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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.