The first words anyone from my family can remember me saying were in a seedy little bar in Barcelona, Spain.
It was the summer of 1968.
I was three years old.
My father died the year before. He was 43 years young and, like JFK, he was a handsome man who would never age because of a sad fate he couldn’t foresee.
My mother was left alone to raise 9 kids ranging from 15 to myself—the youngest—at two.
Before that tumultuous summer would begin, the summer that would see the shocking deaths of MLK and RFK, she decided to pack all 9 kids into a VW bus—10 of us in a bus built for 9—and travel across Europe. She told me years later she had to get away from the home that still echoed with my father’s voice. (My mother wrote about that adventure and the dying and death of my father in her own book, The Road Taken: A Memoir - One VW Bus, One Widow, Nine Kids.)
On one of our stops, we ducked into the aforementioned Spanish bar for a bite to eat as our culinary options were more limited back in the day.
An old woman started harassing my brother, Pete, who was 13-months my senior. We couldn’t understand the words she was saying, but her hostility to him was evident. Not wanting to see anything bad happen to my best friend, I put myself between Pete and the old woman, looked up at her with all the confidence in the world, pointed my index finger up at her, and declared, “Leave my brother alone.”
And, to everyone’s surprise, she did.
All that was needed to stop her aggressive action against this child was someone—anyone—to stand up to her and even in a foreign tongue, to tell her to knock it off.
I had a similar experience decades later, on July 4, 1987.
Just weeks before, I met the love of my life—Holly, who unbeknownst to me at the time, I would marry in September of the following year. Holly, Pete, his girlfriend and I were celebrating the Fourth of July at the Esplanade in Boston, enjoying Johnny Cash, John Williams and the Boston Pops. Everyone was in a good mood, including an elderly woman in a low-profile folding chair in front of us. Out of nowhere, a grape pelted her in the back of her head. And then another. And another. The fruity projectiles were coming from behind me and were rightfully upsetting her.
I casually got up and walked off to the side, then circled back to get behind whomever the grape chucker might be.
Sure enough, some guy about my age, showing off for his girlfriend, was pegging the poor woman.
I walked over and told him directly, “Knock it off.”
He looked up, surprised someone caught him in the act and that anyone would challenge him. His first response, however, was pathetically weak: “She’s blocking our view,” he whined.
I told him, “Then move.”
His next response was more what I expected, albeit with more colorful vocabulary than I could have guessed: “Shut up or I’ll . . . .” Let’s just say it involved tearing off a couple of items I was pretty attached to.
Anticipating a fight, the crowd around us went absolutely quiet.
I looked at him square in the eyes, and with the best John Wayne slow burn I could muster said, “Stand up if you think you’re man enough to do it.”
Like so many bullies, he was a coward when confronted.
He didn’t move. The conflict was over.
I turned to go back to my seat and was shocked to see a sea of people standing in a semi-circle around me, including my own smiling one-day-bride-to-be.
We walked back to our blanket, the concert got under way, and there were no more grapes thrown at the old woman.
About a decade later, I met an elderly woman named Vera Coking. Years before the casinos moved in, Vera brought a humble little boarding house next to Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk, which was her pride and joy. Vera loved her home and living so close to the ocean. For those who don’t know, the board game Monopoly is based on Atlantic City—the closer you get to the Boardwalk, the more expensive the properties grow. Located only one block from the Boardwalk, Vera’s property was a goldmine.
But Vera didn’t want to sell her land to anyone for any price. And, in this country, that was her right.
Even Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine, understood so basic a constitutional right. He offered Vera $1 million for her home, so he could construct a casino on that land, but she refused. So Guccione constructed an enormous steel cage of girders around Vera’s home as the skeleton of his construction project.
Vera, her home, her property and her air rights were respected.
His project ultimately fell through and the steel structure was eventually removed, but Vera and her home remained.
Guccione was followed by someone who didn't respect this widow’s constitutional rights. Donald Trump convinced a government agency to take Vera’s home and hand it over to him with few restrictions on its use. He said he wanted to construct a limo parking lot where her home stood, but nothing would stop him from breaking ground the next day on a casino if he got possession of the land.
I was fortunate enough to represent Vera through my work at the Institute for Justice. I directed the PR campaign that rightfully heaped mountains of media criticism at The Donald, calling into question the abuse of Vera’s constitutional rights on behalf of another private citizen for his own private gain. The one-two punch of effective courtroom advocacy by my colleague, Dana Berliner, and our media campaign ended up winning the day and saving the home Vera Coking would reside in for another decade, just as she wished.
Throughout your life, you will see injustices perpetrated on the innocent, the widow, the weak, the old. We may think we don’t possess what it takes to make a difference, but, in truth, we do. We just need to stand up, take some action and make our voices heard.
That is a theme that plays out time and again in my novel, Blythe.
One of mankind’s greatest sins is inaction in the face of injustice.
For justice to have its day, men and women of character must be its champion.
(Order Blythe at www.Amazon.BlytheBook.com)