The Diamond In Your Fist

“Turn to your neighbor,” Arun Ghandi told us, “and make a fist. Pretend you are holding the world’s most valuable diamond.” I was at a global conference at Kennesaw State University, where Mahatma Ghandi’s grandson was giving the keynote. Mr. Gandhi is a potent speaker in his own right. “Now, neighbor: Try to get the diamond.” There ensued amusing antics as a roomful of people struggled in what looked like a cross-cultural arm-wrestling contest. My own neighbor good-naturedly stabbed my hand with a butter knife, to hoots of laughter at our table. I gave up the diamond.

After a decent interval, Mr. Ghandi raised his hand and waited. We stopped struggling and looked to the podium. “Tell me honestly. How many of you asked your neighbor if they would please give you the diamond?” Silence. He nodded slowly, as if he rarely got much response to that question. “See how violence seeps into everything we do? I did not ask you to attack your neighbor, only to get their diamond.”

I had become the fist that needed prying open. An object. How many of us go through our days surrounded by objects and not people? Those around us diminish in humanity until they are each fulfilling a role — they are drivers, or shoppers, or walkers, or service providers. More often, they are problems to be tackled (like me and my fist), obstacles to be circumvented, servants to be ordered, or enemies to be defeated. This dehumanizing of others is what allows genocide and torture on the world stage, but it also has closer-to-home consequences.

Just ask veteran U.S. Marshall Arthur Lloyd. At a crowded strip mall on one of the nation’s busiest shopping streets, the Rockville Pike in Montgomery County, Maryland, he recently had an early-evening encounter that escalated tragically out of control. Lloyd was driving along the Pike in his family SUV, wife and child passengers in the car, when he got into some sort of traffic altercation with a young Navy man, Ryan T. Stowers, some three decades his junior. Stowers was a driver new to the area. Did he cut someone off? Flip the bird? Unclear. But, the Lloyds’ truck and Stowers’ red Camaro pulled together into a strip mall about 8:30 pm and stopped in front of a craft store.

One can only imagine Lloyd’s wife and the children in the truck as they beheld the scene. Words flew. Emotion ran high. Standing, Lloyd badged Stowers, who appears not to have believed it and hopped in his car. The red Camaro began to move.

Lloyd fired three shots, killing Stowers. Some witnesses say Stowers was fleeing. Or maybe he was going to run Lloyd down. His rear window was shot out, as if his car was speeding away when he was killed.

Stowers, when he died, had become an “enemy.” He probably started out as a “driver,” then likely became a “jerk” sometime near the beginning of the incident. At no point, as Lloyd drove along the road as so many of us do, intent on getting wherever we are going, was Stowers a “person.” To be fair, in Stowers’ mind Lloyd surely went through the same progression of objects: driver, jerk, enemy. Never was he a person. Just a problem. If either had seen the other as a person, they wouldn’t have been screaming in the parking lot. Whatever slight, real or imagined, would have been ignored or worked out. Either player could have avoided their fate by simply imagining, just for a moment, that the other person might have a point.

But, in this world in which so few of those around us count as people, Lloyd and Stowers were only playing out one version of what happens when no one is real but you. The victims of the DC snipers, gunned down in strip malls on this very stretch of road two years earlier, were “targets.” The 50,000 who died in the Twin Towers the year before, were “infidels.” That Mini Cooper that just cut me off? Driven by a “jerk.”

What would it look like to treat all those around me like people and nothing less? Hard to say. There is no magic program that will do it for me. I suspect it might look little different on the outside, but very different on the inside. A change of heart would have taken place.

This morning, at my local supermarket, there was a pall hanging in the air. Shelves were poorly stocked, and the staff seemed on edge. One of the familiar faces, one the neighborhood sees each day, had passed away. I’ll call him “Joe.” It was a surprise: a heart attack in a 39-year old. The woman before me in line talked about Joe with the checkout person. She described a funeral so well attended that it had to be held twice to accommodate all the guests.

I knew Joe’s face, but had never spoken to him. Even so, hearing his coworker, near tears, describe the quirky smile on his face as he lay in state, he seemed mighty real. Not a worker at the grocery store. A person. He was a person whose face I had come to know.

Maybe it was the repetition: I saw him each week. Just that small bit of familiarity is enough, maybe, to turn someone from an object or an adversary to a person whom we owe respect, to whom we owe a debt for teaching us what it means to see those around us as human beings.

We cling so tightly to our diamonds. Let’s try opening our fists.

The Gangs of America

In the late 1980’s America seemed suddenly to become conscious of “gangs.” Down in Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, South Central and Compton were ground zero. But LA was not alone. The daily experience of the solid citizens in all major metropolitan areas changed. Young people began to dress in outlandish ways, flying flags of allegiance to blue or red — the Crips or the Bloods. Few may now remember how it felt at the time, but those new names held powerful sway over the lives of much of the nation.

A residue remains. The urge to associate with a color is still powerful. In the 1980s, young adults did it through the hue of their do-rag, the curbs on which they stood, and the hieroglyphs they sprayed on blank walls. Traveling the streets, one got the sense that, if only one could read all the signs, each person with a bandana was hiding behind a tissue of badges that ranged from finger signs, to clothing, to hairstyle, to posture. Everything was a sign to be read, because in the gang world, allegiance was a life-or-death issue. Being neutral was not an option — you flew red or blue colors if you wanted to stay safe. And then, you stuck with your kind, those of the same allegiance. Not in a gang? You kept your head down.

Political America after 2000, the nation of Red and Blue, fights now like the Bloods and Crips are fabled to have. There is an argument raging even now about how polarized ordinary people really are. Just as not all young people were in gangs in the 1980s, “red” and “blue” may widely miss the mark for most people. Maybe it’s just the pundits and so-called opinion leaders who are “polarized.” Regardless, things in public as well as private life have gotten ugly, with anger becoming the norm and people closing themselves off from others who aren’t like them.

There remains an undeniable and inescapable urge to declare allegiance and proclaim affiliation. You see it everywhere — people dressed in uniform. It’s as if people’s actions no longer count for much — what matters is whether the badge of allegiance is worn.

Take something as simple as the flag lapel pin. Shortly after 9/11, this was a modest way of showing patriotism. But as the unanimity of our collective response wore off, the flag lapel pin became a way of proclaiming one’s associations. Indeed, for this purpose, the flag alone was inadequate. Because, for some, it meant “my country right or wrong.” For others, it meant, “I may dissent, but I love this land.” No one wanted to be confused with the wrong side. So there are new flag-based gewgaws that proclaim our affiliations — the flag is now joined by the words “Peace is Patriotic” or “These colors don’t run.”

There are other badges, that aren’t so political but that, when added together, proclaim our affiliations just as loudly. Going through my day, I decode the badges of those I meet. Every ornament means something. Yellow ribbon magnets, rainbow stickers, WWJD bracelets, homeless shelter walk-a-thon T-shirts — they all seem to say Crip or Blood, Blue or Red.

Clever sociologists tell me that people have always taken status cues from others’ dress. There’s nothing special about these signs and wearing them doesn’t make you a gang member. But, things seem to matter just a little bit more than that. As if the team you’re on circumscribes your world and dictates those to whom you may speak. As if you’d better sport these badges or suffer the consequences.

During the gang heyday, it wasn’t strength that was admired in a young street warrior. It was being “crazy,” willing to do anything. Zealotry was the coin of the realm. Watching the Internet discussions after the presidential debates, you get the sense that it’s zealotry, again, that counts most to Team Red and Team Blue. But, whoever wins the battle in November will have a tough time winning the war to govern. Zealotry will make it near impossible to lead roughly half the nation, unless we somehow find a way to call a truce.

The other night a political placard — the most overt of the Red and Blue gang-signs — was ripped down from my yard and strewn in the bushes. Replacing it, I recalled how I used to paint over the wall outside my garden apartment in Los Angeles every week or so: someone would have scrawled a tag on it.

If I keep my head down and stick with my kind, maybe it’ll be OK. But, just maybe, it’ll get worse.

Let us find the courage to lay down our colors.