Tonight I witnessed something truly remarkable. On the bus on the way home, I watched as a young black man (early twenties and fit) punched an old white man (60+ with a cane) and knocked him down. He hit him hard enough to split his lip wide open and daze him. I went up to the front of the bus to help the older man up and get him settled, but didn't know enough to really intervene, so didn't involve myself beyond that at first. That's not the remarkable part.
Now, turns out the old guy hit the young guy first. I didn't see that, but those at the front of the bus did, and in the aftermath, shared what they had all seen. The younger man warned off the older one, clearly and loudly announcing (when the older man stood up and raised his fists) that if he came any closer, he would hit him. The old man didn't listen, and started to lunge, so the kid threw a single punch. Quite a doozy actually. But that's not the remarkable part.
The driver intervened, in a calm and reasoned fashion, and got the parties separated while we all waited for the cops to arrive. She did this despite the old man yelling racial slurs at her and the kid - did I mention she was black too? Despite serious provocation from him, she stayed calm and kept the situation from getting any worse. She also kept the rest of the passengers calm and followed procedure - getting the cops, paramedics and a new bus for the rest of us to get home. Also, not the remarkable part.
Now, before I get to the remarkable part, I have to preface it with a caveat. I didn't see the start of the altercation, I have no idea what happened to set either of them off, nor do I know either of their stories or what predicated their decisions. Now that is out of the way, lets talk about remarkable.
When the old man started making racial slurs toward the young man and the driver, the response of the other passengers (twenty to thirty people from diverse backgrounds) was near universal - condemnation of the old man's comments. When he started with his "He's fucking black and you're black..." yelling at the driver, he was shouted down by dozens of people. For a moment it seemed that everyone on the bus, black, white and every shade in between, stood up for a moment against racism.
Comments of disbelief were heard throughout the bus once he was removed, predominantly from the younger riders, "What year does he think this is?" and "I can't believe this is still happening."
One woman in her sixties reached out to touch the young man's arm when he got back on the bus (the police interviewed him and then he was free to leave, it was pretty clearly self defense with dozens of witnesses and a camera running) and asked him if he was OK. When he shrugged it off with the bravado of youth and said the old man hadn't hit him that hard, she said "No, I saw what happened, I just want to make sure you're all right." They both knew that she wasn't talking about anything physical, and she connected, for an instant, with him.
It reminded me why the work I do is important, maybe even necessary. And it gave me hope. It was one small incident on one bus. But it reminded me that people are good at heart. That they care about one another, and that the pain and despair of complete strangers can still move them. They can stand up for one another and they do come to the aid of those who need them. Maybe, just maybe, we can keep moving forward.