Would I have passed this test?

Portland, Oregon. Hollywood Transit Center Tribute. After three years, it is not touched with graffiti. I find this important to acknowledge.

Trigger warning: high emotion and descriptions of violence.

I have been gripped lately by a local news story of a murder trial. The story shocked our city of Portland, Oregon. In 2017, there was an incident aboard a Portland MAX light rail train. An angry, drunk white man began yelling at two black teenagers on the train. One of them was wearing a hijab. The man yelled at them to go back to Saudi Arabia, though both are American citizens. I assume it is clear to everyone that fact-checking the man’s words is not relevant, because the intent was clear: he felt comfortable initiating a verbal racist attack.

On TriMet’s website for the Hollywood Transit Center Tribute, the fallout of that incident is explained this way: “The afternoon of May 26, 2017, three riders on board a MAX train approaching Hollywood Transit Center were assaulted after they stood up to a man who was harassing two young women based on their race and religion. Two of the intervening riders were killed and the third was left with life-threatening injuries.”

A man walks up the ramp to the pedestrian bridge to cross the tracks at the Hollywood Station.

The story has been tearing me apart for nearly three years because not only is it truly shocking, but more importantly to me, I know and love one of the people who was on that train. The person has been talked about in the media, and has had to appear at court to testify. Not only did the person suffer the initial trauma being present at the original event, but has suffered the additional traumas of public scrutiny and then having to re-live and describe for jurors, detail by detail of the day on the train. Just thinking about what my friend has gone through has torn me to pieces. I have cried and cried.

“Statement of needs from students at Beaumont Middle School. We advocate for laws that make all weapons illegal in areas that should be safe.”
“Thank you for standing up for your sisters.”
“May we all walk in your courage. Thank you.”

February 21, 2020, the attacker was found guilty on all 12 counts brought against him, including two counts of first-degree murder. He had stabbed three white men in the throat, and two had died of these injuries. The defense had tried to argue that the killer was mentally distressed and unstable, autistic, and that the stabbings were in self-defense because other people on the train had risen to confront him and defend the young women. That argument was not successful. It didn’t help his case that he had been drunk the night before and attacked a different black woman on the train, who defended herself with pepper spray. Phone videos caught him saying on that day that he was so angry he wanted to stab people.

In the first moments after I heard, I was worried about my friend of course. But after that shock eased a little, I have been most struck by the idea that there were bystanders on that train who stood up for their own ideals and paid the ultimate price. In the same situation, what would I have done? Would I have passed this test?

Looking down the ramps from the top.
“I cannot stand by and do nothing. ~Ricky Best” Best died due to stab wounds.
“Tell everyone on the train I love them.” Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche. Namkai-Meche died of stab wounds.

I’m currently a student at Portland State University, studying Conflict Resolution. Interestingly, in one class we reached the section on Bystander Intervention while the trial was in session. Also interestingly, though some of us were dying to talk about the TriMet incident in class, our emotions were so high that day that we barely brushed the topic. The first person to speak up explained emotionally that she also knew someone involved, who had testified in court and was suffering from re-living the trauma. Maybe our professor sensed the enormity of the emotions in us and guided us away, thinking of the limited class time.

Our text on Bystander Intervention gave some rules. When you spot a conflict among others: don’t put your own safety or that of others at risk, and then do so only if you are sure your intervention won’t escalate the situation. The class never directly implicated the bystanders intervening in the train incident, but it was agreed academically that if there is danger of violence, never never stand up and draw attention to yourself. That discussion felt all wrong. It felt like a blow.

There are many other options, our text said, and listed “The Five D’s of Bystander Intervention.” These include Document, which could be to record a video of the event. Multiple people in my class had concerns about this one, such as privacy, and how filming can be seen as an act of aggression if the attacker spots you. Delay, which is to help victims after the event, by offering to stay with them till police arrive, and giving your support. Delegate, by asking another person to help, like asking someone to call 911. Distract, which requires subtlety and presence of mind. This is when you, the bystander, distract the attacker by saying something absolutely unexpected, like pretending you are lost and ask the attacker for directions. Or pretend that you know them and say, “Oh hey, aren’t you my neighbor from when I lived on 87th Street?” The class liked this option the best I think. The riskiest option is Direct action. This is when you confront the attacker directly, or when you call them out publicly saying, loud enough for others to hear, that what is happening is wrong.

But how obnoxious it felt for me to sit there and debate how much cleverer and safer it would have been for the people on the train to pretend the attacker was their old neighbor. Yes, yes, so much better, and it could have saved lives.

That’s bullshit.

“We want you to smile back at us and treat us with respect.”
“We need public transportation and we need to feel safe using it. We want to feel safe no matter our skin color, gender, or religion.”

Yes, OF COURSE, sure, if someone on that train had had training, and had experience with conflict so that they didn’t react emotionally, and knew better than to go into fight-or-flight mode, then yes, absolutely that would have been best. You? Does this describe you? Perfectly calm in the midst of a fight on the train? Experience and training for what to do? It certainly does not describe me, and who the heck knows what I would have done?

There was one passenger who also testified, who had tried to calm things down on the train. This person placed themself between the attacker and the targets, ignored the attacker, and calmly said to others, “It’s just words,” referring to the angry shouted racism and xenophobia. The person was doing their best to de-escalate, to save them from harm.

I disagree, kind and thoughtful person. I disagree!! They are NOT just words, they promote anger and fear, and left unchecked this kind of behavior only grows. Yelling words of hate leads to beatings, lynchings, exclusion, fear, oppression. Words DO inflict harm more insidious than is ever evident on the outside. Words turn a community into a mob of villagers with pitchforks and burning torches. Words make it ok to beat a gay man to death. Words make it ok to characterize an entire country as rapists and murderers. Words make it ok to incinerate 6 million people for being different.

I’d like to believe that I would have the courage to face that attacker down. I value my community more than myself. I truly believe that it would be the right thing to do, to sacrifice myself if it would make my community stronger. If I witnessed something this horrifying, I hope from the bottom of my heart that I would have the courage to face that horrible angry man and tell him to shut up, and he was gonna have to go through me to get to those girls. 

A friend of mine read the situation differently. He said that before taking an action like that, first you’ve got to think it through, to “know what you’re getting into.” I’m not sure, but I think his point is that everyone on the train needed to realize how dangerous the attacker was, and not do anything that might get them hurt. I think he was saying, the people who got stabbed had it coming. Though no one knew that the attacker had a knife on him, everyone should have assumed the worst. My friend’s argument is wise, and follows the caution of the Bystander Intervention text. To be honest, there were A LOT of people saying this leading up to, and during the trial. But I disagree. People who are cautious and stand down and save their own skin, and pacify the attacker “now, now” and get things to settle so everyone can safely walk off the train…those people make it worse. It’s a short term fix with drastic long-term consequences. Maybe you’ll disagree with me. But I believe that is how communities fail – by being cautious in the face of hate.

A poppy painted on the wall.
Looking back at the memorial, while standing on the pedestrian bridge.

I am sorry two men died. I’m actually more sorry for their families who will not stop suffering. Maybe it is cruel of me, but I see some positive aspects of the story. If that incident had calmed down, and all the people on board saw that the chosen social response to the attacker’s behavior was to ignore him and to pacify him till he could leave, and police discreetly met him as he walked off the train, that would have sent a different message.

The people who stood up to the attacker have my unreserved gratitude. They spoke for me and for a lot of us. They loudly proclaimed “No! We are not people who can accept this kind of behavior, not even for one minute!” And they demonstrated to everyone watching: it was not acceptable and had to be stopped. Two of them were very young: 21 and 23. Good heavens at that age I was silly and immature and would never have had the moral fortitude that the interveners had. As the 23-year-old died of stab wounds on the Hollywood train platform, he said, “Tell everyone on the train that I love them.” I look at my younger self with regret, because at age 50 I have maybe achieved that kind of grace and love, but at 23? 33? Never.

Thank the gods that generation of people is about to become our leaders. I hope they take over fast, because we need it.

In the stunned shock following the incident in 2017, Portland reacted powerfully. At the site where this all happened, the TriMet train stop in the Hollywood neighborhood, people covered every square inch of the concrete ramp in chalk messages of love and gratitude and support for the victims. Flowers and photos and handwritten messages were heaped against the wall. The city decided to make this space into a memorial. In all my emotion the last couple weeks, I couldn’t stay away, and spent one evening there, reading every word and taking photos. Please enjoy them.

19 thoughts on “Would I have passed this test?

  1. How utterly dreadful, Crystal. Several times in my younger years I intervened when others were being attacked, sometimes by more than one assailant. Always prepared to become physical, I never actually had to. I’d like to say I thought it through. I never did – just reacted and relied upon my build and presence. That was in the days before the odds were that an attacker would carry a knife. Age apart, I’d like to think I would do the same – but I’m certainly not sure.

    1. Derrick, thank you for your words, and for your action. You are definitely a person who connects to his community, and I think that’s why you stepped in. It seems like a psychological instinct, maybe along the lines of “I am part of this community, I would never behave like that, I don’t think of this community as accepting of behavior like that, therefore I reject that behavior.” When I have had the courage to speak up in my past, it’s always been emotionally charged and not thought out. I thank you for saying that your intervening was out of reaction and not thought. I have not been in that situation, and did not know what it would be like, but I guessed it would be like you said. Thank you, Derrick, for intervening when you did.

  2. A much needed and thought provoking article Crystal. Thank you. I would like to believe I would have the courage of these three young men if I am confronted with a similar situation.

    1. Thank you David. Your support always means a lot to me. I am like you: I would like to believe I would have their courage, but I don’t know. In a moment so frightening, I might cower and hide. I hope not.

  3. They were heroes, Crystal, in the true sense of the word. They died doing what was right. With you, I believe we have to say no to such behavior. Unless we do, forcefully, it will just happen over and over. Whether I personally would have the courage, I don’t know. I’d have to be in the situation. Excellent post on a subject that desperately needs to be addressed give our national leadership at they time. –Curt

    1. Oh, thank you Curt, for the encouragement. It has been hard for me. I don’t know if the trial was covered so much in southern Oregon, but up here it was on the news every single day. And I kept hearing people say that the men who confronted the attacker actually caused the deaths by escalating it. It was like they were using the deaths and life-threatening neck wound of the third man, as a reason to say that bystander intervention is not the right choice. And while I understand the arguments (safety, escalation, etc), I simply disagree. I think of you as an activist, so we might approach this in a similar manner. There are bigger issues at stake here, and when trying to stand up for a society’s character, it’s not going to be pretty, or clear, or simple. And I think it must be assumed that standing up for who we are requires being in a dangerous setting, and being courageous. I hadn’t even considered it in light of our country’s national leaders failing to show courage and do the right thing, but now that you mention it, I agree.

      1. I remember the initial coverage, but that was about it, Crystal. Sounds to me like the man was a bomb waiting to explode. And had they managed to de-escalate that situation there would have been another one. –Curt

  4. I am with you. No-one knows quite how they will react in any given situation, but I know rushed in when I saw a man mistreating a dog. I think it’s almost an instinct…

    1. Thank you Maureen, for sharing your perspective. I have been feeling doubt since watching the news coverage of this, and hearing the criticism of the three men who defended the young women. I was feeling sort of alone in my perspective, and stubbornly posted this to stick by my convictions. It means so much that others can see it from my perspective too. Thank you so much for intervening when someone was mistreating their dog. It just cannot be abided. That man needed to be confronted, and I respect your great courage for doing so. I can’t think of when I’ve been in a similar situation, but I have a sense that my reaction would be instinctual, as you said.

  5. So sorry for everything. 😦 I didn’t hear of this event before. Did the third man make it? So so hard to imagine what one would do. Just as it’s the right thing to prevent any attack or abuse, so few are still doing the right thing, calling it dangerous or importune or triggering.

    It reminded me of what goes through my mind when I see a dangerous driver in a car next to mine in rush hour, for example (or simply a jerk). I stay back, away, out of his reach. I never enter his game. But this is different, I cannot stop him with my car, unless I bump into him or something.

    Let’s just hope none of us ever gets to find out.

    1. That’s so true, Manja, that I hope none of us has to find out what we would do in the same situation. Yes, the third man is alive. The blade apparently missed the main artery by millimeters, and gave him a chance to survive. I’m afraid that there have been psychological impacts for many of the people involved though. You are doing the right thing on the roads, of course! Each person has their own car and can hopefully stay away from the aggressive drivers. I feel that bystander intervention is a tough topic and the answer is not clear or obvious. It probably depends on what each person feels is most important. Valuing each life and wanting safety in the moment seems valid, and I can understand not choosing to confront an attacker. It’s just not what I would want to do. But I have no idea what I would do, since I’m only considering all this from the safety of my desk at home.

  6. Crystal… Thank you for opening my eyes… I will be more aware of people in need when I’m on that MAX.. we all have a voice and sometimes we need everyone to hear it to protect the innocent.

    1. My beloved friend, your words are so kind. I love that you point out we all have a voice and sometimes others need to hear it. I think the “5 D’s” I mentioned, are good advice. I would never expect someone to put their own life in danger. If your instinct is not to put yourself into the path of an attacker, there may be other ways to use your voice. When I rode TriMet Bus #15 every day, one thing I tried to do was offer a seat to riders that other passengers would shun. Please be safe on the MAX and love your brothers and sisters traveling with you. ❤

  7. I had to take some time to read all of this. You did a wonderful job of explaining every perspective. I understand your tears and frustration. They did a wonderful job of the murals at the transit center. I too am shocked that there has been no graffiti in all the years that have passed. I know without a doubt, my son would have stood up to defend the woman even if it cost him his life. These kinds of people, men and women don’t assess their own danger, their instinct is to protect first. My daughter was in a situation on the MAX not long ago. I think I mentioned it to you. Someone quietly called for the authorities and another tattooed man positioned himself close behind her to react if she was threatened. At the next stop, the authorities stepped on board and addressed the troubled man by name, removing him quietly. She was surprised at how many strangers worked to make sure she was not hurt. I worry every day that she goes to work and comes home because we have a huge population of people taking public transport with serious mental and emotional illness. She may get to work from home for a few weeks while this virus thing plays out so she doesn’t bring it home. The photos are wonderful of those murals. I would not see them otherwise. I think I agree with you rather than your class.

    1. Yikes, I did not know that about H. Thank goodness that was dealt with so well, and I am grateful to the strangers who stood to defend. I think your story is a good example of how a confrontation would go ideally. I think a swift, nonviolent resolution is always the best way to go. It’s just that I don’t think it’s fair to sit comfortably in our homes and classrooms and make this proclamation. And certainly not fair to cast a social judgement from our armchairs, upon people (tired from work maybe, trying to get home) who were listening to a screaming madman on a cramped train. I’m emotionally reactionary, so my guess is that whatever I would have done that day would have been lizard-brain and not carefully thought through. Thank you for saying I covered different sides well. I think it’s easier because I can relate to the perspective of multiple sides here. Also, clearly, because I know one of the people and realize some of the criticism is only possible for someone who doesn’t know the individual at all. It just… helps me understand better the dynamics of criticizing from a distance.

      1. I’ve learned not to judge from an armchair. You only get a glimmer of what’s really going on. How are you doing with this whole quarantine thing? Is Tara home from school? I haven’t felt like writing for a month. I’ll try though.

      2. I’m doing great! I feel so fortunate to have the luxury to stay at home with hardly any noticeable effect on my life, or income, or family. Tara is thinking about making a visit during spring break next week. If they don’t, I’m on spring break next week too, so I’ll head south to visit. I’m gonna hug and kiss my baby, social distancing be damned. ha ha.

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