Last night, Rustin and I boarded the Metro after house hunting. We were discussing the house and trying to decide if we wanted to make an offer. It was a serious discussion, but we felt patient and lighthearted, and were having fun talking about it.
When we arrived at Union Station, an old homeless man got on the train, followed by several teenaged boys. The homeless man, who appeared to be either mentally ill or under the influence of something (maybe both), plopped into a seat with a clear trashbag full of clothes, leading me to believe he’d just left the hospital or shelter. The boys gathered in the seats around him, and one of them hovered over him, provoking him to hit him. The homeless man yelled so loudly for them to leave him alone that the whole train (which is usually pretty quiet in DC, one thing I love) went dead silent; earsplittingly silent aside from the screams of this homeless man to be left alone.
Since the whole train was looking at him, I thought the one boy standing over the man would get embarrassed and sit down. Instead, he taunted him more, even threatening the man’s life. The man pushed past him to sit in another seat, but the boy followed him, still mumbling provocations. Then, the boy punched the old homeless man in the head and nose until he bled. One of his friends took the man’s bag and opened it so all of his belongs fell on the floor of the train.
The other passengers huddled at the far end of the train, away from the crazy. We were supposed to get off at the next stop, and when we did, we called the cops to report what had just happened. The other passengers rushed into the next train car, and when I motioned with my hands for them to call the cops, too, none of them even looked my way.
As we walked, I told Rustin that it reminded me of a situation I was in once in high school. One of the kids who everyone knew was in Special Ed was sitting next to me on the bus home. One of the huge kids found it a good idea to start making fun of him and started punching him in the head as hard as he could. The boy was sitting right next to me, blow after blow falling on him, and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be associated with the “special” kid. I didn’t want the bully to say, “What? You like him or something?” So, I put my own piddling, insignificant social status above that kid’s safety.
I will never forget that moment because it showed me how horrible a human being I am. If any of us would allow that to happen to someone who is unable to defend themselves, we are all horrible.
When we got home last night, I remembered that it is Holy Week, the week in which Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends then executed, ultimately as penance for the sins of all humankind. I started praying and, as I did, my heart broke into a bagillion pieces. It broke for the old homeless man who could not defend himself. It broke for the boy beating him. It broke for the friends of the boy beating the man. It broke for the people who ran to the next train car at the next stop.
I wondered, how could we as a population have failed so many people? We’ve failed our poor. We’ve failed our youth. We failed ourselves, holding our own safety above that of another human being who is worth just as much as we are.
How could we as a society have let that boy get so calloused that he thought nothing of beating up a homeless person? Does he have nothing else to live for that he was so okay with going to jail, where he must know he will be treated unjustly as a young Black man?
How could we as a society have left that homeless man alone? He could have been killed and his blood would have been on all of our hands because we left him alone. Even if we didn’t jump on the boy who was beating him, there is so much strength in numbers that the man was safer with us there than in our absence. And we left him.
I repented for not doing anything more, for once again, holding my own safety more highly than another’s. I was again the 14 year-old-girl on the school bus, all the same at age 31. I pray that I actually become a better person instead of just talking about it.
There are no easy answers, and I know that I’m being hard on myself. I should—we all should. That’s the only way the world will change. That’s the only way the world will change, when we call out unacceptable behavior, including our own omissions.