Giving the Peace Sign
In 1989, in the Brooklyn neighborhood known as Bensonhurst, an African-American teenager named Yusef Hawkins was beaten and murdered by a group of Italian-American youths. The incident, which made national headlines for weeks, occurred right in front of an elementary school that had recently become part of the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP).
This incident happened because Yusef was in the “wrong neighborhood.'' He was answering an ad for a used car in a Brooklyn paper. The honors student didn't realize that, when he got off the N train at the Avenue U stop, he would find himself in the middle of a very insular and isolated Italian-American enclave. Most of its residents have lived there for two or three generations, and many of them—grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren—still live close to their extended families. A group of teenagers saw Yusef Hawkins at the train stop. Their fear and hatred escalated. They began to beat him with baseball bats and eventually killed him.
I was the coordinating the RCCP for the New York City Board of Education at the time. Being the highest-ranking Italian-American in the chancellor's cabinet, I was immediately sent to the neighborhood. I convinced an RCCP teacher, Beatrice Byrd, who was then Brooklyn president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), to accompany me. We spent many evenings in Bensonhurst, trying to open up dialogue between two groups of people who shared only a well-defined border: the African Americans who lived in a housing development on one side of town, and the Italian Americans who lived in tenements and two-family homes on the other. Adding to the tensions, every Saturday following the incident, several black churches bussed in hundreds of parishioners for nonviolent protest marches through the streets. Fear and embarrassment ran high within the Italian-American community. During the weekday evening meetings, we attempted to keep the dialogue open as each march was announced.
The meetings usually went right through dinnertime, so we were all pretty hungry at the end. I had started a ritual of gathering a group of African-American folks to go out and get a bite to eat before going home. Once the nightly meetings were over, I couldn't bear to go anywhere near my Italian-American brothers and sisters. I was afraid I would hear them repeating the same discriminatory remarks about African Americans that I had heard some of my aunts and uncles make when I was growing up. Keeping my rage inside was difficult enough during the public meetings.
I wished I'd remembered Gandhi's example sooner. When violence broke out between Muslims and Hindus on the eve of the partition of India, Gandhi went to the province of Bengal, where the fighting had begun, and spent as much time with those who had committed the violence as with those who were hurt by it. He served both equally.
We were about three weeks into the Bensonhurst incident when I experienced a new awareness of how important it was to fully embrace those of my own ethnicity, in spite of what they had been doing and saying. A courageous African-American pastor helped me break through my own shadow.
It was a Tuesday night during our usual evening meeting. The pastor from Brooklyn was sharing an experience that had happened to him on the previous Saturday. He had been chosen to lead the protest march through Bensonhurst that day. Three or four congregations had bussed in several hundred people, who got off the bus, and prayerfully and peacefully lined up behind him. The marchers had moved about two blocks when several onlookers began to throw tomatoes and pieces of watermelon at them. Since the minister was right up front, it wasn't long before his crisp, tailored gray suit and white shirt was smattered with red juice.
While he was telling the story, I began to think I could not go on listening because the situation disturbed me so much. All my stereotypes about my own heritage were building up inside. But I forced myself to keep listening as the pastor continued:
“When I was hit with the tomatoes, I made the mistake of glancing down at my shirt. Deep humiliation engulfed me, and the pain and despair of centuries began to overcome me. I didn't know how I was going to take another step. I looked back and saw the hundreds of faithful followers being humiliated as well. Feeling I was losing courage quickly, I did the only thing I knew to do: I looked up to the heavens for spiritual sustenance. And when I looked up, I saw an angel disguised as an elderly Italian-American woman. She was probably about eighty years old and precariously hanging out her fourth floor tenement window, giving me the peace sign!”
At the sight of this woman, the minister's spirit reignited. He pointed upward. The whole group of marchers were now looking upward and walking forward. The old woman had the courage to hold up her hand for several more minutes before she became tired. The pastor finished the march that day, and so did the three hundred people behind him.
The pastor is among those who know that there is a rescuer in every group of oppressors. That night, when he finished his story and it was time to go to eat, I cautiously crossed over to the other side of the room and went out to dinner with the Italian-American group for the first time since I had been going to Bensonhurst. At the restaurant, we had Chianti and pasta, and wished for harmony to return to their shattered community.
I'm convinced that we have as much work to do in breaking the cycle of oppression within our own ethnic groups as we have in building bridges to link us with those who are different. I often need to remind myself that not everyone in any one group acts, feels, thinks, and behaves the same when it comes to issues of prejudice. When I need reassurance of this, I remember the precious old woman who transformed a protest march—and my thinking—with one kind move of her arm that sustained hope.
Excerpted from Waging Peace in Our Schools
by Linda Lantieri and Janet Patti, Beacon Press. 1996
Linda Lantieri, MA, an internationally known expert in
conflict resolution and peace education, is the cofounder of the Resolving
Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP). Currently she serves as the Director
of the Inner Resilience Program. She has experience as a former teacher,
assistant principal, director of an alternative middle school in East Harlem,
and faculty member of the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hunter
College in New York City. She is the coauthor of Waging Peace in Our
Schools (Beacon Press, 1996) editor of Schools with Spirit: Nurturing
the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers (Beacon Press, 2001), and
author of Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques to Cultivate Inner
Strength in Children (Sounds True, 2008 forthcoming).
The Inner Resilience Program is a project of the Tides Center