See Something — Say a Lot!
There’s a lot of faith involved when smooshing yourself into a crowd as large as the one I was in at the Women’s March in D.C. on January 21st. Yikes! It seems unreal that a few months have already passed since then. I participated in this life-altering event with my dear friend since college days, Georgia Bragg. Attendance numbers were estimated from 500,000 to 1 million, with nary an incident that harmed anyone.
That’s not to say there wasn’t the possibility of an incident: with Georgia’s and my teamwork, we may have averted a disaster, but we’ll never really know.
Here’s what happened. The rally was set to begin at 10:00 a.m., although many attendees had been at the site since the crack of dawn. At around 9:00 a.m., a young, disheveled looking white man with a huge, heavy backpack elbowed his way into the swollen crowd. Georgia and I saw him, and he gave both of us the creeps.
“Did you see that guy with the backpack?” Georgia asked. I told her yes. Given he was within steps of me, I said to him, “Excuse me — we’re not supposed to bring large backpacks into this crowd. The organizers clearly specified that.”
He looked at me and said, “I have water purification supplies, and I just got back from Tanzania.” What? Talk about evasive! Gavin de Becker’s bestselling book “The Gift of Fear” discusses all sorts of “red flags” one should listen for and act on. We discuss them in the courses we give at IMPACT Personal Safety. And here was a classic example: Mr. Tanzania gave us information that I hadn’t requested. Red Flag!
This man’s presence bugged us. Georgia said, “I don’t know if I’m making a big deal out of nothing, but I can’t shake my bad feelings about that guy.”
I told her, “You know we teach you NOT to dismiss those feelings. Mother Nature gave us warning signals, and they are designed to protect us.” So Georgia worked her way through the crowd (no easy feat) in one direction to find help, while I decided to confront the guy directly. By this time he’d moved further into the crowd. I reasoned that, if he really was a suicide bomber, I still wasn’t far enough away to avoid the blast so I might as well be next to him. Before I left, I told someone next to me that I was going to find security to report a suspicious man. She automatically said, “Does he look middle eastern?” (That knee-jerk “profiling” response is a column for another time.)
“No,” I said, “More middle western. Like Timothy McVeigh with buck teeth.” And it wasn’t just his teeth that stuck out — his entire presentation and demeanor did as well.
I made my way through the throng by saying something like, “Gotta pee!” which parts a crowd of women like a hot knife through butter. I again found Mr. Backpacker and said, “Your backpack bothers me.” I saw several women standing around him nodding and giving me the thumbs up. He was giving other people the willies too.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. Another red flag: he minimized my concern. “What’s in the backpack? You’re not supposed to have them in this crowd,” I repeated. His agitated response this time? “I’m an American citizen!” This was now waving a red flag with sequins on it. More than anything he’d previously said, he response was such a non sequitur that I told him, “That’s it. I’m going to get security.”
This time, I cut through the crowd while yelling “Security, coming through,” and that worked as well as the “Gotta Pee!” I found two Women’s March volunteers; they followed me back to Mr. Water Purification, and he was as non-responsive and rude to them as he’d been to me.
Meanwhile, Georgia found two fine D.C. police officers — both African-American women (yes!) — who practically leaped through the crowd to get to Mr. Potential Bomb Threat. They escorted him away.
We’ll never know what was actually in that backpack. However, the “see something, say something” rule was in play, and who knows how that might have ended had we not intervened?
As the saying goes, no news is good news. As in, “No bombs exploded at the March in D.C. on January 21.” And that, my friends, is GREAT news.
The moral of this story? If you notice you’re trying to talk yourself out of a gut feeling, or the hair is standing up on the back of your neck, please do us all a favor and open your mouth. You can’t will the small hairs on your neck to stand up — only your early warning system can, so do not override it!
I don’t recommend my example of directly confronting a “suspect.” I have trained for many years to manage my adrenalin in such scenarios. However, no one needs training to go over to someone else and say, “This doesn’t feel right.” And while I know that friends and some authorities can poo-poo you, don’t help them by initially poo-pooing yourself. Your mouth is always the first and best defense, in a crowd or with scary people in general. Keep talking until someone listens and takes you seriously.
NOTE: This article is an updated and expanded version of my column in the Pasadena Weekly that originally ran on April 6, 2017