By Rivera Sun
On August 20, 2013, Antoinette Tuff (right) nonviolently disarmed a school shooter, saving the lives of hundreds of school children. Antoinette was a bookkeeper. She wasn’t supposed to be at the school that day. She was just filling in as a front desk receptionist as a favor to a friend. That morning, during her prayer time, she had read the Biblical line, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” Little did she know that just a few hours later, twenty-year old Michael Brandon Hill walked onto the elementary school grounds in DeKalb County, Georgia, carrying an assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition.
The police had arrived, the school was on lockdown, Antoinette was alone in this part of the building. Michael Hill entered the room. Scared to her bones, she obeyed his initial commands, but then, for some reason, she asked, “May I go the bathroom?”
Those who have taken unarmed peacekeeping, peace team, or de-escalation training will recognize this phenomenon at once: she broke the script, changed the narrative, and distracted Michael Hill from continuing on a track of senseless rage and disconnect that frequently occurs with mass shooters. In this CNN interview about the events, Kris Wilder, a 30-year veteran of the martial arts and author of How to Win a Fight: A Guide to Avoiding and Surviving Violence, is quoted as saying that one way to stop a dangerous situation is to, “Change the channel with an out-of-the-blue question like, “What time is it?” or a nonsensical question like, “What was Gandhi’s batting average?”
To Antoinette Tuff’s surprise, it worked. Michael Hill agreed to let her go to the bathroom. She rose to leave, but suddenly realized that the shooter might follow her to where the children were hiding. She hesitated. Then the situation worsened. Hill propped open the front door of the school and began firing at the police outside.
Antoinette Tuff sprang into action. Gently, lovingly (and filled with a strange sense of calm) she said, “Sweetheart, come back in here. Bullets don’t have no names. And those bullets gonna kill me and you. I need you to come back in here and it’s gonna be you and me and we will work this thing out.”
Michael Hill retreated from the door, and Antoinette continued to talk, telling him about her marital troubles and how she contemplated suicide four times. As she spoke, she found herself meeting his eyes and connecting to him as a human being. To her amazement, Michael began to express his concerns and fears. Eventually, through dialogue and listening, empathizing, and connecting, Antoinette convinced him to lay down his gun, and surrender to the police.
Antoinette Tuff’s jaw-dropping story is an astounding example of engaged nonviolence in the height of a violent situation. It is interesting to note that Antoinette Tuff is a deeply spiritual person. She “meditated” for 15 minutes each day and connected with her spiritual practice each night. Regardless of whether you are Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or some other faith, the practice of calming and centering the mind, grasping your inner strength, seeing with compassion, and rooting yourself in faith is an invaluable preparation for engaging active nonviolence in the world.
Learn more via the Metta Center’s exploration of how Antoinette Tuff used the power of active nonviolence: http://mettacenter.org/daily-metta/are-we-ignoring-the-lesson-of-nonviolence-daily-metta/Φ