Tacoma street clash shows we’re in thick of the chaos

A view down Sixth Avenue looking east toward Junett Street, the scene of an eye-opening confrontation this month that could have turned violent.
A view down Sixth Avenue looking east toward Junett Street, the scene of an eye-opening confrontation this month that could have turned violent. News Tribune file photo, 2008

Sometimes I think I’m immune to the chaos of the world, to the unrest, to the violent images that I see on the news.

A few weeks ago — one day after Tacoma’s Art on the Ave, an annual joyful, creative gathering on 6th Avenue — I found that I’m not immune. In fact, at times I’m right in the thick of it.

I’d parked on 6th, in front of Central Co-op grocery near Junett Street. Across the street is Subway and other shops.

As I crossed at the light, I witnessed a 20-something-year-old man and woman yelling at a well-dressed, professional-looking, 30-something-year-old black man. I met at the vortex of these three people, two yelling and one responding:

“You don’t respect anyone or anything! Look at how you parked!”

“I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not disrespecting you. Why are you disrespecting me?”

“Because you don’t respect anything. You think you can park any way you want. You don’t care about anything except yourself!”

The black man tells them that they don’t even know what he’s going through today, and that he’s just parked there briefly while he goes to pick something up at the store next door.

The 20-somethings raise their voices and continue to proclaim the black man’s disrespectfulness. I can feel the rising tension.

I take the gentleman’s arm and turn him away from the three. “C’mon,” I say. “I think you’re going to the same store I’m going to. Tell me – what are you going through today?”

He told me that he just lost both of his daughters that morning. Their ages are 12 and 14, and they left with their mom to move to Texas.

The man and woman are still yelling at him, and us. Another young woman, licking an ice cream cone, joins them and begins telling me that I shouldn’t be involved.

The taunting continues. The 20-something man reaches into his truck and removes a baseball bat from behind the seat.

The gentleman says, “Oh, I see how this is going. You’re going to threaten me, then blame me for any trouble.” The 20-something man brandishes the bat, and his companions take out cell phones and begin filming.

I turn the gentleman away, and say, “This is not going to happen today.”

The 20-somethings put the bat in the truck and go into a nearby shop. We notice open containers in their truck. When they return, I suggest they leave, as the police are on their way, and I remind them of the open containers.

The driver puts a joint in his mouth, and one of his passengers flashes an obscene gesture to the gentleman as they drive away.

As the gentleman and I say goodbye, I think about how hard these times are, and I think about how fast the negativity escalated. I don’t know if it was jealousy or booze that fueled this exchange.

But I’m reminded that we have a choice in every moment in how we respond to one another. Just as they didn’t know what the gentleman was going through in his life, we didn’t know the 20-somethings’ stories.

The national events of recent weeks — the shootings, both black and white, civilian and uniformed, the political tauntings, the name-calling, the assumptions, the accusations — all came a little closer to home.

I can see the gap in understanding, and the labels that make us blind to one another. It’s time to temper our language, to listen more than tell, to notice and respect our varying perceptions and experiences.

I breathe in another day. I’m not immune after all. I make a difference, as do we all.

Pam Peterson Laulainen writes and lives in University Place. She is a former editorial assistant at the Statesman-Journal in Salem, Oregon, and a contributing writer to the Oregonian in Portland and the Tri-City Herald in Richland.