The complexities of bearing witness

The more I write about complexity, the more I seem to be confronting it in my own life…..even as I try to keep my life relatively simple and straightforward. That goal is becoming less and less possible, however,  in a world of nuance and ethical dilemnas in which very little is either simple or straightforward. I’ve discovered that the moral ambiguities inherent in complexity can make it more difficult to take a stand and act on my beliefs. Recently, I just had to go with my gut…..

About a month ago I was travelling first class (an important detail) by train from Toronto to Montreal when I witnessed what I believe to be racist conduct by the train steward and her crew.  A party of four young men, well-dressed, likely Haitian and very talkative, were sitting across the aisle from me. They chatted among themselves for much of the journey about business (they seemed to be working for a band and/or a modelling agency) and life, with a little thrown in about women. I was impressed by their knowledge of both politics and business, if not by their attitude to women. Lest you think me nosy, its really hard not to hear what people across the aisle are saying on the train when they are quite vocal!

A short time after lunch, which includes complimentary alcohol in first class,  the chief steward suddenly approached one of the seated young men and accused him of stealing alcohol. He responded that he had seen the alcohol out in the servery and had just helped himself — he offered to return the cup. The situation escalated from here. (As background, when I arrived on the train a drinks cart (including alcohol) was unattended beside the washroom. I wondered if I could help myself to a juice, but then decided not to. There was no sign of staff or a notice saying one could or could not help oneself to a drink. At the time, I thought it odd.)

Now there were four conductors pressing in on the four young men, accusing the one of stealing alcohol. They were barricading the group in their seats, scolding them and telling them the conductors could lose their jobs because he took a drink. The young men were all apologizing quite calmly, speaking respectfully and asking what the crew wanted of them. The crew clearly didn’t know. But they were increasingly agitated and very worried about their jobs.

(Whether it was indeed theft to help oneself to alcohol left unattended in the train car’s servery, I am not sure. Theft requires that the taken property be clearly understood as belonging to the owner, and be in the control of the owner, along with having the intent to steal.)

Suddenly, the chief steward announced that she would call the police and have the young men removed from the train at the next stop. It is important to note that at no time were the men disruptive, loud or disrespectful during the journey, including while being barricaded by the crew.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was also surprised that no other passenger in the car seemed bothered by what was happening. But my gut was screaming at me — I believe that the crew would not have behaved in this way with adults or people more in the Caucasian norm of first class. I believe that if I had taken a drink from the servery a crew member would have informed me politely that I should wait to be served, and that would have been that. Of course, I have no way of proving this – hence the moral ambiguity.

So, I decided to talk with the chief steward. I asked her if she was really calling the police. She said yes, so I asked why. She said because the young man had stolen alcohol. I said that is doubtful when their practice was to leave the alcohol out, and suggested that what she was doing might be perceived as racist. She stared at me. I then walked back to my seat.

At Brockville, four fully uniformed police officers with guns and bullet proof vests entered the car and took three of the four men with them. There was no scuffle, the men went quietly, and I was left in shock.

I tried to process the incident for the rest of the journey. I couldn’t make sense of it. So, in Montreal, I talked it out with friends and with my son, all of whom agreed that I had witnessed a racist attack that resulted in three men not reaching their destination, in addition to experiencing the humiliation of being removed from the train by police.

Then I found myself walking to the train station, with my gut on full alert. Try as I might, I couldnt shake my sense of injustice, and I couldnt shake my belief that evil thrives when bystanders do nothing (to paraphrase greater minds than mine).

I found the station manager and, to his credit, he listened to my story. He had heard about the incident. He was surprised — he said that passengers are only removed when disorderly or threatening person or property. He was also surprised that the crew had escalated, rather than de-escalated, the situation. He asked me to write to him about the incident, and he then forwarded it to corporate headquarters. In my letter, I asked for a review of the incident and that disciplinary action be taken against the crew, in addition to education about discrimination.

I dont think that much was done — I received an email several weeks later that the incident had been reviewed, but the results were confidential due to privacy concerns. A typical cover up in my view. I only hope that the men filed a complaint and received some compensation for the appalling way in which they were treated.

But, I am glad that I listened to my gut. I do believe that the only way have any hope of maintaining a free society is if we speak up or act in some way when we are witnesses to injustice. Its hard, but it must be done.

By the way, the next time I bear witness, I will do so by video using my phone. So much more powerful than my word.