my brother answered. 

That’s when the 80-plus-year-old man started bawling.

My brother then met with another client on his route, a man in his 90s who flew bomber missions in the Pacific during World War II. His reaction the day after the Capitol was breached?

“He’s pissed,” my brother said.

Then my brother asked me, “What can we do? What can people like us do?”

By “us,” I think he means people who understand the gravity — and the truth — of what happened that day, and who respect the principles of democracy and peaceful governance. 

My brother and I share a pessimistic outlook about the future of the country, and a profound sense of sadness mixed with contempt for the perpetrators and enablers of the violence of that day.

My only answer to “What can we do?” at that moment was to continue to offer some degree of comfort, understanding and empathy to people like the two older gentlemen my brother told me about. 

Of course we can pressure elected officials — as was done leading to Trump’s second impeachment — and try to share factual information and rational opinions from respected journalists and thoughtful leaders from across the political spectrum.

Beyond that, I don’t know.

Last week after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump for the second time — amid rumors of further violence before Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th president — I asked more than a dozen people I know: “What can we do?”

Below is a random, edited sampling of responses. 

My 95-year-old dad was in the Normandy invasion, and said he never imagined he’d see a day like this. On the day of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted. As simple as that. Our nation had been attacked. 

Last week, my daughter told him to turn on the TV, and he and my mother were shocked to the core to see our nation once again under attack, this time from citizens. 

The first goal is to attempt to accomplish something. Help raise money and/or donate to the best candidates. Pick up a pen, phone or computer and praise the corporation, restaurant chain, big bank and individuals who do the right thing. And if one of your favorite retailers has not acted yet, politely suggest doing something good.  You don’t need to be a golfer to understand one of the quickest and hardest hits, post-Jan. 6, from the PGA. 

On voting, work on registering others, fighting voter suppression. On election days, if you or your team have a car, give folks a lift to and from the polling places. And in between elections, show up: attend online meetings for now, and post-vaccine, consider joining a community effort to do good things.

On the day-to-day front, try to actually listen after you ask the cashier at the checkout line how it’s going. Maybe take an extra five seconds to pass along a positive thought if you sense someone’s not having the greatest day. And if you’re chatting with someone on the other side of the political fence, consider that they might have a good idea or two, and, by providing a thoughtful audience for them, perhaps you’ll have a good opportunity to discuss, disagree or weigh in with ideas of your own.

Finally, a bit of perspective on the question of whom to support in this historical time. My father was a prisoner of war in WWII after being shot down on his 43rd mission. He said his decision to sign up was quite easy. He was risking his life daily to overcome the evil of a master propagandist who ruled by lies and murder. In recent years, I’ve heard of another masterful propagandist who in 2015 made this remark — on camera — about ex-POW John McCain of Arizona:

“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

In closing, one footnote: my dad escaped.

I saw that veterans (wrote to) the Eagle Bulletin (weekly newspaper), expressing dismay … the raw emotion and sense of betrayal seems palpable. A friend who was an intelligence officer was saying that we have to fear domestic terrorism and a civil war like the conflicts across Afghanistan, where allegiances are fractured and there is great confusion about alliances. But we cannot let anti-Semitic and racist values join forces with those who worry that government officials are corrupt. I feel like veterans are in a good place to highlight this. 

My niece is an immigration lawyer and has introduced me to a young man from Honduras who has been in ICE custody. He holds down three jobs and supports family back home, including his father who is battling COVID-19. My niece is helping the young man in his asylum hearing, a long, torturous process. I have been sending money to support him. When I feel overwhelmed by events and think, “What’s the point?” I try to remember that HE is the point. He deserves the same advantages as any other young man. 

Everyone needs to avoid stereotyping, snap judgments and arrogance, putting aside calculations of winning, being ahead and demonizing those with differing opinions, beliefs, skin color, class status, etc., and regard each other as fellow human beings and fellow Americans.

Also, attention must be paid to the problems that led to the grievances that propelled Trumpism. Can things like a living wage, available jobs, affordable housing, available health care, etc., help people who feel abandoned by their leaders? Can progressives refrain from looking down their noses at Trump supporters?

On a personal level, can we engage in a respectful way with those we disagree with, keeping the lines open, not taking or offering the bait for a fight, and maybe talking about subjects other than politics and online stuff? Can we bridge the gaps through sharing a recipe, petting a dog or saying how nice someone’s yard looks? 

This is not going to be fast or total — there are still people who say Nixon did nothing wrong.

A strong dose of humility and humanity, avoiding any cruelty, should be the drivers personally and politically.

For both sides it has become about power and not about the people. I do not feel there is a desire or ability to unite our people via the parties or politics. It has become a country of “YOU against ME” instead of a country of US. I don’t believe that responsibility lies with one person, one party or one entity (politics, news, even the world of entertainment, etc). I do believe the responsibility does lie with all entities and in every person. 

I do not believe anyone is listening to anyone else. I don’t have any more faith in the new order voted in, then I had in the old order leaving. I know very good people on both sides of the fence and their feelings are all valid. I think there are more like me, who have no faith in the parties/the politics/the agendas and are stunned by all of it. But I have faith in people. As much as people frustrate me, they also inspire me, encourage me, embolden me. When we the people start talking to and listening to one another, that is when changes for the good will occur.  

I’ve got a friend in her 80s who thinks she’ll never in her lifetime see our country free and at peace again. I imagine people who study history can talk about how we emerged from dark times before. 

I think it’s crucial Trump be held accountable. I’ll bet the agents who work in counter terrorism never imagined they’d be investigating such a big group of Americans.

This is not a one-off, but an ongoing struggle that will be years or decades in resolving itself (no guarantees which way it will go). I remember well that the coup plotters in Chile staged a trial run to gauge public sentiment. So a loud public rejection of this can help push back any military who might be thinking of hopping on the bandwagon next time.

Stop talking about American exceptionalism. It can happen here.

As the nation prepares for the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as its 46th president, many of us struggle with often debilitating and conflicting emotions — anger and despair, empathy and hope. Anger and despair come easily; empathy and hope do not. I believe the cult members who fell victim to propaganda and their own misplaced sense of victimhood and reality are beyond reach. I fear what the more desperate and violent among them will do. They are terrorists, and terrorists plot, as they did leading to Jan. 6. As one of my good friends said the other day, “Some of us are going to die.”

All of us must do whatever small thing we can to make the country safer for the vulnerable among us, for our children and subsequent generations. I think often of something my friend Carlo from Tijuana told me when we teamed up on a volunteer effort to help migrant laborers at the U.S.-Mexico border: When it seems overwhelming, and it feels like you’re not making a difference, remember that you’re making a difference in the life of that one person.

Please feel free to add thoughts and suggestions in the Comments.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.

Photo © Jim McKeever.


Dedicated to the memory of Caryl Cooper.

As I sat down the other morning in the phlebotomist’s chair, I noticed a plaque on the desk behind her.

“Good Vibes Only,” it read.

I typically babble during needle-related procedures to distract myself, so I told her I liked its sentiment. She thanked me and said life is too short to be miserable or mean to one another. I guessed her to be a few years younger than I.

And then we discovered we share a hobby — we regularly check the local obituary page. Each of us also takes note of the ages of the deceased, who too often are in our demographic. I told her about the recent obit of a guy my age (63) who I used to pal around with but hadn’t seen in 40 years. 

Of course, as soon as I got home I went online to check the local obits only to find yet another person I knew — my favorite English teacher from high school, who nurtured my love of writing and reading. 

Ever since we reconnected on Facebook almost a decade ago, she donated $100 in my name every year to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation for pediatric cancer research. We caught up in person one year at the annual head-shaving event in Syracuse, and I joked that I should introduce her to my friends by saying, “We went to high school together.” 

After I saw her obit, I checked her Facebook page. 

On Dec. 14, the day before she died, she shared a meme that read, “Don’t waste your time looking back on what you’ve lost. Move on, because life is not meant to be lived backwards.” 

Always the teacher. 

The timing of her homework assignment couldn’t have been better. 

For a long time now, even before the pandemic, I’ve been restless, struggling with an omnipresent sense of urgency tinged with dread. 

The same phrases run through my brain in a vicious loop.

“Time is running out, I’m another year older, I still haven’t done this or that, I won’t be in good health forever …” Blather, rinse, repeat. 

It can be debilitating, especially the regrets.

A few days ago I remembered I had written something about this on my personal blog, so I went looking for it.

I was convinced I had posted it just last year or the year before.

Turns out it was 2015, just after I had turned 58.

In that post I cited a few examples of my distorted sense of time, of my grasp of when certain events had occurred in my life. I was incredulous that the years and decades had passed so quickly.

Older folks will get this — life used to be at 33 rpm, then 45. Now the turntable is spinning at 78 rpm all the time. Is there a faster speed? I hope not. As my daughter-in-law says of the time-lapse blossoming of my 20-month-old granddaughter, “Please slow down!”

At the risk of looking back (apologies to “Coop,” as Ms. Cooper was affectionately known) so much has happened in the world, and in this country, since I wrote that “sense of urgency” post in 2015. 

We are closing the books on one of the most traumatic years in history. More than 300,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, jobs and homes have been lost, and our trust in government and in our fellow Americans hangs by a thread.

The rollout of the vaccines is cause for optimism, of course. When science, medicine and beneficence eventually put an end to the pandemic, we can hit the re-set button. 

I’ve been one of the lucky ones. The pandemic postponed a humanitarian trip to the southern border, but it hasn’t affected my health and has caused only a few relatively minor hassles. 

Now, the prospect of finally reining in the virus has ramped up my restlessness. I need to get back out there in the world, to play catch-up, to make up for lost time. There’s so much I haven’t done, Coop. But I’m trying to do the homework you assigned and just look ahead, I really am.

How much time do I have? 

How much time does any of us have? 

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. Nothing and everything has changed since his 2015 blog post, “Why the Sense of Urgency? The Numbers Don’t Lie.” Thank you for everything, Caryl Cooper, 1945-2020. The photo above is of the author’s brother Joe looking out at the Pacific Ocean, from Crystal Cove State Beach, California, in 2011.

A demonstration in Syracuse, N.Y., last June drew several hundred people demanding the removal of the downtown statue of Christopher Columbus. Mani Bell, right, engaged in a conversation with a man defending the statue’s presence. Bell, of Syracuse, told the man, who did not wish to be identified, of Columbus’ record of genocide. When she told him Black people in America continue to face systemic racism and oppression in America, the man responded, “How?” Photo © Maranie Staab.


As our book club sat around a cozy backyard fire one evening in the summer of COVID, a member used a metaphor that has stuck with me, and I think with the group as a whole.

We were discussing ways of communicating with — and to be honest, persuading or convincing — people with whom we disagree.

He said something like this: “We need to focus on people who are on the 10-yard-line. We’re never going to reach those who are 80 or 90 yards away from the end zone.”

The context was the extreme polarization of America, a divide that has widened and deepened — or perhaps has just become more visible — in the past four years. 

People with vastly different beliefs about everything from climate change to mask-wearing can get sucked into their own echo chambers fed by social media and their preferred broadcast outlets. 

Many folks seem a lot more than 90 yards from the end zone. They may as well be in a different stadium far, far away, not even playing the same game, by the same rules.

Much has been written about how to bridge such disparate views — finding common ground, using active listening, having “radical empathy” for those whose views and behaviors that we not only disagree with, but find abhorrent. 

Nothing is working.

Will anything change after Jan. 20, 2021?

In an editorial titled “The Decency Agenda” Dec. 6, the New York Times lays out a rough roadmap for President-elect Joe Biden for his administration to unify the country. 

“Speaking to the concerns of Mr. Trump’s supporters, without condemnation or condescension, will be crucial to Mr. Biden’s unification efforts. … In pursuing his governing agenda, disagreements will arise over deeply held beliefs, and the arguments are bound to get heated. But, unlike his predecessor, Mr. Biden knows the difference between opponents and enemies.”

It’s not a stretch to say our nation’s future depends on that distinction. But where to begin? 

The book our group was discussing, “Nonviolent Communication,” by the late Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, outlines a four-step process of respectful communication — observation, feelings, needs and requests.  

At the risk of oversimplifying Rosenberg’s very nuanced, non-judgmental approach, here’s an example of how it works: 

You observe that your friend Sam recently has taken to using racist language, including the N word. You identify the feelings around your observations, and determine what you need for your well-being. Then you make respectful requests (not demands) of Sam. If that conversation goes well, it gives Sam an opening to examine his feelings and his words and maybe even change them.

The flip side of this is even more challenging — putting yourself in Sam’s shoes and trying to determine the feelings and needs that are behind his words. 

While Nonviolent Communication can work with a friend or family member, Rosenberg’s technique may not succeed with many who have succumbed to the barrage of disinformation and lies of the outgoing administration. Or with those who fervently embrace the attitudes and behaviors of the departing president.

While I am in favor of respectful communication with my opponents, and would like to feel empathy for them, I cannot respect their views. I am trying to win a fact-based argument. As the New York Times editorial board said, “Forget shared values. Americans cannot agree on a shared reality.”

We are running out of time, and out of patience with one another.

We need to do something.

Should we give up on those who are, at best, at the other end of the field? Do you know anyone hovering near the 10-yard line? What techniques have you tried to get them into the end zone? Maybe Nonviolent Communication can work. Perhaps you have another idea that holds promise.

I am at a loss, frankly, and welcome any suggestions.

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He agrees with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

Ed Griffin-Nolan on the road in Colorado, 2018. Photo © Robert Griffin-Nolan.

Self-taught poverty is a help toward philosophy, for the things which philosophy attempts to teach by reasoning, poverty forces us to practice.

— Diogenes


Ed Griffin-Nolan scares me.

Maybe scares is the wrong word. Let’s just say he makes me uncomfortable. He reminds me of all the things I haven’t done and probably won’t do in this lifetime. Griffin-Nolan doesn’t just talk about things he hopes to do: He goes out and does them. He’s in touch with the world and puts himself out there and makes himself a part of it and it a part of him. And at the age of 61, he hitchhiked across the country. And then he wrote a book about it.

Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore (Rootstock Publishing) is his account of a trip he took in 2018 that in general outline duplicated a hitchhiking trip he and a high-school friend took 40 years earlier. After a life of a couple of marriages and one divorce, three kids, the loss of loved ones and enough adventures to fill a dozen books, he wanted to know if the world he had encountered on the road in 1978 was as different and dangerous as we’ve come to believe. Are we really so separated today that the collective we of America no longer exists? Griffin-Nolan thinks not.

“Unless I’m the outlier,” he writes in his introduction, “I think that deep inside, most of us want to connect with each other.”

What better way to test that hypothesis than to put himself on the road, starting at his home in Pompey in Central New York, sticking his thumb out and aiming west?

People try to talk him out of it, telling him, “One, nobody hitchhikes anymore. Two, it’s not safe. Three, things have changed too much.”

He doesn’t listen. On his first day, he is stopped by two Onondaga County Sheriff’s Deputies who repeat that it is too dangerous to hitchhike. He will be killed, one of them observes. The reporter in Griffin-Nolan asks them what in their experience as law-enforcement officers leads them to that conclusion. What evidence do they have? Turns out they don’t have any. But they believe it nonetheless. 

Griffin-Nolan’s book is about the infinite experience of the road, of a trip whose destination is vague and changeable. The mystery inside every car or truck that stops, the leap of faith it takes to enter a stranger’s vehicle and commit one’s life to that person. A car stops, Griffin-Nolan enters and: “Then we meet, and something new begins. It’s like starting a new job or moving to a new town or kissing someone for the first time every single day.” 

From Pompey to San Francisco, Griffin-Nolan is picked up by too many people to count. Each one defies categorization and Griffin-Nolan gets to know them as best he can in rides that last a few minutes to many hours. They are no longer faceless drivers speeding by on the road, but human beings with lives and concerns and worries of their own and, judging by their willingness to stop what they are doing and open their cars and lives to a stranger, they are also seeking connection with their fellow travelers. 

Lydia, a mother taking her four children to the zoo, stops and picks him up. So do Mike and Kelly, a middle-aged couple on their way to visit Mike’s 93-year-old mother in hospice care in Ohio. They fear it might be their last visit, but they stop to pick up a hitchhiker along the way. 

Scott, a Mennonite father driving two hours to take his daughter to a basketball tournament she can’t even play in because she’s injured. Griffin-Nolan asks Scott why he picked him up: “People need help,” he answers. Before the tournament, Scott and his daughter had gone to church, and the pastor encouraged them to be “‘doers, not just hearers’ of the gospel.”

And there are many, many others, many of whom have little to share but are willing to share what they have. Many of them are carrying profound grief with them, as is Griffin-Nolan, looking for someone with whom to share it, unburden themselves, much like the Ancient Mariner. Griffin-Nolan’s own grief travels with him until, in a moment of absolution, his grief transforms itself and him. 

Griffin-Nolan doesn’t just talk about the drivers who pick him up (but there are enough of those to fill a short Russian novel). He also tells us of the people who work in the gas stations and convenience stores and fast-food places and hotels along the way. Their stories blend with his and the shared experience of being human unites them.

Griffin-Nolan does not discuss politics with many of his benefactors. A few bring it up, a little on both sides of the great divide. One guy, a generous and grieving guy, goes hundreds of miles out of his own way to get Griffin-Nolan to where he’s going. Politics doesn’t come up on the ride, but Griffin-Nolan later discovers via Facebook that the man is something of a right-winger, or at least a Facebook purveyor of some of the less reputable ideas that pass for conservatism today. Griffin-Nolan says he has a hard time reconciling the man on Facebook with the kind soul who picked up a hitchhiker.

He doesn’t go too deeply into it, but it’s food for thought. What do we do with people who are good and kind and a godsend on the road but who have ideas different than ours, sometimes ideas we find reprehensible? Do we ignore the good they have done and focus on the bad? Or do we look at the entire person, good and bad, try to figure out what it is that makes them the way they are (and what makes us the way we are) and see if we all can’t change for the better. The only way to do that is to get to know one another. And a good way to do that is to pick up the next hitchhiker you see. You never know what you might learn about your passenger and yourself.

Not likely, I know. Nobody hitchhikes anymore. But everybody should read this book. It will go a long way toward reviving your faith in your fellow human beings.

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He has been a reporter, editor and critic for newspapers and teacher of Spanish at Syracuse University. Ed Griffin-Nolan, who believes we’re all on the road sometime, also has a blog, titled “Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore.”

The American flag is meant to be a symbol of unity and love for our fellow men and women, the author says, but seems to have become a badge of honor among bullies. Photo © Dennis Harrod.


On the day Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election was announced, I saw a sad sight that affirmed something I’ve suspected for a long time. I was driving through the country and passed a large house. A man, the owner I presume, was up on a ladder, taking down an extremely large American flag that had been hanging on his house. The timing was suspect, to say the least. On the day that the most controversial president in our nation’s history has been confirmed as defeated, this man’s display of the flag was no longer necessary. Why?

Henry Rollins said, “You always know the mark of a coward. A coward hides behind freedom. A brave person stands in front of freedom and defends it for others.” Cowards and hypocrites have hidden behind the American flag during the last couple of years, using the exercising of “their rights as Americans” as a poorly veiled disguise for their hatred, their bigotry, and their tyranny.  

Something has changed here in America. I first noticed it when “Married With Children” hit prime time.  As a child, I watched blowhard Ralph Kramden get put in his place by his wife Alice time and time again on “The Honeymooners.”  She wasn’t mean or cruel, she loved him, but when she saw him getting too big for his britches she delivered a well-timed one liner to point out his grandiosity, not to wound, but to correct, to help him get right-sized again.  “All In The Family” pushed boundaries addressing more controversial themes, but the point of the jokes was always to expose Archie’s bigotry. Innocent people were never the target of the humor.  The targets of previous TV humor were people whose behavior had crossed a line, and they got put in their place for it.  

“Married With Children” demonstrated a change in the target and the spirit of the humor.  Suddenly, audiences began laughing when Al Bundy made crude jokes about his daughter’s sexual behavior, and no one spoke up. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” followed soon after, and audiences laughed uproariously when people fell and got embarrassed, or hurt.  Kids going headfirst over bicycles, tables collapsing under people dancing on them, multitudes of crotch injuries caught on tape became the norm.  People laughed, and I didn’t hear many people asking what I was asking: “What’s funny about people getting hurt?” I cancelled my cable and read more books.

It was only a few years down the road that a man running for the highest office in the land visibly mocked a reporter with disabilities on national TV. It should have ended his candidacy right there, but it didn’t. Far from it. His outrageous behavior escalated, and his supporters became more excited, more zealous, more fanatical in their support of him, and the reason is simple: Donald Trump has given people permission to be proud of things about themselves that they should be ashamed of, and they’re overjoyed for it.  

Not all Trump supporters are bad people. Not by a long shot. I know many who, by all accounts, are good, decent men and women. They seem oblivious to the significance of his evil, which I cannot fathom, but they don’t seem evil themselves. Not all Trump supporters are ignorant, vile racists, but every ignorant, vile racist I’ve ever met or heard of is a Trump supporter, and it’s easy to see why: he validates them, and in doing so they no longer have to cave in to the societal pressure to act like decent, civilized human beings. Free at last, free at last, in the most perverse bastardization of the spirit of freedom this country was founded on.

I have always loved my country, but have become sickened by what I have seen it become. I have come to cringe at the sight of an American flag. I have seen more of them the last few months than after 9/11, when our country displayed them proudly as a symbol of unity, and love of our fellow men and women. Now, it seems like it has become a badge of honor among bullies, whose “Fuck Your Feelings” on a Trump poster speaks volumes about the lack of respect for others they so pride themselves on.  When did not giving a damn about others become fashionable? Under a president who makes no secret of feeling the same way? Or is he a symptom, the culmination of years and years of our society becoming more and more OK with things that just aren’t right?

Am I absolutely sure that the man who was taking down his flag was removing it because Trump lost the election? I am not, but I am sure of this: It’s time for decency to become important again. I want to feel pride in my country, and to not feel fear when a group of trucks decorated with American flags rolls down the street. We have a long way to go, the narrow margin of victory in this election proves that, but we have begun, and we must keep moving to undo the wreckage of our past. Love America, but love the people in it, too. If you love this land of liberty and justice for all, then display your flag with pride, but don’t be a hypocrite. If you take your flag down, if you don’t need it anymore because Donald Trump lost the election, then you’ve proved what I’ve sensed all along: all that flag meant to you was “bullies welcome here.” Well, you’re not welcome anymore.

Mike Donohue is a father, grandfather and friend who hopes for a better world for his family and loved ones to live in.  He is a licensed chemical dependency counselor, former professional musician, political moderate, and has published articles related to local music, addiction recovery, and human rights.  He also created a video montage that was shown at the 2017 and 2018 Women’s March in Seneca Falls.

Syracuse resident and Trump supporter Walter Scammell spray-painted ‘BIDEN’ on a sofa he put out to the curb for trash pickup. He wanted to see what reaction it would generate on his street, which is staunchly pro-Democratic Party. “It beats the hell out of getting your house paint-balled and egged,” Scammell said. Photo © Michelle Gabel.


If I had a nickel for every house with at least one sign supporting Democrats or Black Lives Matter on Allen Street in Syracuse, I’d have at least $1.50. If I had a nickel for every house with a Trump sign, I’d have … well, a nickel. 

“Being a Republican around here,” says Walter Scammell, “doesn’t amount to a flea fart in a hurricane.”

Scammell’s house at 506 Allen Street is festooned with banners, bumper stickers and signs supporting the incumbent president. Large blue banners flank the upstairs windows and say TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN and POLICE LIVES MATTER.  On the porch pillars are vertical banners that say TRUMP and 2020. A lawn sign with a picture of a grimacing Joe Biden says: “SAY NO TO CREEPY JOE.” Along the top of the porch is another message: HELP! # NO COPS # CALL A CRACKHEAD. On his back door a bumper sticker says: “I’m a Happy Deplorable.”

His neighborhood thinks otherwise. In the half-mile stretch of Allen Street between Euclid and East Genesee streets, more than 30 houses have lawn signs and banners promoting Democrats or Black Lives Matter or both. The surrounding streets boast only one lawn sign for a Republican (Sam Rodgers for state senate). 

Of all the houses on Allen Street showing support for BLM and/or Democrats, the loudest is directly across the street from Scammell at 515 Allen. Across the front of the second story of Jeffry Mateo’s house are large banners saying BLACK LIVES MATTER and FLUSH THE TURD NOVEMBER THIRD 2020. Another banner suggests that one perform a sexual act on or with the president. Metaphorically, one hopes.

The house on Allen Street across the street from Scammell’s home. Resident Jeffry Mateo put up the banners after seeing Scammell’s pro-Trump banners and signs. Photo by Jim McKeever.

Mateo says he initially put up a banner in response to Scammell’s “Trump” and “Police Lives Matter” banners. Then, Mateo says, Scammell put up more, so Mateo did also. “It was kind of tit for tat,” he says. In spite of their visual sparring, the two have never spoken to each other. Mateo says he figures he will one of these days. Scammell answers “Probably not,” when asked if he will try to talk with Mateo. “I gave up on this area as far as trying to change anybody’s mind.” 

Allen Street’s lean to the left is due in large part to the influence of nearby Syracuse University, Scammell says.  And he doesn’t think highly of the university itself. A few years back, he says, he was at a coffee house on Westcott Street. “There was a professor of sociology … expounding all this wonderful crap and he said, ‘We should get rid of the military.’ I couldn’t take it and looked at him and said, ‘Why are we getting rid of the military?’ He said, ‘Nobody will ever invade us,’ and I said, ‘Why wouldn’t anybody invade us?’ and he said, ‘They wouldn’t be able to run our economy.’”

Scammell throws up his hands in resignation. 

“I had no response,” he says. “I mean, OK, they’ve dropped the bombs, they do the artillery and then they’re going to send in the accountants?” He shakes his head. “So that’s what Syracuse University is all about: They’re so far out there that they’re hard to talk to.”

His opinions have gotten some pushback. 

“They put three paintballs into the Donald Trump sign and threw a couple of eggs onto the porch, but nothing else has happened,” he says.

A while back, he put a sofa out on the curb for pickup. Then, “just for the hell of it,” he spray-painted “Biden” on the sofa. “I wanted to see what the reaction would be.” He placed it so it was perpendicular to the house so drivers on Allen Street would see it. Someone at night turned it so the “Biden” faced Scammell’s house. Scammell turned it over so the “Biden” was hidden. Next day, it was right-side up again, with “Biden” for all to see. Scammell saw it all as good fun. “It beats the hell out of getting your house paint-balled and egged. If they were going to do something, I’d rather have them tip the couch over.  It’s a low way to resist, I guess.”

Scammell, an open and wiry guy of 71, agreed to chat on a recent evening and laid out his ideas and opinions across a picnic table in the back yard of the house he’s lived in since 1983. He says there are a few other Republicans (“maybe one each block”) in the area, but none of them are making it known by way of lawn signs or banners. He grew up a Democrat and only switched parties in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran for president. He’s been a committed Republican since.

Walter Scammell’s home on Allen Street in Syracuse. Photo by Jim McKeever.

Not just a Republican, though. He is a whole hearted supporter of the president. “Best thing that’s happened to this country,” he says. He sees Trump as having followed through on his promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington. All the other politicians are crooks just getting rich off the American people. He dismisses criticism of the president as either fake, exaggerated or inconsequential. The U.S. media has been out to get Trump since even before the 2016 election, he says, and never lets up or reports anything positive about the president.

He believes that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. He saw a Power Point proving it. “Defund the Police” is a gift to the gangs. He agrees with the president that John McCain was a “loser” but doesn’t fault the president for not serving. “Nobody wants to go to war,” he says. The performance of Obama and Biden when the N1H1 flu struck in 2009 was worse than Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. The Biden family is corrupt and in cahoots with China. And so on.

Scammell says he doesn’t listen to or read news produced nationally. For his news, he principally relies on RT news. That’s a television and news network funded by the Russian government, according to Media Bias/Fact Check. RT news gets a “Very Low” rating on Factual Reporting and “presents news that is generally in line with the narrative of the Russian Government. … They are highly biased in favor of Russia,” according to Media Bias. Columbia Journalism Review has called RT “a propaganda outlet” for Russia.

He also likes Al Jazeera and says they cover the president more objectively than U.S. media outlets. 

Asked if he thought the country would be able to pull out of its current malaise and get back on track in the future, regardless of who wins the election, Scammell answers: “Not in my lifetime.”

In spite of his views that run contrary to those of the neighborhood, he says he gets along with most of his neighbors, other than one person across the street who no longer speaks to him, and his former dentist who Scammell says crosses the street to avoid him. As he and I say goodbye in his driveway, a young couple has paused on the sidewalk to look at Mateo’s house across the street. Scammell says hello to them. The young woman walks on as if she didn’t hear. The young man looks at Scammell and then he, too, walks on without saying a word.

“See what I mean,” Scammell says.

A view of Allen Street in Syracuse, where signs in support of Democratic candidates and the Black Lives Matter movement abound. The front yard of Scammell’s home, with the light pole, is in the background. Photo by Jim McKeever.
A neighbor, middle, opposing a Black Lives Matter protest in front of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, N.Y., engaged protesters in a heated argument on June 19. Police were called. Photo © Michelle Gabel


The summer of 2020 was one of violence.

More violence — and deaths — seem inevitable with the approach of the Nov. 3 elections, widely viewed as a referendum on the current administration and its policies. 

Anxiety and tension have risen with more videotaped incidents involving police officers and Black men, threats of voting fraud, warnings of armed conflict and inflammatory statements and lies by those with a public forum. 

But violence — and deaths — in the streets can be avoided.

A June 19 incident at a Black Lives Matter protest in Fayetteville, N.Y., provides insight into ways to avoid violence. That situation was not as volatile as many other protests, but it shed light on de-escalation methods that can be useful in any heated situation. (June 19 is Juneteenth, an important event in African-American history marking the day in 1865 when enslaved people of color in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863):

Note: We encourage readers to use the Comment space below to share experiences that were successfully de-escalated by police or by others — or stories of conflicts that spun out of control — and the circumstances involved. This post includes an edited transcript of an interview with two Town of Manlius police officers who helped de-escalate a potentially violent incident.

The context: 

Black Lives Matters protesters in Fayetteville held daily actions for several weeks following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Dozens of protesters – I was among them — stood in front of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center along busy Route 5 for 90 minutes every afternoon, holding signs and waving to passersby.

Most people were supportive, but some objected to our presence and our messages, including a neighbor of the Gage Center who engaged protesters in a heated argument. He had briefly shown his opposition at earlier protests, but on June 19 he wouldn’t let up, coming close to protesters on the sidewalk and proclaiming “This is white country in front of my house!” and “You’re all being paid by George Soros!” 

Someone called the police,  and three officers arrived – an Onondaga County Sheriff’s deputy and two Town of Manlius police officers. They spoke to protesters and to the man on his front porch for about 20 minutes, and then left.

I was certain that as soon as the officers were out of sight, the man would be back at it. Instead, he didn’t budge from his porch. As far as I recall, he didn’t appear at any of the remaining days of protests. 

Onondaga County Sheriff Deputy Helen Sorrento, middle left, and Town of Manlius police officers Alicia Hibbard, middle, and Julia Quinlan, middle right, were called to a Black Lives Matter protest in Fayetteville, N.Y., when a neighbor, left, drew protesters into a heated argument on June 19. Photo © Michelle Gabel

What did those officers say that kept the man quiet? 

I contacted Manlius police chief Michael Crowell, who agreed to an interview and arranged for me to talk with the two Manlius officers involved, Alicia Hibbard and Julia Quinlan.  

Crowell, who was a Manlius officer for 17 years before serving as chief in North Syracuse and returning to lead Manlius’ department, was eager to talk about a communication style known as Verbal Judo. Crowell learned of the strategy more than a decade ago in a class taught by its founder, George Thompson, who was a police officer, college professor and martial arts practitioner. Thompson died in 2011.

Verbal Judo includes communication strategies for police to use in tense situations with people who may be agitated. For example, police may ask rather than order the person to do something. They may also give them options as opposed to threatening them.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Crowell said. “I had 15 years a cop, and I realized a lot of what I was communicating was wrong. It was a revelation.”

Crowell brought the technique to Manlius, where all 38 officers go through annual training. 

“Ninety-nine percent of what we do is communication,” Crowell said. “All forms of de-escalation (use) listening, paraphrasing” and avoiding confrontational language.

After officers master the technique of Verbal Judo, Crowell said, they can resolve difficult situations calmly and leave a positive impression on the people involved. “And it helps morale and the well-being of the officers,” Crowell said.

Here are excerpts from my Aug. 21 conversation with officers Alicia Hibbard and Julia Quinlan, who discussed the June 19 incident and how police — and protesters — can use de-escalation techniques when such confrontations occur. Their recorded comments were edited for length. Hibbard has been an officer three years, Quinlan more than two years. Manlius is the only department where they’ve worked.

Quinlan: A lot of what we do and are trained to do is just talk with people. Like a family member, try to understand where they’re coming from and not judge them … it’s hearing them out on what they say, and a lot of what we do is finding points on how to relate to them. Officer Hibbard did great (with the angry neighbor). She made a connection with his hometown and calmed him down from the get-go … it was a way to get him off the topic of what he was upset about and yelling about at the protesters, to get him into a different place where he was more calm and relaxed. When he was (calm), we said, “They’re doing nothing wrong by standing out there protesting in front of the Gage House and you have to respect that. You have your own opinions of what should or shouldn’t happen in life.” 

Hibbard: He was (agitated). I recognized him from my hometown … He was upset, and as soon as I said, “Are you from there?” he came down. We were just talking about our hometown. As Officer Quinlan said, as soon as you get someone down from that angry state of emotion, that’s what you run with. When you’re up here (raises her hand to show an elevated emotional state), you’re not really thinking clearly at the moment, but as soon as you bring them down to a level of calmness, you can relate to them more. Once we established he was ready to hear us out, Officer Quinlan did a great job of saying, “Look, you both have your First Amendment rights but you have to be respectful of one another.” … That’s part of Verbal Judo, relating and getting that person from that highly emotional state to a place where they’re thinking more clearly, so that nothing escalates. It’s all about de-escalation. We didn’t want anything to happen to you guys and we didn’t want anything to happen to him either.

Onondaga County Sheriff Deputy Helen Sorrento, top right, and Town of Manlius police officers Julia Quinlan, bottom left, and Alicia Hibbard, were called when a neighbor, top left, opposed a Black Lives Matter protest in Fayetteville, N.Y., June 19. Photo © Michelle Gabel

Quinlan: Venting is a lot of Verbal Judo, and it’s a lot more listening than talking. A lot of it is just talking to them in a monotone — you’re not screaming at them. Screaming at one another doesn’t help. If anything, it makes it worse, but you want to talk to them with a soft voice. I have a quiet voice, so people will (lower their voice) just to hear what I’m saying. 

Hibbard: People will match your voice level. If you’re screaming, they’re going to scream as well and obviously that gets the blood flowing a little bit faster and the heart pumping. 

Quinlan: It’s not 100 percent, but our first go-to move with any call regardless of what it is, is to use our words, to de-escalate the situation — just talking to them, not with just commands, communication first. Worst case scenario, resort to our duty belt, which is not where we want to go. Our belt is a tool for us, but it’s not something that we’re looking to use. It’s just an accessory to help us do our jobs better. Our words are what we use every single day, every single call and (they) help us get through the day and help us get home safe at night, just being able to talk with people. 

Hibbard: Obviously, during this time (in America) people want to be heard. … We can sympathize with them and respect their First Amendment rights. We take no sides. We try to resolve situations. … I’m hoping the protests still continue to see the change that needs to happen, or that people think needs to happen. Reform is a good thing when it’s benefiting the protection of people. 

Quinlan: The hard part responding to a call like that, there’s so many people, trying to figure out the issue, who is the instigator, different things we’re focused on, keeping everybody separated. That day specifically, Deputy (Helen) Sorrento was already speaking with the gentleman on the porch. We tried to tell the protesters to ignore him, not engage with him, and that really helps. When you give him the satisfaction of engaging with him, it’s just going to fuel him more to come after (protesters). That helped a lot, because with him not getting the attention — 

Hibbard: — It’s not fun anymore — 

Quinlan: We want to protect you guys … we already knew you guys had numerous complaints about people being rude and obnoxious and harassing you guys, whether it’s people driving by or whatever. We want you to feel safe enough to demonstrate your First Amendment rights. You resort to your training to keep everyone calm, so no one’s hurt and everyone goes home safe. It’s no different. … Deputy Sorrento had told the Black Lives Matter people to ignore him and not give him attention.

(Do you have any advice for protesters?)

Hibbard: It’s very hard to have that type of (self-)control especially when you’re that passionate about something. Besides listening and sympathizing, say … “I hear you, but this is what I’m doing and this is what I believe in. And it’s my First Amendment right.” Always keep it at that calm level, try not to yell. Try to sympathize, listen and use a calm voice.

Quinlan: Some of it is to try to find avenues that you can both benefit one another … show them you’re trying to not only voice your opinions and rights but you care about people in the community and what’s going on in their life. … It’s easy to react with emotion and anger. You’ve got to step back and think of what you’re going to say and be cognizant of how your words are going to impact somebody else and how they could impact whether this gets into a physical altercation or agree to disagree and head in our different directions.

Hibbard: There’s always common ground somehow. Talk and listen to get to that point, but not if you’re always talking and not listening. 

Quinlan: Right now we’re also in a tricky time period, it’s tricky with COVID. “Domestics” have gone up, people are stuck at home, they get on each other’s last nerve and sometimes take it out on each other, let out some steam, push the real issue aside and nit-picking with what’s in front of you … it’s easy to point fingers at someone else. We see a lot of that, too. … A lot of people remember the little things we do, the kind gestures. Even people at their worst point, you do a kind gesture even taking them into custody — we’ve had people we’ve arrested thank us because of kind gestures we’ve done during that process. 

Hibbard: That’s where that trust comes in. If you’re up front and say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on and we’re going to do this together. It’s not the end of the world. We’ll do it together and we’ll get through it.” That’s better and builds that trust and rapport. … not “because I say so.” 

Quinlan: I don’t know any officers who go that route of, “You’re going to do this because I told you to.”

(How could that situation at the BLM protest have gone bad? What factors make things go wrong?)

Hibbard: We’re all trained the same. It’s kind of up to the person we’re talking to if we end up going a different route. … It’s up to people. If he (were) charging at you guys, we might’ve had to detain him to get him to calm down. We want to protect protesters and protect him. if it escalates, we’re trained enough that it’s not something we did, it’s something we had to get to the point where it’s because of the subject’s actions, not ours. … It’s difficult. Everybody’s different. … If you don’t know people on a personal level, you don’t know (if they might have) weapons when we walk into a situation. We have no idea about that stuff.

Dominique Barr, of Fayetteville, one of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter protest in front of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, N.Y., talks with Town of Manlius police officer Julia Quinlan after a neighbor argued with protesters June 19. Photo © Michelle Gabel

Quinlan: We all try to treat people with respect. Once they have a bad experience with an officer, they take that to the next officer regardless if it’s same officer or not. It’s important to show respect to everybody, no matter what kind of crisis they’re going through. … Show them respect and they’ll give respect back, is mostly what we see around here. Even if they don’t show us respect, we have to show them respect. That’s our job to remain calm and handle the situation. 

Hibbard: There’s nothing saying you can’t make the wrong right. Say you made a mistake, just apologize. … We’re never perfect. This job’s about learning and adjusting. On a call, we realize what we said may trigger some people and may make others feel good. Everyone’s different, especially with mental illness. You find something that makes them get down to that level. If we say something that brings them back up, OK, that’s a red flag, don’t bring that up.

Quinlan: That’s a lot of the trick of our job. You don’t know people’s history. It’s about getting to know the person and getting to know a little bit about them to help us do our job better and keep them safe.


Since our interview in August, the list of incidents involving police failures to de-escalate situations has continued to grow — especially those involving white officers and Black men. The most well-known recent example is the videotaped shooting in Kenosha, Wis. of Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back. Video has also emerged of Rochester police using a “spit hood” for two minutes over the head of Daniel Prude, a naked man having a mental health crisis on a street last March (Prude lost consciousness and died seven days later after being taken off life support). And, in Syracuse Sept. 14, a city police officer was videotaped challenging a man verbally and then shoving him in the face.

I asked Crowell subsequently how he and his officers react to watching those videos and what they can learn from those incidents. Here is his Sept. 16 e-mail response.

“We do use videos for training but today they have become prolific and we could not possibly address each and every one. In addition, the officers know that videos are often one dimensional; meaning, they alone cannot offer all of the factors one would need to consider before forming a proper opinion. 

“Some videos however, offer enough information for officers to discuss and compare our various laws, guidelines and procedures which we are all sworn to follow here in NY. This allows for healthy debate and/or discussion among the ranks which often spills over into roll call and other training sessions. 

“Video can be used to play the ‘what if’ game which is a daily training exercise for many of us. I’m certain the officers would agree that if any one video tends to cast a police officer in a negative light, we all feel hurt and or disappointed. 

“Often we are judged by the perceived poor performance by any policeman in any uniform in any area of the country. Also, they know that perception is not always reality. This is why we use tactical communication always – we always assume we are being recorded and do not want to be the one who tarnished the badge.”

Note: After the Black Lives Matters protests in Fayetteville ended in July, a group of protesters — many of whom had not known each other previously — decided to continue the connections they had made by forming a book club. The first title the group discussed was “Nonviolent Communication,” by Marshall Rosenberg. 

A driver in a passing car shows support for the Black Lives Matter protest on Route 5 in Fayetteville, N.Y., June 19. Photo © Michelle Gabel
Photo © Michelle Gabel.


A character in Linda Britt’s play, “American Dreams: Immigration Stories,” delivers a searing monologue challenging the sanitized view of American history, its omission of brutal European colonialism and the centuries of suffering it caused people of color who were here first or brought here as slaves.

The character, a young woman who emigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua, points out that Americans are taught their ancestors came here, worked hard and succeeded — facts of stolen land, discrimination, rape and murder are omitted.

“You never question your good fortune,” the character, Alicia, tells the audience. “You take it for granted.” She says she has had to study and work hard in America, yet is told to go back home, that she is “lucky” to be here.

Alicia concludes her monologue: “So I ask you, how did you get here? What did you do to earn what you were born with?”

Those words come to me frequently these days.

A new, part-time job takes me into neighborhoods in Syracuse that I would not otherwise visit, simply because I haven’t had to.

There, a 15-minute drive from my comfortable middle-class suburban life, I see poverty and despair that cuts across racial lines. I tell my friends and family that the living conditions for some in these neighborhoods are far worse than what I have seen in migrant shelters in Mexico — mold, bug infestations, syringes and condom wrappers in hallways, foul odors, litter.

Inside a tiny apartment strewn with trash, a young man tried to smile when he said to me, “My family is kind of broken. That’s why I am the way I am.”

A friend asked me the other day how the new job is going. I told him some of what I have encountered, the blatant disparities between my life and theirs. His response provided crystal-clear historical context.

“Laws exist so that we don’t have to care about them.” 

It is something so obvious, yet I doubt it occurs to the comfortable among us.

Yes. Laws, written and unwritten, in place for generations, have allowed many of my suburban neighbors to “not have to care” about anyone other than their own kind.

School district funding systems that ensure unequal education. Housing red-lining that keeps people of color out of white neighborhoods. Employment-based access to quality health care. Eminent domain. And so on.

These are the walls that have already been built across America, invisible barriers to “keep people in their place.” Out of sight, out of mind. 

Which brings me to another phrase that I cannot get out of my head. 

It’s from the courageous attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy” and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Ala. Stevenson says with urgency, “Be proximate.” Get to know “the other,” their struggles, their hopes and their dreams. 

Do this, and you may tap into a vein of empathy, of humanity. 

“Incredible things happen when you’re proximate to those who suffer,” Stevenson told a Syracuse audience in 2017.

Change only happens “when good people are willing to do uncomfortable things,” he said.

Stevenson’s words, for me, dovetail perfectly with those of Alicia, Linda Britt’s character from Nicaragua. 

“What did you do to earn what you were born with?” 

While that question was directed toward people born into opportunity, if not privilege, its full scope must be considered:

What about the poor person, the person of color in America, the person born into poverty and violence anywhere in the world . . . 

What did they do to earn what they were born with?

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. Editor’s note: The headline, “You have seen their faces,” is borrowed from You Have Seen Their Faces, the 1937 collaboration between Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Their book, written by Caldwell with photographs by Bourke-White, documented the plight of the poor in the depression-era south. More than 80 years after its publication, we are still looking at the face of poverty.

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