If you haven’t heard about Antoinette Tuff this maybe because her heroic actions didn’t make it very high up in the headlines in the UK. Most papers covered the story but not very prominently.
What’s the story?
I first read the story in the Guardian on 26 August. It’s a story that happened on Tuesday, 21 August in Decatur, Georgia, USA. Not a place you’ve heard of before? It’s a small place, home to just about 20 000 people. On Tuesday, 21 August 2013, they might have been catapulted into world news and a dreadful kind of immortality in the minds of people all over the world, had it not been for Antoinette Tuff.
She is the bookkeeper in a local school, the Ronald E McNair Discovery Learning Academy, a primary school for 870 children between the ages of five and eleven. This was the scene for a man, armed with a gun, destabilised because he had not taken his medication, which he had been prescribed for his mental health condition, entered.
We’ve heard about these stories before; umpteen kids dead, teachers dead, parents and communities devastated, calls for more armed security and armed teachers in schools (at least in the US). But that didn’t happen.
Antoinette Tuff was taken hostage by the man; she didn’t panic although she was deeply afraid; afraid for the lives of the children and the teachers, and afraid for her own life.
Basically, she talked him down. Read the full story in the Guardian; it is very moving. Or watch the video/listen to the sound recording of her encounter with the man, which was recorded by the emergency call centre (called 911 dispatcher).
Why is it important
Here, I want to pay tribute to her courage and to the attitude she displayed in this situation. She showed that you don’t have to have a gun to protect a school full of kids. She showed that if you manage to be calm enough to talk to someone like this potential gunman an a human being, an equal, then it is possible to get through to that person.
Antoinette Tuff engaged with him in part by telling him about the hard times in her life and by suggesting that you can get beyond them. She reassured him that he could get out of the situation and be ok. And in the end, he put down the gun and allowed himself to be arrested without killing anyone.
What does the lack of media coverage say about our media?
Why was this not headline news on our TV news programmes? Why did it not make the front page of every newspaper on the day after it happened?
Because no one died; that’s why. But what does that say about our media?
Good news – and in many ways this is a good news story – doesn’t sell papers, or so we are led to believe. But this approach actually reinforces negative views and negative feelings about the world we live in. The way the story was illustrated also reflects this.
The Guardian did not illustrate this piece with a picture of either the gunman or Antoinette Tuff; the Daily Telegraph had a picture of the gunman, as if he was more important in the story than she was; the Independent has a picture of both; the Daily Mail has lots of pictures: a few of her, one of him and lots of pictures of the scene outside – which gives an image of panic and armed police; an image which rather detracts form the message of the story.
The Daily Mail also gets the State in which this happened wrong: this is Decatur, Georgia, not Decatur, Alabama. This may seem insignificant but shows a lack of care in the journalism.
What does the story and the lack of media coverage say about our politics?
But the other important message is about politics; about the way we think about other people and the way that is reflected in the policies our governments pursue.
Guardian journalist Gary Younge, who wrote the article, puts this rather succinctly:
‘This incident raises a number of policy issues beyond its own drama: the availability of guns, healthcare (Hill was off his medication because his Medicaid had expired) and mental health services (inadequate provision in the US makes prisons and jails the main facilities, effectively criminalising mental illness). But it also raises two broader cultural points.’
Younge goes on to say:
‘First, politicians cannot legislate to ensure the existence of people such as Tuff. And even if they could it would be unreasonable to expect such heroism from anyone. They can, nonetheless, learn a great deal from her. For her generosity of spirit, capacity to humanise the potential shooter and ability to identify with him through her own vulnerabilities do tell us a great deal about what is lacking in our politics.
Our politics, particularly in an age of terror, austerity and growing inequality, is predicated on the basis that people are basically venal, selfish, dishonest and untrustworthy. The poor are assumed not to be looking for work but cheating on welfare; foreigners are assumed to be taking something from a culture rather than contributing something to it; public sector workers, like Tuff, are assumed not to be devoted to public service but a drain on our taxes. The disabled are assumed to be well. When we look at others, the default position in much of western political culture is not to see ourselves in them but to see a threat.’
In other words, do we meet other people at eye-level, do we see them as our equal. The courage of Antoinette Tuff should give all of us pause for thought. It should encourage those who work for gun control in the US. And it should remind us that non-violent approaches to difficult situations can work. And when they do, when those involved somehow have the courage to engage non-violently, it saves lives and it changes people for the better.