Keshia Thomas and the Power of Passive Change

It’s a well-known story but let me set the scene for you. Two groups stand opposed to each other. One is the Ku Klux Klan. The other, a group of protesters. This is Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1996. It’s hard to imagine two groups more dissimilar. There are police barricades separating the two sides. Yelling, cursing, chants, all fill the air.

A rarely mentioned group, calling themselves the Peacekeepers, are wearing bright yellow shirts. “Peace Team” emblazoned on the back. They are holding back where they can. Cajoling, pushing, sometimes pleading to keep the two sides away from each other.

One little line is the point of separation.

There’s a man, draped with a Confederate flag and marked with Neo-Nazi tattoos. He’s approached from the wrong side of the divide. It’s not even certain if he knows where he is at the moment. Wrong place, wrong time, writ large.

Someone yells there’s a clansman in their midst. The protesters turn and seem to funnel inwards. The unnamed man turns to run, but he’s stuck. Placards rain down on him and punches force him to the ground. What once were protesters are slowly turning into a mob, distributing vigilante justice against this icon of everything they hate, and that hates them.

Here, we freeze.

There are two lines of reasoning one can enter from this point. This man is a clansman. He’s only getting what he deserves. The amount of punching, kicking, all of it is precisely or even less than a minority would receive on the other side of that divide. No jury on Earth would convict these people. You can’t claim to be superior and merit a few less teeth for it.

The other is that this is clearly an assault. This man had yet to do anything. Say anything. He was being attacked based on the fact of what he was. While no person is born a clansman, that kind of violence against people based on their “is”-ness was exactly what the protesters were claiming to be against. This attack was apparent hypocrisy.



Taking kicks to the head is apparently difficult, so the man curls up. Fetal, mommy-can-you-help-me style. The Peacekeepers are still in the middle area. The undulating tides of the crowd makes it impossible for anyone to enter the area. It’s essentially a moshpit for one.

Then comes the historic image. A nineteen year old Keshia Thomas, a black woman, jumping on the man and covering him with her body. It’s a striking picture, to see a person defending someone who would just as well spit on her. It’s the kind of thing everyone imagines they would do in that situation, but happens so rarely that it’s difficult to display examples of.

What happens next is not captured on the photograph.

The protesters closest to the scene stop attacking. Some of the others link hands and create a chain to stop would-be aggressors. The crowd begins to settle. There is a shift, though minute. This one act, that Keshia would later attribute to her strong Christian faith, has pacified the group. Either through shame, or example, or the willingness to avoid the mob mentality that often afflicts large groups in high-pressure situations.

Later, she would meet the man’s son in a coffeeshop and he would thank her for saving his father.

To this day, he is not a clansman.

When change is on the table, you can’t look towards your in-group. You are not trying to convince your in-group. You also need not look at the core group directly opposing. Both of these groups have their lines already drawn. They are settled on their opinions and attempting to change their mind is like engraving a diamond with a toothpick.

Theoretically possible, but not a good use of your time or your toothpicks.

Instead, look toward the center. Those who have yet to decide, or aren’t completely invested in their stance. Show those people that you are better, more moral, more decent than the other side. Give them those small moments of uncertainty and discomfort. The mental dissonance of confronting a very real threat to their worldview.

Active resistance is a useful tool – it concentrates the maximum amount of effort at the shortest amount of time – but it has to be used judiciously. No fence-sitter is going to be won over by grand parades and fiery comments on social media. XxDonglord69 is not going to convince anyone or make them think that the opposition has a point. XxDonglord69 never has a point.

When you punch a Nazi – while it is, admittedly, satisfying – you are debasing your own movement.

If you were watching, from a background that endears you to white-supremacy for whatever reason, a bunch of minorities beating on a white man at what purports to be a non-violent protest, you would not assume they were the ones fighting for the betterment of mankind. You would assume that your views will be repressed, that these groups would rather violently take from you than they would sit you down and explain the issues behind their movement.

This is not an era of moral gray.

On that topic, Richard Petty (no relation to any Heartbreakers) of Ohio State has already preformed a study. He found that people with views that they considered ‘minority’ views, upon being presented with evidence that the majority of people opposed their view, were more likely to reinforce their beliefs than change them. Quote: “It may be that you feel proud because you were able to disprove, in your own mind, an opinion that most people have accepted.”

Tell me you’ve never felt like your views were of a select, morally virtuous minority.

Like you were the only sane person in the world.

Go ahead.

Any kind of active opposition causes an immediate, visceral, gut-reaction. Get hit, hit back. Lose ground, conquer more. Send one of ours to the hospital, send one of theirs to the morgue. Opinions and memes (of the original Dawkins definition, not the current lolcats colloquial), we are discovering, are more and more like physical altercations every day. Wars without blood, but potentially just as many casualties.

Passive change is not popular. You’ll rarely see newspaper clippings of the small, everyday victories that, generally, only the subconscious mind notices. It’s much more fun to have that powerful confrontation. The man preaching on the soapbox. The multi-colored, cleverly-worded placards. One person standing and shouting at a bunch of people that their worldview is flawed, sheeple.

Passive change is not fun.

It is effective.

Doing the small things, reinforcing your message with an awareness of your actions, is what passive change is all about. Chipping away at the foundations of power, not by charging in with an army, but by changing the landscape so the foundations just crumble. It takes time, but time will always favor the just, and the passionate.

You don’t change people by chastising them.

You change them by being who they want to be.

Note: Above study mentioned can be found at: osu.edu – Link provided upon request.