What a Handcuffed Teacher Tells Us About Standing Up to Power

Photo by Christopher Campbell

When you see police violence in the news, it’s usually against men. Unfortunately, it happens to women, too—as illustrated by a recent school board meeting in Louisiana.

As the New York Times reports, the incident started when a schoolteacher named Deyshia Hargrave took her turn speaking at a local School Board meeting in Vermilion Parish. She spoke against a vote to give the superintendent a raise. The reason? She felt it was unfair since teachers and support staff hadn’t had raises in years. Video appears to show the superintendent recognizing her so that she can stand and give her second comment of the evening.

Nonetheless, because of her opinion, a marshal forcibly removed her. She complied with his orders but once she was outside he arrested her anyway—and hurt her in the process.

The schoolteacher, Deyshia Hargrave, “resisting.” (Via Youtube video by Chris Rosa.)

What can an audience do?

What happened at the meeting is nothing new. When police misuse power, men get shot and women get hauled off and silenced.

(Usually, that is. There are cases where women get shot, too.)

But most cases of police violence occur with few or no bystanders—and those witnesses might not know at first who’s in the wrong. The school board meeting is different. Almost everyone in the room was on the arrested woman’s side. When the officer first said he was removing her, there was a general outcry from the crowd. Once he arrested her, this turned to expressions of outrage. Everyone there could see the injustice—but no one intervened.

This is natural, of course; intervening would be dangerous, and carry the risk of arrest. Humans are wired not to intervene unless they a specifically prepared to do so. And that’s doubly hard when the bad actor committing the injustice is an authority figure, with other authorities (the school board) standing by passively.

But one thing we know is that there are simple, peaceful ways for bystanders to take action, and they’re often immensely effective.

The “I Am Spartacus” Effect

If you ever find yourself in a scene like this, and you don’t know what to do, consider this:

  • Stand up and calmly say, “Officer, if you remove her, you’re going to have to remove me too.”
  • Be respectful and calm.
  • Ask if anyone else will stand up for this woman.

What we know from the psychology of heroism is this: once YOU stand up, others start to join you. It’s the “I am Spartacus” effect. This effect counters and breaks the spell of the passive bystander. Be the first voice and others will help.

Does that mean it’s 100% safe? No. In the example above, you could very well be removed from the meeting, or even arrested. In an extreme case, an officer could even hurt someone. Being the sort of person who cultivates a heroic mindset does not come without risk—and unfortunately, it requires that you choose a certain amount of measured risk on purpose. But calm and peaceful action has always and will always set off a chain reaction toward a more just outcome.

To be clear, I have absolutely no judgment about any of the bystanders at that meeting. What they did was what every one of us would do without some training or preparation. In fact, they followed the woman out and made made sure the local news crew kept filming. Those are commendable steps.

But most people are unprepared for this kind of situation, and you can change that—starting with yourself. Visualize what you would do in a situation like that meeting, and practice the steps in your mind. This “heroic imagination” is perhaps the single greatest thing you can do to one day make a difference.

It’s not easy being the first to stand up. But you may just save a life.

(Watch the video: The NYT article has a short video clip, but you can see the entire 12-minute scene and judge for yourself here.)

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