On Tuesday August 20, 2013, Michael Brandon Hill, a man dressed in black and carrying an AK-47 with 500 rounds of ammunition entered the Ronald E. McNair Learning Academy with the intent of shooting and killing everyone he could. But then he met Antoinette Tuff, the school bookkeeper. In an act of bravery and resolve, Ms. Tuff talked the man into giving himself up to the police and averted what would have been another mass murder on school grounds.
While many are applauding Ms. Tuff for her actions, I suggest we are not highlighting the obvious—Ms. Tuff disarmed this man with 500 rounds of ammunition without a gun; without any physical weapon of any kind. She did it by engaging him in non-violent direct action. In short, she engaged him non-violently and convinced him to surrender. This is what non-violent direct action looks like under extreme conditions. In fact, as I shared with others when I heard about this, I believed if she had a gun and "defended" herself, she today more than likely would be in a jail cell (ask Marissa Alexander).
In addition, according to the interview she gave to WSBT in Atlanta, a big part of her empathy and how she related to Mr. Hill came from how she interprets and lives her faith. When asked by the reporter, “Antoinette, this whole time, what were you thinking,” she replied that her pastor had been teaching about “anchoring and how you anchor yourself in the Lord.” She then went further and said that she just remember her pastor’s teachings and realized that this situation was bigger than me.” Near the end of the interview, when the reporter called her a hero, she responded by saying, “It was all God. I was just praying.”
I am not surprised that Ms. Tuff’s non-violence action has not received more attention. The fact remains that we are a country which deeply believes violence is the answer to many of our problems. Moreover, let’s be real—we just love our guns! This from a country that could not get universal background checks passed—despite 90% of Americans in favor of the measure.
However, the sad part about this story is that if Mr. Hill would have carried out his mission, we know what would have happened next. We would have had wall to wall coverage of the “Agony in Atlanta” or something as pathetic as that. Then we would have had the same old tired debates ending with Wayne La Pierre wanting to arm administrators, teachers, custodians, or anybody who works at a school. Then someone, who would mean well, will say we need to have the proverbial “national conversation” about guns and that would be followed by “how can we prevent another Atlanta?” You know the same thing we did in prior mass shootings. It is indeed sad that we can almost know exactly what will happen when another gun shooting will happen at a school—and in the end, nothing will change. If Sandy Hook did not change our opinion on guns, where innocent, mostly white children were gunned down, then nothing will.
So, I have a suggestion. Since we are never, ever going to get rid of our guns and that as long as would be killers with 500 rounds of ammunition and a AK-47, can walk into an elementary school, a house of worship, movie theater college campus or any place where people like to gather, what if we teach teachers and administrators to do what Antoinette Tuff did? What if we teach those who are responsible to and for our children at school the art of non-violent direct engagement? When I ask this, some will chalk this up to an anomaly and quickly say that this would not work in the real world until I remind them that the overwhelming majority of problems and issues we have are solved non-violently—in the real world.
And while we are at it, maybe we can also remind people of faith that being a faithful person does not mean one has to be a violent one. For those who follow the Christian faith, as Ms. Tuff does, she anchored her faith not in a violent response, but remembering her pastor’s teachings (you hear that pastors!) she empathized with Mr. Hill and related to him by reflecting on her own life and the lives of her children. She put into action what Pope Francis recently declared “faith and violence are incompatible.”
I pray that my faith one day would be so strong.
You can follow Andre on twitter at @aejohnsonphd