Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

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.


Weeks after several other Black Lives Matter signs on a fence in my village had been ripped down, one remained — “No Freedom Till We’re Equal.” Its creator had taken some care with it, using different paints, tape and plastic ties to attach the sturdy foam board to the fence.

Its message is clear and positive. Some may see it as a threat, but I don’t. And it is not a retort like “All Lives Matter,” which is so often hurled at Black Lives Matter activists. “All Lives Matter” entirely misses the point. Of course all lives matter; “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t say “more than yours” after it.

When I drove by the fence these past few weeks, as thousands do every day, I looked at the sign and saw hope — the hope inherent in the message, but also in the fact that the sign remained unscathed.

Until recently. 

That’s when a pro-police passerby felt the need to superimpose his or her views and block the original message from view. 

My first reaction was anger. Then frustration. 

The vandalism is a perfect example of our country’s seeming inability to heal itself. 

Why not place the pro-police sign next to the original, instead of gluing every inch of the paper to the sign underneath? Does your act of censorship help bring people together in any way? Do you even want to bring people together?

If your goal was to convince people to value the lives of police officers, it failed. If anything, it likely validates the anger felt by everyone who was appalled by the video of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer (to name just one incident).

No, I’m not anti-police. I know and have encountered a lot of good cops. I taught a couple of them as high school students in the ’80s, and had one as a neighbor for years. A high-ranking member of the New York State Police is the godfather of one of my sons.

Are there people who have no business being cops? Yes, as is the case in all professions. But with law enforcement, the stakes are obviously higher. And it’s not just a few “bad apples.” There are way too many bad actors and silent enablers backed by powerful unions that protect their own, no matter what. Think of how many Derek Chauvins were on the street using their guns and badges (and knees) to exorcise their demons before the advent of cell phone videos. And it hasn’t stopped.

Ideally, there would be conversations among people who have different views on this and other issues that cause so much anger and divisiveness. But we have a long way to go.

To the person who vandalized the “No Freedom Till We’re Equal” sign, I hope your view is more nuanced, that you have an understanding of the systemic racism this country was built on, an awareness of centuries of oppression and violence based on skin color alone. 

You and I likely will never have that conversation. 

But I am curious about something — did you vandalize the sign in broad daylight? Or did you sneak up to it under cover of darkness? 

I ask because I have a “Black Lives Matter” sign in my front yard, where I often sit in the evenings, hoping passersby will stop and talk — even if they don’t share my views. 

The reality, however, is that a neighbor had her “Black Lives Matter” sign stolen from her yard a few weeks ago. And earlier this summer an angry driver spewed loud profanity about my sign as he drove past my house. 

Until we’re equal I’ll keep the sign on my lawn. But until we can have rational conversations without hostility, I’ll continue to take it inside the house at night. 

Jim McKeever is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He is an independent journalist and advocate.

The Gramzas during an Alice Cooper concert, summer 2019, at CMAC in Canandaigua, N.Y. From left, Janet, Jewel, Joyce and Joyce’s wife, Z.


Whether we believe in Heaven, the Great Beyond, the Other Side, the Rainbow Bridge, or nothing at all, we fear death most because its one certainty is that it will come. Everything else about it is a gaping unknown.

In our most comforting vision about how it may come for us, our closest loved ones surround us, holding our hands as we breathe our last.

This wish is one that we’ve been blessed to help grant for our mom, Florence Cavuoto Gramza, and our baby sis, Julie Gramza (Jewel), both of whom made it clear they did not want to die in a hospital.

It’s a wish and a comfort that has been denied to many dying people and their families during the quarantine restrictions of COVID-19 — a denial that has amplified survivors’ grief, magnified their feelings of guilt and been portrayed as one of the most horrible things about this pandemic.

Yet lately we’ve been revisiting our own wishes about where and how we want to die — and we now feel compelled to retract them.

Our mom passed away at age 75 at the home of Joyce and her wife, Z, who thankfully is an RN and gerontology specialist, on Sept. 23, 2013. As death came for Mom, Joyce was lying next to her in the hospice-provided hospital bed, Janet was in a chair holding her hand, and Z was alongside Janet. 

We had all fallen asleep when Janet awoke at about 1:45 a.m., feeling someone had tapped her on the shoulder. Mom was barely breathing. Janet woke Joyce and Z, saying, “This is it.” Z bent over her with her stethoscope, hearing her heart’s last beat at about 2 a.m., and pronounced her.

With the same gentleness and dignity that we provided in her last weeks, we washed Mom and dressed her for the hospice and funeral home people to see to.

Our presence throughout had helped ease her fear. Her death was peaceful, aided by morphine, and it was a huge blessing, even a major accomplishment, to have it happen the way she wanted.

But it was devastating for those of us who were there. Seven years later, we have still not fully recovered from the ordeal, and our family members who weren’t there don’t understand, after all this time, why it remains so hard to process.

Julie ‘Jewel’ Gramza and her mother, Florence Cavuoto Gramza, on Jewel’s wedding day to Jesse in 2009, Jekyll Island, Ga.

More recently, we were there for our baby sister’s death at her home in St. Augustine, Fla., at about 5 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2020, one week shy of her 55th birthday.

Jewel had a rare type of gallbladder cancer and we had been obeying her requests that we take turns visiting her — until her husband summoned her three siblings and two daughters because the end was near. Janet, Joyce and Jewel’s friend Becca kept a vigil keeping her comfortable, and with no medical professional there, the hospice nurse advised us to start the morphine and call her when Jewel was gone. We held her as much as she could tolerate and loved her through her last breaths. 

Treating her with the gentleness and dignity we tried to provide during her dying, we bathed her, combed out her beautiful hair, and dressed her in her husband’s chosen outfit for the hospice and mortician people to see to.

It seemed a huge blessing to be with Jewel for her death — but it was devastating for those of us who were there.

Despite caregivers’ best efforts, death isn’t often quick, dignified or pretty. For loved ones untrained in comfort care and who do not know what to expect, it’s a recipe for trauma. 

An NPR story on hospice care shared the stories of people who did their best to give their loved ones “a good death,” and why some are now reconsidering their own last wishes. Families who helped loved ones die at home said they weren’t prepared for the amount of nursing care that would fall on them or the exhaustion and helplessness they felt in the last days. 

“I do think that when they are at home, they are in a peaceful environment,” said a palliative care doctor. “It is comfortable for them. But it may not be comfortable for family members watching them taking their last breath.”

Was being there for our mom and our sis something we are glad we did? Absolutely. Is it something we would ask of our own spouses and children? No way!

Our last memories of our mom and our sister are in death, eyes and mouth open, their bodies empty shells — and that’s not how we want to be remembered.

The experiences have left us thinking that when our time comes, as afraid as we may be, even if our loved ones want us to die at home, we wouldn’t wish it on them.

Looking back on our mom’s and sister’s deaths, we also realize that we were likely more present and focused on their dying moments than they were. Both were on morphine at the end, which dims awareness, and both seemed to be elsewhere well before their physical bodies shut down.

Many people who have had near-death experiences describe being outside their bodies and being pulled back reluctantly. After our mom’s death, we wondered why we woke up just in time. We felt like she was behind it — like she had already left her body and stopped to wake us before she departed. We now believe she wasn’t even in the building for the part that pains us to this day.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our frontline medical workers are true heroes. We have heard story after story of people who died “alone” — without their families present — but who had professional providers by their side, comforting them and caring for them with the devotion and expertise that befits their vocation.

We know that, odds are, if we can’t have our favorite nurse, Z, holding our hands when we go, we’ll be totally blessed if some other nurse is there. We’ve decided we will likely choose to go to the hospital or a skilled nursing facility rather than die at home. We want to die knowing that some kind, competent, knowledgeable and calm caregiver is there for us. And then, they’ll be there for our family.

Janet and Joyce Gramza are identical twins who both grew up to be journalists — Janet in newspapers and other publications, and Joyce in science media. They reside about 20 miles from each other in Oswego County, N.Y.

Sense of Decency

The author and his daughter, Ruth, just above a sharp left turn on a rapid nicknamed “The Wall” on the Black River, Quebec, 2011. The wall of rock is not particularly friendly to canoes being forced hard right.

Push Day


Seven portages already, muskeg up to here

Big water, stiff headwind all day

Hands hard, good mates, no fear

Where’s the site, you say

Around the bend and through the narrows

Sun baking down, visions of a place

Esker topped with pine, plenty of space

Shoulders sore, fading daylight

Where, where’s that site

Round the bend and through the narrows

Hailstorm of insults, hate all round


Rights pushed underground, free press?

Where — oh, where — is that new sight?

Round the bend and through the narrows

End of another river day, 1971. Three pots going, and bannock in the reflector oven. Author, foreground, who guided…

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This is one of many heart sculptures in the Playas (beaches) of Tijuana, Mexico. In the background is a section of border wall separating parts of Mexico from the United States. A mural on the wall honors those who have been deported from the U.S. or are in danger of deportation. Photo © Jim McKeever, September 2019.

Bleeding Heart


The very idea
that someone thinks
calling me a bleeding heart
is an insult
is at the heart
of our inability
to understand one another.

If my heart did not bleed
for the pain of others
if it did not boil
hot inside my chest
at the sight of a child
being separated from her mother
if it did not send thick blood
rushing pulsating throbbing
to fill my head with
a deafening static
at the news of shots
ringing out in a sacred place

Then I would wish my heart
to stop.

Because after all
what is the alternative
to a bleeding heart?

One made of stone?
or ice?
or paralyzed
by a hard shell of hatred?

My heart may bleed
but it continues to beat
and as long as it does …

I will bind up my wounds
so I can tend to the wounds of others
I will get close enough to the cold-hearted
so that my heart’s warmth
might melt their own
I will cushion the landing
as others fall on hard times
so that hearts of stone cannot crush them.

Yes, I am proud of my bleeding heart.

Maybe I’ll even wear it on my sleeve.

From the author:

I wrote “Bleeding Heart” during a time when the news was filled with images of kids in cages, separated from their parents, lying on cement floors, unable to be touched. My heart was already so full from news of daily atrocities, from the stoking of so much hatred, from so many lives lost or destroyed.  

One day, I pulled a T-shirt from my drawer. I had purchased the black shirt at a recent talk by John Pavlovitz (author of the blog “Stuff That Needs to be Said”). On the front is a red anatomical line drawing of a human heart and the words: “I’d rather have a bleeding heart than a dead one.” As I pulled on the shirt, I got to thinking about how the phrase “bleeding heart” is so often hurled as if it were an insult. And I was moved to respond.

Debra Rose Brillati received her BA in Literature from Bard College, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Tufts University, and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Andover Newton Theology School. She is enrolled in a 2-year Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. She lives in Auburn, NY, and is involved with the Social Justice Collective, Celebrate! Diverse Auburn and the Harriet Tubman Boosters. She is a certified spiritual director and a lay pastoral minister at St. James Episcopal Church in Skaneateles, NY.

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