Yesterday, mid-morning, I emerged from a take-out restaurant towards a parking lot, walking through the seating area of the outdoor dining plaza. There, I encountered a heated stand up exchange of words between two men. One of the men was part of a group of 4 or 5 men seated or standing nearby.
I saw it was a very angry exchange, and at first thought to walk directly to my car. But I slowed in curiosity. A shopping center security man, white, thin, about age 60 or 65, in his badge, black belt and short sleeved white shirt had his hand, open palm, inches from the face of the man in front of him. He stood there, imperious, clothed in authority, calm and unrelenting. Move on. Leave this area. The temperature was rising.
The man and his companions were all of middle eastern descent, possibly Persian, mostly 40s or 50s in age, nicely dressed.
The security man finally answered the other man’s loud, agitated question: “Why can’t we sit here? Look around. Others sit here. This is a public space. Why don’t we have a right to sit here and drink our coffee like other people?”
“Because you’re loitering.” I looked around. White people were seated in the same area.
I walked up to the two. “Calm down,” I said. I motioned to the security man and said: “Back away.” He would not. He was like a white hot steady molten bar of stubbornness. His adversary was also so filled with adrenaline that he would not or could not listen. He turned to me. Which, on reflection was fine. He was now not locked into he security guard, and less likely to throw a punch. His loudness and anger seemed unabated. I let the man speak, just listening. “Just give yourself a few seconds to calm down,” I said, lucky to get those words in. In the meantime, his companions began to take smartphone videos and pictures of the situation. I wanted to call the police before the matter turned really ugly rather than after. Of course, my mobile phone was dead.
Clearly, I was not going to defuse this situation when it was the security guard with his ridiculous charge of loitering who continually fueled the fires with his insistence that the men disperse. I walked towards my car, and out of nowhere, the man to whom I had spoken was there in the parking lot. He had walked away from the confrontation thank God. We spoke. “Didn’t we have the right to sit there? Who was he to tell us we had to move? We were just sitting, drinking our coffee like everyone else.” His anger now betrayed a tinge of hurt and confusion. “He can’t do this. This is America.” He spoke this almost like a child, his voice with its middle eastern accent seeming to me in that moment to be the true voice of America. I put my hand on his shoulder. “I understand. The man is prejudiced. He has a problem. He is not the America most of us believe in.” A few yards away, loud words were still being exchanged. The idiot guard seemed to have his feet planted in concrete.
As I drove away, I replayed the scene. The man’s words “This is America,” were branded into my heart. I felt ready to cry. Why did I feel so strongly, I wondered? Where did the man’s hurt, and now mine, come from? It came from this idea of “America.” In a world of sectarian and religious hatreds, “America” was to be something different. It was to be a place of individual worth, political liberties, equality of opportunity, and freedom within the confines of just laws. The middle eastern man was appealing to an idea.
This idea of America was something both real and amorphous. It was unspoken, but it was there, like a living thing of delicate beauty. When the cold wind of prejudice comes upon it, it releases first anger, then a rivulet of deep sadness. I felt the man’s anger and pain because we shared this precious idea. Instinctively, I knew that if the idea did not apply to him, it applied to none of us. The idea was something to be protected. Passion for this idea was right and good. I embraced the memory of the morning, and embraced a new resolve to fight for my clients.