From grades nine through 11, I was fortunate enough to attend Community High School, a free-thinking smaller public alternative school to the two larger high schools in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I lived from age four until 18. Ann Arbor was and still is a radical liberal town with a proud history of open-minded optimism. I was a 17 year old junior in 1996, and something happened that year that changed my life forever. Our school was within walking distance of downtown Ann Arbor and city hall. As students, we were given permission to spend our lunch breaks and after school time in the midst of Ann Arbor's small but stimulating street culture. It was a vibrant and dynamic mixture of University of Michigan graduate students, rogue musicians, sidewalk preachers, sketchy odd-ball drifters, and leftover psychedelic hippies from the city's prime back in the 1960s. One day, the town began nervously buzzing with news of an impending rally, staged by a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Hailing from elsewhere in the state, the hate group was planning to demonstrate at Ann Arbor's city hall, with the intention of provoking the residents of this town in which they knew they would not be well-received.
The imminent KKK demonstration quickly became the talk of the school. So much so that one of our teachers worked it into a lesson on the First Amendment, explaining how, in America, everyone had a right to voice their opinions and viewpoints, even when they clashed with the ideals most of us thought of as good and right.
Still, many of the students in my school, myself included, didn't accept this. It didn't make sense. We understood freedom of speech, but we also felt that certain opinions were simply too extreme and awful to be allowed—the people holding such beliefs should be able to be stopped by any means necessary. As a result of all this passionate debate, some students began planning a counter demonstration and were prepared to use violence against the KKK and their supporters.
I understood what they were feeling. Some of our teachers pleaded with the students not to engage in violence and suggested that this passionate reaction and dangerous backlash was exactly what the Klan wanted—to start a riot among these otherwise peaceful and loving young people, instigating them into a violent display of their own.
I cried in deep waves and couldn't explain why. My mom said it was because I was experiencing my heart opening.
When the day of the rally finally came, the atmosphere was so tense that riot police were mobilized, and temporary chain-link fencing was put up around city hall. I had planned to go along with a group of friends, but my mom begged me to come straight home after school. I admit that I was scared by the rocks and bottles I saw some students stockpiling, and the idea of getting into a confrontation with anyone—even someone I hated—was terrifying to me. In the end, I was relieved to have my mom's threat of punishment as an excuse to bow out of rioting. I felt very cowardly at that moment, like a little pathetic child, full of shame that I didn't have that warrior spirit to fight against these prejudiced people. But I was also confused. I'd never seen my school go through anything like this before. I felt like we were all getting tricked by some evil force, and I watched in dazed horror as some of the most peace-loving hippies in our school metamorphosed into weapon-toting militants, determined to "crack some racist skulls," and show Michigan and the world that Ann Arbor hates people who hate people.
Naturally, on the day of the rally, chaos ensued. Violence broke out. And when it did a young woman and fellow Community High School student named Keshia Thomas, with one courageous act, changed my life, the lives of countless people in my high school and around the world forever. Keshia was a year older than me, and I often saw her in my Audio/Video classroom. She was well liked in our school, and possessed a natural leadership quality that drew others to her. At the protest, the Klan was protected by police and barricades, but the crowd noticed an older man on their side of the barriers. He had a Confederate flag on his shirt and inked into his arm, along with some other Nazi tattoos. He had come in support of the Klan, and when the assembled anti-Klan rioters noticed him, they gave chase. When they caught up to him, he tripped and fell to the ground. The crowd instantly surrounded him and began beating and stabbing at him with the wooden stakes of their protest signs, kicking and punching him as he lay curled up in a fetal position. Suddenly, without warning, Keshia flung herself on top of this man, shielding him from the increasingly violent attack, quite possibly saving his life.
The crowd stopped their attack and stood around in a sober moment of reflection. Later on, she said it was as if angels had lifted her up and laid her down on top of him. What Keshia did in that moment was so utterly selfless that it did seem like something otherworldly had transpired. The crowd was stunned into a stupor. They had just witnessed the living example of someone loving their enemy. This young woman had literally laid her life down for a man who might not have done the same for her. It made no sense at all, and yet, in the midst of this ugly and violent event, it was the only thing that made sense. It was a kindness so sincere and deep that it broke through the confusion and created a moment of calm and clarity amidst the hatred and anger. Just hearing about the event secondhand and seeing the news accounts that followed left people in a daze.
The biggest challenges we face demand the most from us.
I remember seeing the photos the next day in the local paper and collapsing to my knees and weeping in our kitchen at home. I cried in deep waves and couldn't explain why. My mom said it was because I was experiencing my heart opening. It moved me more deeply than I can describe. In one cataclysmic moment, I felt determined to become a better person—to strive to someday be a truly loving human being—to somehow reach the level Keshia seemed to operating on.
She transformed ignorant weakness into powerful integrity using the only force powerful enough to do so: love. She forced all who were there and even who weren't to confront the real possibility of an irrational and unconditional love—a love so strong and pure that it's impossible to wrap your head around. You can only wrap your heart around it. Why would Keshia Thomas save this man? A man who, had she not stepped in to stop his beating, could've used the attack he suffered as further justification for his own underdeveloped beliefs and hate and bigotry. Keshia broke the pattern. The biggest challenges we face demand the most from us. Our most advanced problems require our most refined idealistic powers. I'm certainly not saying I have all these skills yet, but what Keshia did that day is proof it's possible. That type of selfless love is not a dream. Love and hope for all humanity is not a naïve fantasy. As always, love remains the only answer. And we need it now more than ever.
Dedicated to Keshia Thomas and her ongoing efforts to unite humanity. You are an inspiration.
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