An open letter to the man accused of a hate crime against my friend:

An open letter to the man accused of attacking David Jennings:

You stand accused of a felony hate crime for assaulting my friend Dave. For calling him hateful racial slurs. For punching him as he tried to walk away. For leaving him with a concussion and two black eyes.

In doing this, you’ve hurt a friend I’ve known for thirty years who is a respected, beloved member of the community. Dave has served on the Guernsey Library Board of Trustees for a decade. He volunteers for Blues Fest and with Girl Scout cookies sales. He is a remarkably devoted uncle. You would know none of these things directly from Dave. It is quietly, with humility, that he devotes himself to his community and loved ones.

I think of your own loved ones, and how you have hurt them. Your arrest for a hate crime brings shame to your family. If you are convicted and serve time in prison, it will be a hardship for all of you. Your wife and children will suffer from your absence.

What’s done is done. What can you do about it now? Nothing, and a lot.

You can’t undo the past, but you can take responsibility. You can make amends. You can commit to doing better in the future. The gift of this life is that we can change. Always, we can change.

Change requires confronting why you did this. What prompted you to attack someone? Why did you target Dave for being black? Change means understanding that racism runs deep — in our families, in our society. It requires identifying your role in that. It means recognizing that when times are difficult, opportunistic leaders will stoke prejudices and scapegoat minorities. Change means understanding and unlearning the ways you’ve been taught to think this is acceptable.

Responsibility and change also mean taking an honest, unflinching look at yourself. You clearly have a problem with violent anger. Were you also high or drunk when you attacked Dave? You must get help. Find a twelve-step program for addiction or anger management. They work. I would know.

And finally, in taking responsibility, you must make amends. Don’t seek amends from Dave. Leave him alone. You’ve caused him enough anguish. Make your amends going forward. Teach your children that there is never a reason to attack someone, ever. Teach them that there are words so imbued with hate that you never say them, ever. Pay your dues — literally, with money or time — to organizations that uplift humanity and that combat racism and violence. Show your friends and family that true changes of heart and mind are possible.

Lastly, learn from Dave. Commit to nonviolence. Give to your community. Live a life of gentle stewardship. Learn to walk humbly on this earth.

Sincerely,

Jen (J.J.) Johnson

Durham, NC

Norwich High School Class of 1991

On Christmas Eve, my friend (and senior prom date — see our photo for some truly timeless 1991 hairstyles) was assaulted in our small upstate NY hometown. It was a hate crime: the attacker screamed racial epithets and appears to have targeted Dave because he is black.

One part of my response was to write a letter to the editor of the newspaper there. Folks have since asked me to share it more widely. Thus my first Medium post. Ta da. Technology.

A note on Dave: he’s doing as well as one could hope after such a brutal attack. True to form, his primary concern is for others: he’s worried that hate crimes will be on the rise, and he doesn’t want victims to feel alone. See? That’s why we love him.

J.J. Johnson wrote the y.a. novels This Girl is Different, The Theory of Everything, and Believarexic (all published by Peachtree Publishers). Her books have received numerous honors and are translated into six languages.

This letter was first published January 11, 2017 in The Evening Sun, Norwich, New York.