Speak up

Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald

It’s not just for playgrounds any more. The revelation that Jonathan Martin, a 6-foot 5-inch tall, 312-pound. professional football player felt helpless to respond to bullying is a shocker to many people.

We most often associate bullying with aggressive, abusive kids picking on other kids. The fact is that bullies are just as likely to be adults. Victims can be any age and any size. The commonality is that bullies don’t pick fair fights.

Bullying is the use of superior strength or influence to intimidate or harm another person whether at school, a sports team, in business or in any of life’s arenas. There are bullies in politics, religion, government and the workplace.

The Miami Dolphins never expected a team member to reveal the issue outside the locker room. The hazing and abuse first portrayed as an anomaly was tolerated and encouraged for years and hidden through a code of silence.

Small towns have their own codes and protective networks.

For all the ethical, gracious, and generous leaders of business and public institutions in Durango, we’re not immune to those who don’t play fair. We just don’t like to talk about it because the subject isn’t pleasant. In fact, it’s downright embarrassing.

Bullies can thrive in places like Durango, Bayfield, Ignacio and other such locations because ours is a closed system. That which we treasure about small towns, the fabric of a close-knit community, has a dark side when close-knit becomes closed in.

Any place dominated by one high school, one college, one factory, one ski area, a single news source or another major industry or institution that is a monopoly is fertile ground for bullies to emerge.

Conversely, competition and variety breed fair play in the same way they foster fair pricing. If a local restaurant abuses its employees, contractors, or customers affected will take their business elsewhere because numerous options are available. One could argue that a benefit to local charter schools is keeping District 9-R honest. If the district bullies students or teachers, the affected can switch teams and vice versa.

It’s well-known that wages are lower in Durango for many industries because there’s a high demand to live here with limited employment options. Playing to market rates for wages is fair play, but it’s not when it morphs into abusing employees who can’t quit because it’s impossible to find similar work nearby.

The same unfair intimidation can be used against suppliers, contractors, and even customers. Bullying is about superior influence and advantage that provides the opportunity to cheat without even hiding.

For example, a dominant company can make a policy of paying local suppliers late under the threat that the vendor won’t get future business if they demand payments as originally promised. Even worse is when a bully company substantially changes an agreement after the fact to the supplier’s disadvantage under the same threat.

Bullies can play the legal system to their advantage as well. How often have we heard about a small company taking a loss because they can’t afford the effort, attorney fees and heartache to take on a bully?

It’s common for small-town lawyers to steer clear of taking on big players especially on behalf of small ones. No one wants to be the guy who stands up to the social and business elite shielded by power and popularity – they will be off the Christmas party list for sure. Worse yet will be the systematic effort to re-write the narrative so that the victim is portrayed as the problem.

Small-town bullies are hard to challenge because they develop a protective network with support from co-conspirators, acceptance by those who benefit but weren’t the actual abusers themselves (“going along to get along”), and fear of retribution against anyone who cries foul.

Bullies are only reined in when they are challenged – a process they hate more than anything. While it would be nice for victims to stand up for themselves, the strong have to step in because no one else will.

Kudos are due to school systems and police that are implementing policies and practices to deal with and prevent bullying on campus. School District 9-R has gone so far as to adopt a whistle-blower program to prevent retribution against anyone that reports abuse or malfeasance – a change that came about when the school board eliminated long-standing pay-to-play sports programs and other fees charged to students without previous approval by the board.

The process took years of conflict and exacted a toll on everyone involved. Harsh feelings exist to this day. Changing the system was ugly, but it turned out for the better.

The point is that bullies prevail until challenged. Their behavior will not cease as long as it’s tolerated or ignored. So if you love Durango, Bayfield, Ignacio or whatever your community, challenge a bully today especially if you do so on behalf of someone who can’t protect themselves.

At the very least, call them out. Bullies hate being identified for who they are especially in a tight-knit community where we all know each other. Silence is their friend, not yours.

Jack Turner is a fifth-generation Durango local. Reach him at jturner@durangoconnect.com.

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