Try living in the building – by Terry Howard

If there’s an upside to the images of those protesting the death of George Floyd, it’s dismantling the myth of angry blacks alone roaming the streets, looting, setting fires and burning down their neighborhoods. I mean, one must be blind if they did not see people other than African Americans holding up “Black Lives Matter” posters, getting tear gassed, hand cuffed, arrested ….and looting. Truly a watershed moment in social history if ever there was one.

“Oh my, why are they destroying property in their own neighborhoods?” “They’re hurting their own cause!”These are the typical responses – the mild ones – from those taking it all in from afar and until I got out from in front of the TV set many years ago and became “one of them,” those were my thoughts exactly. You see, the only time I actually ventured out into – and “almost participated” in – a riot was in one that took place in the predominately black Grove Hall section of Boston after cities exploded into unrest after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the time, I lived on Crawford Street, a three-minute walk to Grove Hall, a center comprised of liquor stores, a dry cleaner, two beauty salons, and a couple of clothing and convenient stores. I moved there after being raised in a small segregated town in the South and had an extremely difficult time fitting in and finding friends. I got reminders that I was an outsider, a “country bumpkin,” they dubbed me because of my southern accent, crewcut and “highwater” pants.

So when Aunt Vivian beckoned me into the living room to watch the evening news, unnerving images of rioting in Grove Hall shocked me, especially when I realized that that Grove Hall was the one right down the street. Curiosity trumped common sense when I slipped on a jacket and rushed down to attend my very first riot.

Once there and in the middle of rock throwing and looting, I had an immediate decision to make – run back home or join in the action. For reasons I did not understand then but do now, I decided to become an active participant. I stepped through the debris, picked up an empty Coke bottle and joined the chorus of “Black Power,” “Burn baby burn!” with hordes of those I did not know.

Minutes later the gravity of my situation kicked in when police cars and fire trucks arrived to quell the unrest. So I retreated – well, ran actually – back home with the unthrown Coke bottle in hand and watched the turmoil on our living room TV set while periodically peering out the window to catch glimpses of looters lugging their loot.

What on Earth drove me to the brink of smashing a storefront window with that Coke bottle when I knew that would be wrong?

That question, which gnawed at me for years, was answered in part years later when I learned about “groupthink,” a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in irrational or dysfunctional result. In most cases the strong need to fit in, to be accepted as “one of the guys,” can lead to poor decision making. That explained my behavior at the time and, I believe, is a contributing factor in the behaviors by those we’ve been seeing rioting, looting, police brutality and otherwise sabotaging legitimate protests over the past week or so.

Fear can lead to poor decision making. In Grove Hall I feared those rioters turning on me if I did not “go along to get along”. So in a split second I morphed into becoming “one of them” for self-preservation.

Let’s take this a bit deeper.

We can assume that the most vulnerable are drawn to organizations, and even to gangs, for acceptance and approval often transforming into the prevailing behaviors. Proof positive is “Maggie,” a talented IT professional who came to me in tears years ago after reading one of my articles on the problem with groupthink.

“I’m ashamed of myself Terry. I’ve been in this company eight years now but after getting promoted into a position in another organization where just about every manager engaged in shouting, cursing and name-calling, I adopted that behavior although I was not brought up that way. I felt enormous pressure to behave like them just to fit in.”

“So, what you see when blacks protest depends on whether you’re living in that building or watching it on TV with a bowl of corn chips in your lap waiting for NCIS to start,” opined NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar recently.

To be clear, destroying someone’s property and police brutality are never acceptable and those who engage in such must be held accountable. But let’s try to empathize with what it feels like to live in the building.

In the end, I thank God I did not throw that bottle the brief time I was in that building!

Terry Howard
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