Tuesday, June 3, 2008
The bus incident
[Warning--long post follows]
On Friday, May 23, I got on the #21 Hayes bus leaving downtown SF to head to Golden Gate Park so that I could show "Southern Man" the DeYoung Museum, which is one of my favorite museums in the Bay Area.
[view of the DeYoung's observation tower and part of the museum]
[view from the observation tower of the DeYoung looking at the Steinhart Aquarium, my favorite aquarium and set to re-open Fall 2008 after major renovations]
For anyone familiar with riding the MUNI bus lines in SF, or just anyone familiar with urban public transportation, some bus lines get very crowded, and the #21 on Friday afternoon was VERY CROWDED as it moved down Market Street, especially through Union Square (a touristy-shopping district) and the Tenderloin (a working class and crime ridden neighborhood, not necessarily dangerous, especially during the day, but there are a lot of panhandlers/homeless folks in this area and this is where the cops like to patrol for drug deals and prostitution).
Southern Man, and I, were sitting towards the back of the bus--with me at the window and him on the aisle. After about 10 minutes we were at standing-room-only capacity, and the bus was a representative of the various neighborhoods it was going to and from, which means it was filled with a pretty diverse representation of San Francisco--people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, ages, and classes (well, maybe if you were super affluent you weren't on the bus, but lots of upper-middle class people ride MUNI because parking can be awful downtown).
After about 15 minutes, a young couple snuck onto the bus through the back doors. This is pretty common on crowded routes, so I didn't think much of it. The girl was about 15 and the guy was about 19 or 20--maybe even younger like 17 or 18. They seemed pretty jittery--quite frankly, my immediate thought was that they were high, maybe on pills, maybe on crystal meth (which is running rampant in SF right now), maybe coke or crack. But I'm *pretty* sure they were on something given what followed.
They were talking very loudly and boisterously, as teenagers sometimes do, not terribly mindful of their surroundings or perhaps hyper-mindful and wanting to put on a show. After they were on for about 5 minutes, a seat opened up next to a very thin and small elderly woman in her 70s, who was seated on the aisle. At this point, let me say that the woman was Asian, and this is relevant because it's unclear how much she understood from the verbal barrage that came from the teenage girl, who wanted the woman to move over to the vacant window seat so that the girl could sit down in the aisle and continue talking with her boyfriend.
This is where things get bizarre & violent.
The elderly woman didn't move or even really register that the girl was asking her a question (actually, more like making a demand given the girl's tone and demeanor). The girl, frustrated by the woman's lack of response, got more and more agitated and became verbally abusive and LOUD, which culminated in her calling the woman a bitch and then she picked up the woman's grocery bag, threw it in the corner of the vacant seat and physically and violently shoved the woman into the vacant seat, plopping down in the free seat she had created all the while continually verbally abusing the woman.
The elderly woman then did something that surprised me, and perhaps all of us who were sitting in the back witnessing this performance. She elbowed the girl as hard as she could. Which the girl DID NOT LIKE and what ensued was a strange elbowing match between the girl and the elderly woman, with the woman never uttering a peep and the girl getting increasingly agitated and verbally abusive, her boyfriend goading her on and laughing--both of them taunting the woman.
Things were getting increasingly tense on the bus, as everyone seemed to be holding their breath to see what was going to happen next. Some people were staring (I was one of them); others were deliberately looking away; and one guy with a skateboard in the back was talking loudly on his cell phone to a friend about the incredible scene he was witnessing and how he was about to record it all on his cell phone.
The elderly woman, at some point, had stopped shoving and was simply absorbing the girl's abuse. Again, it's unclear how much she understood, although I suspect she understood more than she let on, since it's often easier to follow language than to speak it. She certainly could understand tone and body language, and it was unmistakable that when the girl stood up and told her that she was going to throw down with her RIGHT NOW ON THE BUS and FUCK HER SHIT UP that something was going to happen.
At which point, I intervened.
From my seat I told the girl to leave the elderly woman alone. I have to be honest and say that adrenaline combined with the events that follow make my memory fuzzy, but I know that I said something because I couldn't get out of my head the video of the woman on the MARTA harassing the elderly lady. I couldn't bear the thought that no one was saying anything to this teenage couple. And I couldn't live with myself if the girl actually carried out her threat, which seemed distinctly possible given how violently she had shoved the elderly woman into the vacant seat--which breaks all social codes of space and the rules of kindergarten (keep your hands to yourself).
What followed was a heated exchange first between me and the girl and then me and her boyfriend, who quickly leapt to his girlfriend's defense. I'm pretty sure that both of them threatened me, although interestingly enough, I never felt threatened--as in, I never felt scared or that they would actually hit me. I'm not sure why--again, maybe it was just adrenaline. Or maybe I thought they were teenagers who were high and that once a stranger intervened they'd back down. As the boyfriend got in my face, telling me to fuck off and telling me that he was going to fuck me up, the guy with the skateboard and cell phone informed him that he was recording the entire incident and was going to use it as evidence or post it on YouTube. Again, I'm fuzzy on details. The boyfriend quickly shifted his attention from me to the twenty-something cell phone skater, and the two of them were shouting at each other pretty forcefully.
At which point, a 40-something African American man came up behind the teenager and told him to beat the white boy.
You see, I've tried to avoid racial signifiers up to this point, but I have to fill you in , perhaps, to partially explain what happened. The young couple on the bus were black teenagers. The cell phone documenting skater was white, and as I said earlier, the elderly woman was Asian--probably Vietnamese or Cambodian if I had to guess. The rest of the bus inhabitants really were a mix of every race and ethnic group (and age and size). There was a young boy and his mother in the very back seat, and a few young teenage girls.
I don't know if it really was the verbal trigger that set the boyfriend off, but the next thing I knew, he was attacking the skater. What ensued was the most violent fight I've been witness to. Which isn't saying much--lets face it, I'm an academic. I grew up in a working-class, middle-class neighborhood, but aside from some childhood playground brawls, I really haven't seen any real fights. Not like this. Not this violent or bloody. Not in the tight quarters of a crowded MUNI bus in the middle of the afternoon, when bodies are falling on top of bodies and people are screaming and the voice of the 40-something guy is egging on the young boyfriend and others are trying to get out of the way and pull them apart, and block/shield the skater because he is getting the crap beaten out of him by the boyfriend.
I don't know at what point the bus stopped or at what point the back doors opened. I'm sure that mine was one of the voices that was screaming at them to stop and for someone to get help. All I know is that once the back doors opened, the 40-something guy grabbed the skater's cell phone and ran off the bus. The girlfriend grabbed her boyfriend and told him that they had to go, and they ran off the bus, quickly followed by the skater, who was trying to retrieve his cell phone.
The rest of us sat in stunned silence on the bus. Southern Man was literally gray and looked like he was going to throw up. The little boy (who looked to be about 3 or 4) was crying and his mother, and some other bus riders, were trying to comfort him. Other people were crying and looked pretty stunned. Then I got off the bus when I saw that there were two police cruisers, because I realized that I'd probably have to make a statement, seeing as I was somewhat involved in the incident. I also tried to talk to the elderly Asian woman, but she didn't say a word, just nodded her head when we asked if she was OK--she had this weird smile on her face, like it was plastered on. I think she was probably in shock from everything that transpired.
What followed is that I gave my card with my cell phone to both the skater (who came back to the bus empty handed and asked us if we knew the guy who took the cell phone or if maybe his cell phone had been dropped and was still on the bus) and I gave my card to one of the police officers, who followed up with me later that afternoon and took a statement from both me and Southern Man.
We then all got on another #21 Hayes bus--this one even more packed than the one we had left since it now had the occupants of two buses. I sat wedged between two women on the first bus, one, a college student who couldn't stop crying from the shock--she had been in the back and had been knocked around quite a bit, the other in the front who wanted to rehash the story again and again--both seemed to be coping strategies. Southern Man didn't say a word, and later, when we had time to talk and process, he told me that he had been listening to the teens' conversation and that they had talked about being in a gang and killing people the previous weekend--and predicted who they would try to kill the upcoming weekend, and he saw a bulge in the back of the girl's jeans that he said could have been a gun.
This is partly why he got paralyzed--and this is why he was so silent for a few days. Because you have to understand, my boyfriend is a BIG GUY. And he's trained in karate. And he was shocked that he didn't do anything--that he froze. That the things he had trained for in karate--to help defend those who can't defend themselves--that when he was faced with a moment of violence he didn't do anything.
And I kept telling him (and keep telling him) that it's normal for him to be paralyzed--how can any of us know what we will do in a situation like this? And especially given the racial turn of events--along with the violent turn of events--his participation in any way in trying to either verbally or physically intervene would undoubtedly have escalated things, as the 40-something guy seemed spoiling for a fight--as did the two teens. He has, since we've returned home, spoken to his sensei, who offered him good counsel in terms of similar situations he has been in--times when his sensei did act and made things worse, times when his sensei did nothing, times when his sensei was able to play the hero. And what Southern Man realized, which is what I wish I had realized, is that we should have tried to intervene before the girl got violent with the elderly woman. That at the moment when the girl started verbally harassing the woman, Southern Man wishes he had stood up and offered her his seat--to give both her and her boyfriend our seats and to have us make way for them, to calm down the tension on the bus.
All of this, of course, is easy to think about in hindsight. But what I can't help wondering is, did I make things worse? In watching the MARTA incident on Rachel's Tavern, I can see and hear passengers talking about how inappropriate the girls' actions are, telling her to chill out and relax, and then finally confronting her, perhaps not in the best fashion. And the minute that people did, directly, confront her, she got even more hysterical and out of control. And that's essentially what happened when I called out the girl on the bus. The minute she was confronted, she got even more agitated, verbally abusive, and violent--and so did her boyfriend. Like I said, I'm pretty sure they were in an altered state--not that they were mentally ill like the MARTA woman, but that they were high on something and spoiling for a fight because they were so hopped up. And the minute they were confronted, they got abusive--and violent in the case of the boyfriend.
Would it have mattered if I was an African American woman? Would it have been worse if I had been white? Would it have mattered if the people on the bus were all the same race as the young couple? In the MARTA video, it appears as if all the passengers in the car are African American. If all the passengers on MUNI had been African American, would the incident still have escalated to violence? Why did the 40-something guy turn it into a racial incident? This is especially troubling to me since up to this point, including all the nasty verbal harassment coming from the young couple, no one had mentioned race. I'm not saying that any of our actions weren't racially inflected, but it does seem amazing, in hindsight, that in all her abuse leveled at the Asian woman, not once did the teenage girl ever use a racial slur. And not once did either teenager use a racial slur when confronting me--I'm sure of that. I know I was called a bitch and a cunt and a few other choice words, but they never made it racial. It was only the 40-something guy who told the teenage kid to beat the white boy.
Do I wish I hadn't said something? No. I really couldn't not say something--it just became impossible to think that no one was going to call out this girl's bad behavior to this woman. Would I have acted differently if I had paid attention to their conversation or thought that they were packing heat? Impossible to know. Does this make me think twice about saying something in public? Yes. How can I help but second guess what I did and didn't do? What Southern Man did and didn't do? What everyone on the bus, including the 40-something guy and the skater, did and didn't do?
I don't hold any of us accountable--the young couple really are the ones who have to be held accountable for their violence, verbal and physical. But I am all too aware of the social reality and demographics of the Tenderloin (assuming that this is the neighborhood they live in, which I'm assuming based on where they got on the bus), and the social reality of being a young black man, and the reality of drug addiction. I'm not excusing them, but the level of violence in which they may live may have enabled them.
And that's what I really kept thinking about as I was riding the bus to Golden Gate Park. That here I am, an upper-middle class overly educated Asian American woman, riding this bus to go to the DeYoung museum, and feeling slightly traumatized by these events but realizing that this is all just a story for me. This is something I get to blog about--to write about--not to live out on a daily basis. I don't live with violence or the threat of violence on a daily basis. I never have. I don't have any idea what it's like to live in a neighborhood that isn't safe, where cops patrol, where drug deals go on, where people carry concealed weapons with or without permits. I don't live with violence in my daily life--that's a privilege I have. I get to speak out on a crowded bus because I've had the luxury of owning a laptop and reading blogs in my spare time and thinking too much about incidents that get recorded on YouTube. I am, essentially, clueless about how much of the world lives--because I think more people live with the threat of violence or the trauma of violence than I realize. Whether it's the Tenderloin in SF, the Gaza strip, or Iraq, imagine what it's like to live in a place where you can be confronted by violence in the place you call home.
I'm not sure how to end this post, so I'll just say that this incident, this bus incident, is going to stay with me for a while. How could it not?
[June 4, 2008 -- I've re-read this post, and I want to take back or amend something I wrote. I said that the only people accountable for the couple's actions were the couple. But the truth is, we are all accountable. I don't just mean that in a "we are the world/small world/one world way" but in the sense that we aren't just individuals--we are people who live in a community--local and global--in various concentric circles. We have to hold ourselves accountable for wanting and trying to make a better society in which these teenagers don't make these bad choices and where the 40-something guy doesn't default to making things worse by invoking race, and where my initial move to intervene happens earlier and happens in a calmer way where I try to defuse the situation through respect and humility--which isn't the same as being passive or humble but acknowledges the context of the situation I, and others, am in and takes into account the greater good of the bus and the elderly woman. Anyway, still processing all of this as you can see.]