Women talking

(Chris Mortenson/Staff)

Women’s History Month in March gives us time to reflect not only on the long arc of history but on one’s own personal history. One of my most vivid personal historical moments was at the 2017 Women’s March in D.C., a couple of months after “that” presidential election.

The rally was set to begin at 10 a.m., although many attendees had been at the site since the crack of dawn. It was overcast but not raining. It takes faith to be smooshed together with as many as a million other people, yet the mood was simultaneously joyous and somber. We were all witnessing the dawn of American fascism and not going quietly.

At around 9 a.m., a young, disheveled-looking white man with a huge, heavy backpack elbowed his way into the tightly packed crowd. My dear friend, Georgia Bragg, and I saw him; he gave us big-time creeps!

“Did you see that guy with the backpack?” Georgia asked. I told her yes. Given that 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 act on. We also discuss them in the courses we give at IMPACT Personal Safety. And here was a classic example: Mr. Tanzania gave us information 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, “Our classes 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 farther 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 would 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. “Middle Western. Like Timothy McVeigh with buck teeth.” And it wasn’t just his teeth that stuck out — his entire presentation and demeanor did, too.

I made my way through the throng by saying something like “Gotta pee!” which parts the waters in a crowd of women like a hot knife through butter. I found Mr. Backpacker and said, “Your backpack bothers me.” I saw several women standing around him nodding and giving me 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 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, his 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 and yelled, “Security, coming through.”  I found two Women’s March volunteers; they followed me back to Mr. Water Purification, and he was as nonresponsive 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 “if you 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 Jan. 21, 2017.” And that, my friends, is great news.

The moral of this story? If you notice that 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 instead. You can’t, by sheer will, command the tiny hairs on your neck to stand up; only your early warning system can, so do not override it!

I don’t recommend following my example of directly confronting a “suspect.” I have trained for years in verbal skills and managing my adrenalin in such scenarios. However, there are some strategies that anyone can do, such as saying to someone else, “This doesn’t feel right.” And while I know that friends and some authorities may 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. Keep talking until someone listens and takes you seriously.

2023 marks the 30th year that Ellen Snortland has written this column. She also teaches creative writing online and can be reached at ellen@beautybitesbeast.com. Her award-winning film “Beauty Bites Beast” is available for download or streaming at vimeo.com/ondemand/beautybitesbeast.