Eyes in a Crowd

In the late 1980’s, I was taking the New York City Subway #7 line home from my office in Manhattan to my apartment in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. Rush hour. All seats taken. Not much spare standing room.

As I rode, hanging on to my strap, I became aware of an abusive stream of words being shouted by what sounded like one man. I edged through the crowd to find the source. A white man stood over a seated black man shouting the sorts of insults one hurls to get a fight started. The black man was sitting calmly, refusing to take the bait. And the white man kept shouting insults.

I didn’t know if the white man wanted something (the seat?) from the black man. His words told no story but the desire to abuse another. A semicircle of standees had by this time formed around the source of the noise. I wanted to do something but didn’t know what, so I searched the faces of the people forming the semicircle, hoping to find an ally.

Photo by Tim Adams

Sure enough, my eyed locked with those of another white man across the semicircle from me. Once he and I found each other’s eyes, without speaking a word to each other, we knew what to do. We stepped in front of the black man, facing the abusive white guy, forming a shoulder-to-shoulder wall of two. At the next subway stop, we walked forward together toward the open subway doors, forcing the abuser off the train. And we watched to make sure he didn’t get back in through another door. Then my partner and I returned to our respective places, still without exchanging a word.

We were lucky. The abuser was interested only in raging against the black guy and never turned his attention to us. While continuing to shout at the black man, he didn’t resist our nudges off the train and onto the platform.

I remembered that incident today while reading about Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, age 23, and Rick Best, 53, who were killed, and Micah David Cole Fletcher, 21, who was seriously injured, standing up to a man shouting anti-Muslim abuse on a commuter train during rush hour Friday in Portland, Oregon. The three also must have seen each other in a crowd and acted against abuse. But their story ended much differently than mine did.

We hear often about the failure of bystanders to come to the defense of those who need help, but I believe that stems from an understandable instinct for self-preservation. We fear being the only one to take a stand, and we fail to feel a deep tribal connection to the victim. I’ll never know if, on that New York City subway, I’d have acted alone. But when I locked eyes with my silent ally, we became a tribe of two, and we succeeded without being harmed.

Taliesin, Rick and Micah became a tribe of three Friday. Two of them lost their lives and one suffered severe injuries, but they succeeded in more than protecting two young women. They taught all of us about how to stand on the side of love.

— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)

Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine

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