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Syndic Literary Journal

On Solidarity


Elaine Elinson

Some acts of solidarity are unforgettable.

 On the sultry evening of June 1, as darkness was falling in Washington, D.C., thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets, protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.  Like tens of thousands in cities across the country, they defied a city-wide 7:30 curfew to display their grief and righteous anger at his murder and so many other Black lives cut down by brutal police.

When the police started spraying pepper spray and wielding batons, scores of young people ran into the side streets of a residential neighborhood near DuPont Circle to escape the assault.

Some of the protestors ran into Swann Street. One of the trim brick townhouses on that  tree-lined street is the home of Rahul Dubey and his family. When Dubey heard the flash bang and the thudding of shields he swung open his front door to see what was going on.

When he saw crowds of demonstrators fleeing from the police who were randomly arresting anyone they could grab, he called to the protestors and pulled them into his home. Scores of young people, dazed and scared, stumbled up his front stairs and into his hallway. Many were coughing and choking from the pepper spray. 

Dubey reassured them that he would shelter them all through the night if necessary.  Several times the police approached the house and demanded that he eject the protestors. Several made attempts to get inside his home – but Dubey was having none of it. 

“I don’t think there was even a choice in what I did, to be honest. The crowd just came racing through like a tornado. It’s the same that you would do if it’s a storm, and you would have let anyone into your home,” Dubey later explained

By midnight, Dubey realized that it would be too dangerous for the protestors to return to the street, and everyone would have to stay until the curfew was lifted the next morning at 6 AM. So he accommodated more than 60 demonstrators, teenagers to elders, people of all races and sexual orientations. Somehow, he found room for all of them to rest, on couches, on the floor, even on the edge of the bathtub. He ordered pizza for everyone.

They all stayed through the night, safe from arrest, until the curfew ended at 6 AM the next morning.  When they emerged thankfully onto Swann Street, several of Dubey’s neighbors gave them bagels and fruit for breakfast.

There have been many inspiring stories in this wave of Black Lives Matter protests around the country and around the world.  Daring and charismatic teenagers organizing marches of thousands from Minneapolis to Oakland, in 800 cities, towns and suburbs.  Murals blossoming in neighborhoods honoring George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and so many other African Americans killed by police. Homemade signs and banners. Black Lives Matter painted in huge letters on main thoroughfares, visible from the sky. Statues of Confederate generals toppled. Activists forcing local and state governments to ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants.  Each time I see or read about these bold acts, I am inspired.

So why, I wondered, did this particular story of one man providing a night of refuge to protestors move me so much?

Yes, he was incredibly kind and generous. Yes, he took a great risk for himself and his family, exposing himself to police armed with military-style weapons.  Yes, he readily sacrificed his own comfort and safety to fill his house with strangers in need.  But there was something else.

And then I remembered.  My grandmother, Anna Reader, had done something very similar, although on a much smaller scale, almost five decades ago. I remembered her telling me this story.

In August 1972, Anna Reader was 82 years old and at the Fillard Hotel, an old Art Deco hotel converted into a senior residence, on Liberty Avenue in Miami Beach.  Every afternoon she would sit on the porch with her friends reading The Forward.  If the weather turned a little cool, she would stop reading the Yiddish paper and turn to her knitting.  Most of the residents, like Anna were Jewish immigrants from Russia, some of them were from her same shtetl of Pavelitch, and had lived in the same South Shore apartment building in Chicago. Three of the women — sisters now in their 70s and 80s — she had known since childhood.

Just a few blocks away at the Miami Beach Convention Center, the Republican National Convention was preparing to renominate Richard Nixon to his second term. It was the height of the Vietnam War. The war had already taken a tremendous toll.  Almost one million Vietnamese had perished.  Acres of rice paddies and farmland had been bombed, burned and poisoned with Agent Orange. More than 40,000 U.S. soldiers had come home in body bags and flag-draped caskets.

Everyone knew that Richard Nixon, the “law and order” president and the biggest hawk of all, was going to be the party’s candidate.  Even John Wayne was there to congratulate him.

On the day Nixon was nominated, 3,000 antiwar demonstrators gathered near the Convention Center. They listened to speeches by Bobby Seale, leader of the Black Panther Party who had just finished serving a four-year jail sentence for his leadership of protests at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and Daniel Ellsberg, who faced a prison for his revelations of the war machinations in the Pentagon Papers.

Then they began a march to the Convention Center. Some spattered their clothes with red paint, some wore black death shrouds.  Almost all were masked with bandannas, a precaution against tear gas and being identified.

The Republican delegates wore a different kind of uniform: seersucker suits, straw hats and plaid Bermuda shorts or white slacks. Some wandered out of the convention center into the warm evening looking for a lobster special or a cold beer.

The police were ordered to keep the two groups apart.  When the demonstrators started to taunt the delegates with shouts of “Murderers, Murderers” and “Stop Killing Vietnamese Babies,” the police gave chase.

The demonstrators, unfamiliar with the geography of Miami Beach, ran into the side streets. One of those streets led right to the porch of the Fillard Hotel.

Maybe one of them waved to Anna.  Maybe a few leaned on the railing of the front steps to catch their breath – and were getting ready to run again when the police sirens started to wail.

Anna, heavyset and with a delicate heart, lifted herself from her metal porch chair and approached the breathless young demonstrators.

“Vat, vat is de matter?” she asked.

From the safety of their bench, her fellow residents looked on in chagrin.  “There goes Anna again,” one elderly sister said to the other. “What can we do?”

“Nothing, she won’t listen to you anyway!”

The young demonstrators looked up quizzically at Anna.  “The police are after us,” one blurted out, hoping the old woman with the heavy accent would understand.  A long-haired girl in a beaded vest quickly added, “Because we’re protesting the war.” 

Police?  All Anna could think of were the Tsarist police who had pursued Jews and revolutionaries when she was a young woman back in Russia. She was not going to let this happen here.

“Come in,” she motioned to them from the top of the stairs, “come up, come in.”

The girl looked over at her companion, a young man in a dungaree jacket embroidered with flowers and peace signs.  He was wearing a bandanna around his face so it was hard to tell his expression – but the girl pulled him up the staircase and they followed Anna into the hallway. 

           “This way,” Anna motioned to the young couple as she unlocked her apartment door at the end of the corridor. 

“Here, sit.”  She motioned to chairs surrounding a yellow vinyl-covered table.

“Sit, sit, make yourselves at home,” she said, tying on her apron. “Now, just in case,” she said, putting the chain on the door.  “I’m locking the door and then I’m going to make some tea.”

The young couple sat down and wiped their faces with their bandannas. The air conditioning must have felt wonderful after the searing Miami heat.  They looked around the apartment at the family photos, the blue-and-white metal tsedaka box from the Jewish Welfare Society, the painting above their heads of camels in the desert. Though they were a little surprised that tea was served in glasses not cups, they sipped at it gratefully.  In the cupboards above the sink, Anna found some Oreo cookies left over from her grandchildren’s last visit and she served them on a lime green plastic plate.

But within ten minutes, they all heard a knock at the apartment door, and a barked command, “Open up! Police!”

The young protestors rose in a panic.  But Anna motioned to them to sit down and went to the door, calmly wiping her hands on her apron.  She opened the door ajar, but did not take the chain off.

“Yes, officers, vat do you vant?” she asked through the opening. 

“Those people in there – they broke the law.  Let us in, they were trespassing and obstructing police officers.”

“And jaywalking,” a second officer chimed in.

“These are my guests, officers, they’re joining me for a glass tea.”

She refused to let them in.  Eventually the police went away. 

A few days later, on our regular weekly telephone call, she told me what she had done. I thanked her profusely, and she responded, “Of course, I took them in, they reminded me of my grandchildren.”

Her sentiments were echoed during today’s transformative protests by Rahul Dubey. He said, “It’s not something that should be celebrated.  I shouldn’t be getting the attention.  I don’t think what I did was anything special. If it is, we have a ton of work to do in this country.”

I do not know much about Rahul Dubey, only that he is a 44-year-old businessman of Indian descent.  Of course, I know more about Anna Reader, my grandmother, who fled anti-Jewish pogroms in 1905 and worked in a garment sweatshop in Chicago.

But Anna Reader and Rahul Dubey, generations and worlds apart, are the humble heroes that give me faith in the strength of the human spirit, even in the most tumultuous of times.  Their acts of solidarity are forever etched not only in my mind, but in the memories of the people – so different from themselves – whom they helped in a moment of crisis. Bending the arc just a little ways more toward justice.




Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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