Why do we fail to respond to racist violence as it is happening?

On the evening of Wednesday, July 29, 2009, a Muslim man on his way home got on a Vancouver city bus where he was attacked for what appears to be no reason other than that he was Muslim.

Qasimali Baig, a 59 year-old journalist who has lived in Vancouver for 22 years, was returning from evening prayer at his mosque. He had just boarded the bus in East Vancouver when a white man at the back of the bus got up, raced towards Baig yelling “Bin Laden is coming. All these Muslims are bad people,” before landing a blow just above Baig’s left eye.

The bus driver stopped the bus and called for police, who responded quickly. What Baig’s fellow passengers did was run away. That not one person stood up and took any sort of action against what was an overtly racist attack speaks louder than the idiocy of the attacker’s motives or his preceding declaration that all Muslims “are bad people.”

Being witness to a sudden outburst of violence, regardless of the motivation behind it, is an unnerving experience. I understand how the first thought, or rather instinctual reaction, of the bystanders was to make sure they were themselves out of harms way but that after that first blink wouldn’t you think someone—at least one person—would have snapped out of it, regaining function of the rational part of their brain and leap into action? If you were in Mr. Baig’s situation, wouldn’t you want or hope that one of your fellow human beings would come to your aid?

During the summer of 2003 I was one of the performing artists employed by the City of Hamilton, Ontario to perform on the sidewalks in the downtown core as part of a cultural program. One sunny afternoon—it was either a Saturday or Sunday, I can’t recall which one—I was one my way to perform at the intersection of King and James. This intersection is arguably the busiest intersection in the entire city (population > 680,600). It is where Hamilton is divided east/west and north/south, it is the main entrance to the Jackson Square mall, it is where nearly a dozen public transit routes converge—it is the heart of the city. In other words, on a sunny weekend afternoon in the summer, you will find no shortage of people there.

On this particular afternoon I was about 60 meters (65 yards) from the intersection when I noticed across the street, right at the north-east corner of King and James, two men beating another man. They had him pinned, bent over backwards on a fire hydrant; one holding him down while the other punched him repeatedly in the face. From where I was—60 meters away, and across the street with cars driving by—I could hear the victim moaning in pain as he received blows to the body and face. I also happened to noticed that there was a crowd of at least two dozen people—some waiting for a bus, some waiting to cross the street—that were less than 5 meters from the assault happening in broad daylight, and that they were doing nothing to intervene.

I spotted a man talking on his cell phone heading into the mall and interrupted him, pointing to the attack across the street and asking him to call the police. I then turned and darted across the street (carrying the heavy wooden box in which I carried my musical instrument—it was a sitar, in case you were wondering) to help the man.The time from when I first noticed the happening assault to the time I arrived at his side was probably less than five minutes, and by that time the two attackers had already started to head north on James street. Their victim rolled from his position bent over the hydrant to fall on the pavement below, face down.

When I got to him, he was barely conscious—that was the first thing I noticed about him. The second thing was that he was aboriginal. His two assailants, of whom I did get a good look and was able to positively ID to the police, were white. All three appeared to be of the same age, somewhere likely around 40 to 45 years old. Those are all the facts about the three that I know. Whether or not the victim and the attackers knew each other is unknown to me. What the motivation behind the assault was—whether it was motivated by racial hatred, or something completely unrelated to race—is unknown to me. The crowd of bystanders that either ignored or failed to notice the mid-day assault was mostly composed of people who, like me, were white.

Two white men beat an aboriginal man to the point that he lost consciousness in the middle of the day while an audience did nothing. It can’t be said if the attack was motivated by race or not; but what about the motives of the inaction by the predominately white bystanders?

If all three men were aboriginal, would someone have stepped in? Likely not. What about if all three were white? Impossible to say for sure, but quite possible to imagine someone acting to stop the assault or at least come to the aide of the victim afterwards.

What if the victim was white and the attackers were aboriginal? In a blue-collar industrial city like Hamilton, Ontario (think of the town the TV show “Roseanne” took place in), it’s likely the aboriginal two would have ended up in the hospital.*

By looking at the different likely outcomes of the situation based on simply reversing the racial identities of attackers and victim and we can reasonably assess the bystanders’ attitudes and extrapolate their motivation for not acting in any way, shape or form.

(As an aside, the fact that the victim was aboriginal—as opposed to belonging to any other visible minority—is especially significant. In both Canada and the US, I have been shocked by the utter lack of any basic empathy for the aboriginal people of North America that has been expressed by some individuals who I would otherwise describe as being very progressive thinkers. Why we can so easily feel shame and sometimes even guilt over what our ancestors did to the people of Africa, yet have little or no empathy for aboriginal people who are still fighting oppressive policies and living conditions today, is a bit bewildering.)

So we have two instants to compare of white-on-non-white violence. Set aside whatever motive there is behind the attack and focus on the motives of the people witnessing the violence and ask yourself, are they not coming to the victim’s defence because they are reluctant to get involved at all? Or are they not coming to the victim’s defence because he is not white?

* Hamilton, Ontario gained dubious notoriety on the world stage back in September of 2001 when, less than a week after the September 11, 2001 attack on the US by Muslim extremists, a Hindu temple was burned to the ground by arsonists who couldn’t tell the difference between Hindus and Muslims.

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