Attacking bigotry at home
Here’s a crime story you likely didn’t hear about. It happened on the New York City subway. But it is not the hate-filled crime that matters as much as the response to it by the group of total strangers who happened to file into a particular subway car on a wintery Saturday night.
As the subway doors whooshed shut and riders settled into their seats, one after another spotted vile graffiti splayed throughout the car. Shock set in. A black Sharpie had been used to deface the plexiglass-framed subway maps, windows and doors with ugly scrawls.
"Jews belong in the oven," read one message. Another proclaimed, "Destroy Israel," and another "Heil Hitler." And swastikas – that instantly recognizable symbol of pure evil – punctuated the entire space.
The crime was not reported to police, and there were no TV cameras around to capture what happened next. Only the Facebook posts of two of the passengers memorialized the citizens brigade that instantly formed to erase the indignity.
Gregory Locke, a 27-year-old New York lawyer, and Jared Nied, a 36-year-old a sous-chef at a trendy downtown French bistro, snapped a few quick photos with their cellphones and then got to work.
Locke later wrote on his Facebook: "The train was silent as everyone stared at each other, uncomfortable and unsure what to do. One guy got up and said, ‘Hand sanitizer gets rid of Sharpie. We need alcohol.’?"
That man was Nied, who later told me, "We usually use the first aid wipes or vodka" to erase Sharpie ink at his restaurant, "but I realized hand sanitizer would work just as well."
The strangers on this train – male and female; young and old; black, white, Hispanic and Asian – came together to make things right. Being cold and flu season, the solution was close at hand. Bottles of Purell and mounds of tissue appeared from purses and pockets.
The photos captured both the horrid scribbles as well as the Good Samaritans who smeared sanitizer on the offensive spots and scrubbed until they disappeared. Nied, who posted a close-up of the graffiti, said there were about 40 people inside that subway car.
"Pretty much everybody helped in some way or another," he said, "if not actually scrubbing, then offering tissues or Purell or pointing out graffiti that we had missed." He told me they got the entire car cleaned in under five minutes.
Locke took a picture of Nied, still bundled up in his winter parka, studiously rubbing out the phrase "Jews belong in an oven." Later, still flush from the event, Nied wrote on Facebook: "never in a million years did I think anybody would record my moment. … I’m honestly not sure what to say other than that I was just doing the right thing, the thing that needed to be done."
Locke’s Facebook post also included some of the sparse conversation from inside the subway car. He wrote: "’I guess this is Trump’s America,’ said one passenger. No sir, it’s not. Not tonight and not ever. Not as long as stubborn New Yorkers have anything to say about it."
Note that even though anti-Semitism has been around for centuries and our president has grandchildren being raised in the Jewish faith, so many of us automatically resort to the political blame game at every affront. This isn’t any one person’s America! It belongs to all of us, and it is what we make of it collectively.
Oh, how I wish a sky full of sanitizer could drench us all and erase the ugliness of our times, saturate away all those pithy, partisan barbs so many toss at those who hold differing viewpoints. These misplaced snipes do no common good. They only sow more discontent and anger. It is such a destructive cycle.
I’m betting that the young African-American woman captured in a photo rubbing hate off the subway window that night had little idea of the political leanings of anyone in that subway car. Politics didn’t matter at that moment. The riders found a common enemy in the bigot(s) who had been there before them, and they instinctively attacked the affront – together.
It is odd to me that in a country birthed upon the ideals of equality, freedom of thought and freedom of expression, we have become so divisive, so intolerant of one another. These days, we are less the United States of America and more the United States of Squabble. By all means, protest an issue. But make sure it is something concrete and not just a perceived problem.
The lesson we can take away from this event is profound: When working together, Americans can do just about anything.
To find out more about Diane Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com.