A couple of months back, one of my co-workers stuck her head into my office and said, “There’s a guy downstairs wearing a skull mask walking around videotaping people.”
“What?” I replied.
“He’s scaring the shit out of everyone.”
“Aren’t the police handling this?’
“I don’t know but I’m leaving. I don’t want to be around here if he starts shooting up the place.”
Wondering if this was part of my job description, I went downstairs to find a tall young man dressed in black, wearing a backpack and skull mask covering most of his face, pointing a camera into the clerk’s office. A cop was standing next to him. Motioning the cop over, I asked him what was happening.
“He’s doing what’s called a First Amendment audit,” the cop said.
“What the hell is that?”
“These guys walk into public spaces and videotape people to see how people react. They want people to freak out so they can put them on You Tube.”
“And he can do that?”
The cop shrugged. “Town Hall is a public space. If he doesn’t go into people’s offices, he has every right to be here.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“We’re just telling people to ignore him.” But, judging from the looks he was getting from my colleagues, no one was ignoring him.
I’m not a partisan person and I have friends all over the political spectrum. It’s always been my policy to never let ideologies get in the way of relationships. One of my best friends is a “Trumper” and, although we have spirited debates at times, I know he’s a good man; as exemplified by his raising money for disabled children, counseling veterans, and always donating money and toys to my food pantry. I’ve found that when we sanctimoniously write off people who don’t share our worldview, we run the risk of not only becoming insular and parochial but ignoring the human treasures laid at our feet. Besides, the only way you’re ever going to change anyone’s mind about anything is through the example you set – the persuasion of your life’s story. “Only connect,” the saying goes, “And human love will be seen at its height.”
After ascertaining the young man posed no threat, the cop left, and I moved in. “What are you doing” I said. “If you don’t mind me asking?”
The young man politely explained what he was about and, although I strongly disagreed with his tactics, I told him I agreed with the need for transparency in government. “Listen,” I said. “You’re not allowed to go into anyone’s office, but I’ll let you in to mine. Maybe give you a better idea what this town’s about.”
“Really?” he said, looking surprised.
“Come, with me.”
I led the young man upstairs, keyed open my door, and let him into the food pantry. Staring wide eyed at all the food and supplies, he said, “Where’d you get all this stuff?”
“The town pays my salary and gives me office and storage space,” I said, “But everything you see here –all the food, all the money we get – is donated by local citizens.”
“Do you help people who are in the country illegally?”.
“We’ll give food to anyone who asks,” I said. “And for our registered families we collect school supplies, conduct toy drives at Christmas, hand out turkeys on Thanksgiving, sponsor adopt a family program during the holidays, send kids to summer camp, stuff like that. We also help our school system’s lunch program feed low income children and try and help the homeless.”
“How many people do you help?”
“How long has this place been here?”
“I’ve been here seven years, but this office has been up and running for at least thirty.”
“Wow,” the young man said. “I wish there was something like this where I come from.”
And, with that, the skull mask came off and I saw the human being underneath. Now, I think what he was doing was more about intimidation and garnering hits on his You Tube channel from like-minded friends than effecting any constructive change, but writing him off as a wacko wouldn’t serve any purpose. People are upset over a lot of things in this country – and for good reason – but the worst thing to do is ignore them.
“Thanks for showing me all this,” the young man said, extending his hand.
“My pleasure,” I said, taking it.
After the man left, I walked around Town Hall to see how everyone was doing. Some didn’t care a whit about what happened, but quite a few were deeply frightened – some to the point of fleeing the building. Later, after the hubbub died down, I went on that young man’s You Tube Channel and skimmed though his videos. Most of them displayed “triggered” people displaying various displays of hostility and sputtering outrage. Very few of the videos showed anyone talking to their interviewers calmly. And while I think what these “auditors” are doing is more about intimidation than effecting constructive change, most of their targets walked right into their trap. But something tells me my food pantry won’t make it on their playlist – which is a shame.
Because I would’ve liked that young man’s viewers to have seen the persuasion of our town’s life story. That, while harboring the religious, political, cultural and personal differences that exist in every city great and small, when it comes to helping their neighbor, my town always bands together. People are never just one thing, no matter how much we like pigeonholing them into categories. And, if we never leave the self-reinforcing bubbles we’ve erected around ourselves, we’ll never discover how much people can surprise us.
I hope my town surprised that young man.