Sunday, April 2, 2017

Bystanders

Twice in my life I have come close to getting beat up for defending a marginalized person.

The first time was junior high. I had chosen Earth Science rather than a Biology class I would have normally taken with my friends. I knew it was a less demanding class, but I didn't realize how different a class it was. It catered to students who weren't as involved in academics. The class requirements were minimal, and even though I did nothing extraordinary, I received the end-of-year award for best Earth Science student.

There was only one girl besides me in the class, and on the first day, though vastly different from one another, we gravitated to the same table.

Her name was Leslie. She had an older brother and was being raised by her father. She was tiny, spry, had defended herself for many years on account of a body anomaly. She had been super-endowed with large breasts. She was so out of proportion, walking even looked difficult. Leslie became my friend.

When a young African American man in the class started taunting her, I stood up to him. I mention race because in 1970's Las Vegas, racial tensions were high. Only recently had forced bussing/integration been implemented, and both blacks and whites were trying to adjust. For the most part, it went well, but fights between a black and a white were a regular occurrence. In a few years my high school would even be shut down because of a incendiary incident; a race riot threat was real.

When I defended Leslie, the young man called me out. He threatened and taunted me as we moved into the dark, sun absent corridor. I stood my ground. He backed off.

I had refused to be a bystander.

The second time I almost got beat up was in a park in Mar Vista California. I had a child this time and was standing at the bottom of a large rocket ship with a slide. A little boy kept pushing another little boy and when I saw the next push would send him out the door onto the ground below, I hurried up the slide to stop him. His mother, off in a group talking, watched as I moved her child away. Like a good mother who was unaware of her son's aggression, she lit into me. She was stockily built and had a biker-chic haircut. The preschooler whom I defended had an au pair who sat on a bench chatting with other au pairs and was unwilling to even stand up. It was me and the mother bear.

I could reason with her because I'd done the right thing: saved a little boy from a terrible fall.  Fortunately, reason permeated her mama bear skin. I was saved too. If either encounters had come to a physical blow, I wonder if the next time, I would have been a bystander. I hope not.

Recently, we had a class discussion about being a bystander. I posed the question: "What if I come upon an attack, and the attacker is physically superior to me and I know I can't help? Then what?"

"You scream!" Lela responded.

"You're right. Thank you." A scream is a powerful weapon.

The organizer of the Bystander Effect Conference, was spurred to do so by his own book: The Crime of Complicity, The Bystander in the Holocaust. The book was spurred by his parents, his grandparents, having lived through the Holocaust and having died in Auschwitz. Amos Guiora is an Israeli, a friend, an attorney, and his proposal is that the moral obligation to be a good samaritan is not enough. We need laws to enforce the need to help the oppressed when under attack.

It's a tricky proposal, but after listening to esteemed members of several panels, even thinking it's tricky is an excuse that alleviates a human being from his duty to help others-always.

I am only on page nine of a 200 page book. It's a difficult book to explore, but a necessary endeavor for so many reasons--if for no other reason, I need to honor the memory of my friend's family and his own connection to that stabbing pain of when people looked the other way.