Nonviolence is a learned behavior. The natural instinct is to strike back if struck. Babies will strike Momma back if the parents do not stop the child early. After a few mean-mug looks and a light tap on the hand, the child learns the meaning of “No, no.”

Take an animal, for example. My husband likes turtle meat and a friend caught one and gave it to him yesterday. I said “No, Honey, he is going back to the water from whence he came.” We took him to the little pond below our house. My husband tossed him near the water, but he was not heading toward it. I said, “Baby, put him in the water. He’s maybe too weak to move.” My husband said “He will find the water.” I said “No I want to see him in the water” and I just stood there. My husband just sat there in the car. I went over to pick up the huge turtle to toss him into the pond. My husband said “Be careful he is a mean one.” I reached out to pick him up to save his life, and he let out a hissing sound, raised up on his legs and snapped at me, almost getting my hand. I started talking to him letting him know that I was trying to save his life. He did the rearing, hissing and the snapping all over again. Friend or foe, he did not care. Striking back was all he knew.

Nonviolence is a learned behavior. All of us black folks and a few empathetic whites would be dead if slaves had struck back each time the plantation owner struck one of our grandparents. Knowing human nature, I am sure the desire was there. But there is a saying that we have heard all of our lives. “If your hand is in the lion’s mouth, do not hit him over the head.’”

The weekend when all of the demonstrations took place speaks clearly that nonviolent behavior has to be taught. One could not tell the out-of-control young ones in Atlanta anything. At that point it would be like catching the wind. Nothing the mayor or police chief could have said to stop them at that point.

Many of them actually did not understand the philosophy of The Nonviolence Movement. When one plans a nonviolent march or protest, the leader has to set the tone, or the purpose of the protest will get lost in the shuffle. It takes a well-disciplined individual to restrain him/herself from hitting back, especially when he/she has done nothing to provoke the injury.

The 63 sit-in demonstrators who sat at lunch counters in downtown Rome in 1963 could have assisted with the planning of the protest last weekend.

With hindsight, which is always 2020, it would have been ideal if Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields had arranged to have a town hall gathering for the airing of their positions before that Friday. It would have been good preparation to help with the mindset and spirit of the participants. Both leaders showed empathy and understanding that this was something very needed, not just for George Floyd but for the deaths of all unarmed black men across the country.

But they both shared their support at the same time as the demonstrations were taking place, and that was very bad timing. The protesters had made up their minds by then. Some were determined to be peaceful and some had decided that being peaceful had not gained the older ones anything so they were going down the dark and narrow path.

Most of the late-night demonstrators were there to destroy. Most times when looting takes place the individuals have means to haul off what is being looted. None of them had the means to carry anything. No bags no big pocketbooks were seen. The aim was to destroy and trash and burn. Many had been cooped up in houses that they were tired of and they thought it to be a good night to get out and let off some of the penned-up frustration that had been building for three months.

This is not a justifiable excuse for the behavior that the world saw ... and yet the other three men involved in the murder of George Floyd had not been arrested.

I arrived in Rome after the 1963 sit-in, coming from South Carolina where our sit-ins had been taking place at the same time. I was impressed with what was shared with me about the student leaders. Before the march down Broad Street, all who were going to march were gathered near the Main High Gym and the roll was called. The participants had to answer several questions. The leader made it clear that this was going to be a peaceful sit-in/demonstration.

The leaders said “If you know your nature and cannot tolerate being kicked, being spat on, being called N—— or having something thrown at you without retaliating, you are asked to remain on campus until we return.”

One of the lead students was Lonnie, who was determined for the sit-in to be successful. After giving the talk about the purpose of the protest and other basic instructions, the leaders called the roll. All of the students answered with a yes or no. All of the yeses began to march from the hill in front of the school. Each child was told to carry a book to read while sitting at the lunch counter waiting to be served. They knew that they would not be served with anything other than an arrest order.

According to the report as was written by the students and kept in the memoir of a Jewish sympathizer, Rose Levin — as the students crossed over Turner McCall, the white group began the chant “Here comes the n——.” They chanted it the entire time as the students were heading to G.C. Murphy along with other stores with lunch counters, and continued until they arrived. By this time, all of the policemen in town were on Broad Street.

There are two sources for this complete story if you are interested in reading about it. The Memoir of Rose Levin, which may be published by now under her daughter Anne’s name, and there is a fictionalized version based on the Levin Memoir recorded in a play titled “It Had to Happen,” written by Willie M. Samuel.

Nonviolence is learned; the fightback instinct is natural. That is what was revealed the last week in May 2020.

Willie Mae Samuel is a playwright and a director in Rome. She is the founder and director of the African American Connection of the Performing Arts Inc. and a 2020 Heart of the Community Award of Honor recipient.

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