Two and a half years ago, the mom of a transgender daughter had a confrontation in St. Louis with a group similar to the one the Covington Catholic boys encountered in Washington, D.C., last week. The teenage boys from the Catholic school in Northern Kentucky sparked national outrage when their interaction with Nathan Phillips, an Omaha tribe elder, went viral. One of the boys said they were responding to a confrontation with a group of vocal Black Hebrew Israelites.
I've been thinking about the conversation I had with Julie Williams when I wrote about her and her daughters' experience with insulting, homophobic street preachers. They had been walking on Delmar Boulevard after lunch. The group spewed slurs at them when they passed by. Williams figured it was their right and kept walking. Then, one of the men called out to her, “You need ISIS."
Williams stopped. It had been three days since the mass shooting in a gay club in Orlando killed 49 people. Her 20-year-old daughter, who was with her, is transgender.
She's a mother with a child who will face state-sanctioned discrimination throughout her life. And strangers on the street are telling her that her daughter should be murdered.
What she did next stayed with me. Williams told her daughters to keep walking and wait for her farther down the street. She asked the man to clarify what he had just said.
“You will be blown off the face of the Earth,” she said he told her. He and the two other men with him were citing passages from Leviticus in the Bible. Williams, of Creve Coeur, Missouri, said what they said terrified her, and she had no way to gauge if it was a serious threat. She called the police, who were familiar with this group because they frequently stopped there to "preach."
Nothing much came of Williams' complaint. The group had a right to be there, and as vile as their comments were, they didn't directly threaten her or her daughter. At the time, I thought about how difficult that situation must have been for her. In a heated moment, Williams, a white woman, felt threatened and stopped to confront a group of African-American men, one of whom was recording the interaction. It could have gone sideways and viral any number of ways.
But Williams kept her cool. She didn't respond to their hatred with slurs or mock them in any way. She had the wherewithal to tell her daughters to move away because she wanted to protect them from any further abusive language. She also showed her vulnerable child that she would defend her -- that not all abuse should be ignored.
This is how a thoughtful (and brave) adult models behavior for their children. In this bitterly divided country, adults with composure who teach their children that it's possible to stand up for yourself respectfully may not be rare, but they just don't make the news and capture our attention the way bad encounters do.
There's something instructive in the interactions gone wrong beyond reinforcing what we already believe. Parents should ask themselves how they would feel if their son responded exactly like some of those Covington Catholic teens did toward a Native American veteran.
A large segment of the country would be horrified. Others say they would be proud. It's what the past two years have cemented: What horrifies one side delights the other. You can watch as many hours of video of that day as you want online to justify how you feel.
Perhaps the only surprising thing about that incident near the Lincoln Memorial is that there wasn't a single adult around Nick Sandmann or his friends to tell them that walking away would have been more respectful than standing there with a smirk while some of his peers jeered and did tomahawk chops. In the aftermath, when the students were criticized for their behavior, was there a single adult in their lives who explained how standing in an adult's face and smirking can make it look like you want to humiliate and challenge them? In Nick's case, his parents hired a fancy public relations firm to help him put out a statement and prep him for an interview on the “Today” show defending himself. He insisted that he did nothing disrespectful.
Was there an adult in his life who suggested he watch Nathan Phillips’ reaction to his behavior that day, if just to understand how his actions impacted the other human standing in front of him? Sandmann said in his morning show interview that he had nothing to apologize for.
If my children encounter someone shouting slurs at them or their friends, I hope they remember the story about Julie Williams.