Why you should care
Because sometimes life asks you to stand up instead of standing by.
The author is a reporter for a daily newspaper in Oregon.
The feeling you get from a nightmare is nothing compared to the sickening feeling when a nightmarish moment comes true.
Just after 2 a.m., I was among the few mostly sober people on the D.C. metro, returning home after a night of dancing. When I reached my stop, I stepped onto the station platform and saw clusters of people craning to peer inside the train car a few ahead of mine. Trying to see what was attracting them, I noticed a person sprawled on the floor of the metro car and a man standing over the motionless body, his arms outstretched, yelling at a mob of passengers.
“Get the fuck away!” he shouted.
The man standing over the body was my brother, Tim.
I stood frozen on the platform. I watched the door to the metro close and the train continue down the track across the Anacostia River.
I forced myself to run from the train station. I phoned my parents. From hundreds of miles away, their voices filled with fear for their son, they tried to stay calm as they instructed me to call the police. The minute I reached my apartment, I called the police, then broke down sobbing. I repeatedly tried to reach my brother, but every call went to voicemail.
My parents raised my brother and me to stand up for what we believed, to be kind to others and to respect the lives and rights of all. Was that what Tim was doing? What was I doing? Nothing. I did not jump on the train. I did not help my brother.
By standing by, I sent a message to my brother, and to the person being attacked, that my safety mattered more than theirs.
An hour or so later, my brother and our roommate, Jefferson, walked into our apartment. I rushed to Tim and held him as I cried. He and Jefferson were visibly shaken. They had both been pepper sprayed and needed to rinse the chemicals from their bodies. Then they pieced the story together.
A young person presumably cross-dressing had been riding on their train when two women started verbally attacking, and then slapping, the cross-dresser. Others joined in until a small mob had shoved the person to the ground, kicking ribs, pulling hair and beating the person’s head with the butt of a knife. At L’Enfant Plaza, a security officer boarded the train, said, “OK, break it up” and promptly stepped off.
That’s when Tim knew no one was going to intervene. Those who hadn’t joined in were filming the attack on their phones. No one tried to help. Were they afraid they’d get hurt? Maybe they didn’t know what to do. Tim didn’t either — but he jumped in and started pulling the mob off the person.
Tim managed to take the knife away and keep the others at bay until the attackers left. One of them pepper sprayed the person before getting off, engulfing Tim and Jefferson in the toxic cloud. When they reached the next stop, they carried the bruised body to the security center. The victim didn’t want help from the police and walked home.
That weekend, I worked at the Pride festival as part of my job at a human rights organization. But I couldn’t focus. I wondered if any of the people passing my booth were victims of violence like I’d witnessed the previous night.
The next day, I searched the Internet, trying to find anything, even a YouTube video, about the incident. Nothing. I felt outraged. I wanted to know the person was OK; I needed to know the world cared. How could so many simply stand by? If they didn’t help, why didn’t they at least post the videos they’d taken? And what about me? What should I have done?
I’d never considered myself a passive bystander. I stood up to the boy who harassed my best friend in fourth grade. I introduced myself to students eating alone in the cafeteria. But had I ever put myself in harm’s way? Would I now?
I can’t know for sure. But I do know, since that night, I no longer want to stand by. I know that a single person stepping in isn’t enough. But by standing by, the rest of us allow incidents like this to happen. We send a message to the person being attacked that our safety matters more than theirs. By standing by, I sent a message to my brother, and to the person being attacked, that my safety mattered more than theirs. And it put my brother at greater risk.
Silence and inaction allow abuse to proceed unchecked. Like the tree that falls in the forest, a story happens whether or not people are there to tell it. I was there. And I will keep telling this story.