By DIANE PHILLIPS
This is a very personal story and, in some ways, it is a story about all of us.
It starts out with what we all feel though rarely – or reluctantly – put into words. We are strange human beings made more alive by excitement based on the threat of danger. Our adrenaline pumps harder, faster by the presence of fear. Our fists clench tighter anticipating but not knowing the outcome or what the next moment of recklessness will bring.
We felt it this week with the crashes at Daytona International Speedway where NASCAR, without the safety features of Formula 1 racing, delivered a heart-thumping fast action sport. Our pulse beats were timed to the tune of 200-mile-an-hour racing machines. We awaited the next crash and wanted to see flames but wanted just as badly for the driver to escape unharmed, eager to hug his wife and child. We never admit that’s why we watch races but for most of us it’s why we watch. We know there is speed, we sense there is danger and we do not know and cannot predict the outcome.
And again, we felt it this week when the nine-day festival of the Running of the Bulls kicked off in Pamplona, Spain. The entire concept defies sane explanation. Cordon off a section of town with no escape, stir up massive animals confined to the narrow space and taunt them until they push trying with all their might and power to escape, goring and trampling anyone in their way. It is animal abuse of the highest order next to murder. It sickens some of us, yet nearly a million and a half people attended the 425 related events last year and millions more follow online. Sixteen people have died since the festival started in 1931 and dozens are injured every year. Five were hospitalised this year within the first 24 hours.
Scientists tell us the basics. Novelty, risk, reward are pleasure triggers, like drugs, alcohol, sex. They accelerate a chemical in our brain called dopamine. Those dopamine receptors vary in individuals and it is widely accepted that people who have a higher level are more likely to seek thrills.
The 1990 film Awakenings, one of Robin Williams’ finest performances, follows the cases of 15 patients who existed for years in a semi-catatonic state after being stricken with encephalitis. Treated with L-Dopa, they gradually re-awaken. Persons once frozen in time begin living again, dancing and singing and smiling and loving, and the pace quickens to almost frenetic. In the end, the shock of change is too much and they decline, re-affirming the power of a chemical reaction to life.
The patients in Awakenings felt the fine line between excitement and fear. What began in happiness transcended into fearfulness that consumed not only the mind, but triggered a reaction to the body.
In an October 27, 2017, Smithsonian.com Conversation contribution, authors Arash Javanbakht and Linda Saab point out that “Reaction to fear starts in the brain and spreads through the body.”
I know that feeling.
This was a long route to the story. Forgive me, but I wanted to set the scene so that you would understand how when I was truly scared for one of the few times ever in my life, it affected my mind, my body, my family, my life and it is only several years later that I can begin to tell the story without starting to shake or wanting to strangle someone.
I was the victim of a hate crime
If you have never been the victim of a hate crime, you don’t know what it feels like just as those of us who have never been gun-butted do not know what it feels like to have the cold steel handle of a pistol smashed against our brains.
It was in December 2014. I was a director of the environmental advocacy group Save The Bays and we had scheduled our second Freedom of Information rally to be held on Charlotte Street between Bay and Shirley Streets. The first one in Rawson Square had been a huge success. Among the participants were the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the DNA, the chairman of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce, Citizens for a Better Bahamas, the Trade Union Congress. There were public service representatives and numerous religious leaders. Who could be opposed to Freedom of Information and we were encouraged that we were making progress in joining hands with other organisations to bring more accountability and transparency to government.
The December rally was to be like the first, peaceful, but because it was going to be in the early evening, we had planned for more entertainment. It was properly permitted, a stage was set up in the middle of the cordoned off block for performers, and everyone was in place.
Among those scheduled to participate were Dr Ranford Patterson, President of the Bahamas Christian Council; the Rev CB Moss, Bishop Walter Hanchell and others representing various church or religious affiliations.
No one could have guessed that it would turn out to be a catalyst for someone with a personal agenda who wanted to use it to disrupt the peace and cause threat in order to make the event appear to fail.
Just before 5pm, I parked in a spot off Shirley Street and walked toward Charlotte Street. I saw Paco Nunez and Romi Ferreira walking in the opposite direction, heading east, which I thought was odd, but caught up with them and walked through the Royal Victoria parking lot with them, heading toward a loud sound that they were going to check out.
The noise, something like Junkanoo gone wrong, was mostly a lot of noise. As we came out of the lot and faced the Post Office building on East Hill Street, we saw the source of the noise, a large flatbed truck with a bunch of guys, most in white t-shirts playing a variety of drums, etc.
It wasn’t the sound that was shocking or the fact that the truck was parked clearly across the bus parking lot. It was the signs, hate signs, evil signs, large plywood placards, all carefully done professionally with just enough casual to give them a bit of amateur feeling as if they reflected the feelings of the people. Louis Bacon with KKK, a reference to a supposed connection to a relative long ago and used to stir anger. Another poster insulted QC Fred Smith, another had my picture with the words “Who is Diane Phillips?” All spelled correctly, one n in Diane, two lls in Phillips, which never happens so it was obvious that the person who organised all this knew me well. Everything about the set-up, the truck, the speakers, the men who smelled of alcohol, the signs spoke to an organised attempt to stir, incite or inflame – and I immediately suspected that the men, some on the truck, some now climbing or jumping down, had no idea what it was really all about.
I pointed to one of the signs with my picture and said to two of the men standing together, “Hey, that’s me. Anyone want a picture?” The one guy said to a few gathered, “Hey mon, get ya phones. Take my picture with the lady. C’mon, c’mon’.”
The large placard with my photo singularly placed was right next to the KKK placard and I did the thing with the photo just to prove to myself that the men had no idea why they were there. One guy is holding my hand, another standing close by, for the picture. I wasn’t any more a racist to them than I am in real life. They were hired hands who did not know what they were protesting or what cause they were supposedly representing. It was ugly to see the false portrayal on large signs but I knew they were paid drunks so at the moment I did not panic. A bad idea, a little too much rum, a loud truck.
Then, the horror and hate began to reveal itself and the danger it posed. The truck, no longer satisfied to sit by a lot and make noise, drove down Shirley Street and attempted to barrel through the closed street where children were preparing to go on stage. A man jumped off, moved the orange cone. Citizens – with little help from police who stood by and watched – attempted to scream and turn them around, yelling there were children and innocent people and religious leaders in the street. KB was about to perform along with the children who had just got on stage.
The truck was huge, the men were drinking and it was intimidating. When they were finally turned around, they tried to enter from the Bay Street side.
By this time, several had gotten off the truck and were marching up the street carrying their hate signs. Police at last recognised the danger and it took nine of them, I believe, to finally clear the men away. I believe at least two of the men dropped their signs. I don’t think anyone doubted that they were there because of Peter Nygard, whether hired directly or indirectly.
Meantime, two gentlemen in black jackets appeared at the event. I spoke with them and one was named Johnson. They were told to come, they said. By Nygard. They were on his boxing team and were due to fight later that same evening. I did not hear every word as I was a few feet away but I saw them confront retired principal Joseph Darville, a Save The Bays director, now chairman and I saw a finger pointed at him threatening. I stood behind Joe and heard him tell them firmly that he was a Bahamian and had every right to be where he was and they would never scare him from what he believed in. His courage was awe-inspiring.
All of this might have been just another rude attempt at civil disorder and I would have gotten over it taking it for the unfortunate pathetic immature thing it was except for one thing – I later was informed by a very reliable source whose name I cannot reveal, but who once worked on the Nygard property, that he overheard the man himself say he was going to “smash Diane Phillips”. Still shaking from the events of the past two hours, seeing my photo singled out, the largest reproduction I have ever seen, I realised this could be serious. I hardly slept over the next days. Security for the entire family became a constant concern. I did not know a body could shake so much inside.
These words are similar to the report I filed with police. Other directors, including the current Minister of Environment and Housing Romi Ferreira, also filed reports of the incident. Individually and collectively, we asked for an investigation. Our names were trashed. We and others on the street were threatened. We reminded police in our reports that the Save The Bays event was properly permitted; the truck and the interference and the men with drums and placards and alcohol-fired up energy were not and some of us were frightened about what lay ahead. The incident seemed a harbinger of greater danger to come.
The incident and false accusations also cost my public relations firm a major international account. A long-term contract was cancelled the next day, instantly, as the health care provider was advised by a local contact, also connected with the same group, that I was a subversive or enemy of the state or some such nonsense. I was never even given an opportunity to explain my values or why I thought it was important for people to stand up for what they believe in. Everyone who knows me knows how far from partisan politics I have remained all these years.
It is often said that you can never kill an idea. I am repeating that to myself a lot to maintain strength to continue the important fight for good governance, safety on our streets and a protected environment. When good, solid citizens are threatened, who is safe?
It is going on four years now and none of us has ever had the courtesy of a proper investigation. Hate crimes scar. In some cases they become bloody. In no case do they solve a problem.
Surely, we must take them as the crimes they are, investigate and let justice take its course. Just as importantly, we must move past the hate to find other ways to settle our differences. Otherwise, we are no better than the insecure child who bullies to make himself feel like the king of the playground.