On Tuesday night, I drove over to Chapel Hill where a major clash of protesters was rumored around the Silent Sam Confederate statue. I arrived at 5:30pm and left at 2am. The 8.5 hours in between were some I'll never forget.
The nearly 1,000 protesters were calling for the removal of the Confederate statue. There were only a handful of counter-protesters in support of Silent Sam. There was fear and online chatter that white supremacists groups would descend on campus, leading the school chancellor to warn students of serious danger in the wake of Charlottesville's tragedy. But there were no white supremacists this night, no repeat of Charlottesville.
Black Lives Matter and Antifa activists alongside other concerned students voiced a chorus of chants for most of the evening. But things got out of hand when one of their own was arrested for masking his face, which had been declared illegal. An organized protest quickly descended into a chaotic, anti-police mob. See my first-hand video of the lengthy clash with police—viewed by more than 10,000 on our Facebook page—below. At the peak of hostilities, protesters were literally thrown aside as they attempted to stop a police van from transporting the arrested activist off campus. Previously hidden combat officers came out of nearby buildings, streets were shut down, and more protesters were arrested. In response, protesters screamed in the face of officers and frequently chanted "cops and the Klan go hand in hand." It was not pretty. And it certainly wasn't civil.
Following the confrontation with police, protesters returned to the Silent Sam statue and sat on the ground along the perimeter. With tensions seemingly calmed and everyone catching a breath, I saw an opportunity to engage in a Listen First Conversation with the group as I have many times with other large audiences. It seemed like a good idea. I was wrong.
I stood against the fence in front of the crowd of protesters and introduced the Listen First idea, inviting a civil conversation (picture above). The response? Applause from some but jeers from many others:
"There's nothing to talk about here!"
"Are you deaf? We've been chanting how we feel the whole time!"
"You're not allowed to be neutral!"
"Sit down white boy!"
"If you want to talk to somebody, go talk to them!"
While this was discouraging and, in my opinion, detrimental to their cause, I took the suggestion and went to the other side of the quad to find them. Them was a handful of Silent Sam supporters keeping to themselves on the other side of the protected space. And them happened to be far more interested in conversation than the mass of protesters who'd shouted me down. That said, several anti-statue demonstrators tracked me down to apologize for the uncivil and embarrassing behavior of their comrades, saying "that was really messed up how they yelled at you." And some of them made a point to join me on the other side to gain a better understanding of their opponents' perspective. This is where the night started looking up from my Listen First perspective.
A funny thing happened as the night wore on and the bulk of protesters scattered—Us vs Them became Me and You. Suddenly, passionate activists on opposite sides of the Silent Sam debate found themselves in close proximity to one another. One by one, they came to the remarkable realization that the "other side" is largely comprised of human beings not so unlike themselves, but with a very different perspective. Rich Listen First Conversations ensued. I was feeling great.
Then two guys showed up wielding baseball bats.
The levity was sucked out of the air as we saw a couple tough guys approaching with helmets and bats. They looked angry. They were ready for a fight. The police came to attention as we braced ourselves for trouble. Heated words were exchanged before folks retreated into their respective corners again. Now this was an interesting challenge. But hey, it couldn't go any worse than my first attempt at inciting civil discourse.
I walked over to engage our new bat-wielding friends, Webster and Eric from Fort Bragg. They seemed nice enough in their matching American flag capes. I enjoyed learning what brought them to Silent Sam—they wanted to "protect property and their brothers in blue" if any trouble was afoot.
I invited Webster to walk with me over to the now-small group of anti-statue protesters for a little chat. He gladly came along and stuck out his hand to greet each person one by one. Tensions eased. While Webster engaged with his new acquaintances on the matter of Silent Sam, I kept an eye on Eric. He seemed much more comfortable hanging back, with his bat and new police friend. But finally, I coaxed him over and into the group. He graciously took my suggestion to leave his bat with the officer.
Nobody said anything. Some of these students had literally started crying earlier when they saw an angry Eric coming with his bat. So I broke the ice. "Eric, I think you made some folks feel uncomfortable showing up here with a bat, what was that about?" We were off to the races. Wide ranging Listen First Conversations ensued for the next two hours, culminating in the picture below. And hugs. Yes, hugs.
See, here's the thing. We can all get hyped up within our tribe and lose our sense of humanity, nevermind civility. When we're in the mindset of Us vs Them, there's not much space or tolerance for listening. But when we turn down the temperature a few notches, muster a little courage and humility, and approach our ideological opponents as individuals, amazing things can happen in the Me and You.
And as each one of us focus more on the Me and You instead of the easier, more comfortable Us vs Them, we can restore civil discourse in America—one unlikely Listen First Conversation at a time.