Over the Memorial Day weekend, we stopped in to get gasoline at the Country Fair Store on Pennsylvania Ave E. Right away, we saw two young men riding their bikes on the sidewalk, harassing a developmentally disabled woman standing in the front of the store.
Now, I do not know what precipitated the events that I witnessed, but as I got out of my car, I could see one boy riding his bike in very close to the woman, even at this woman in a way that I would have perceived, as a woman without mental disability, to be threatening. The girl kicked at the bike's front wheel.
This unleashed a tirade from the young man. "HEY! My parents just got me this bike for my birthday!" I could not hear her reply, but the boys continued to verbally harass, and swing their bikes in at her.
I walked across the parking lot to them. During that time, I noticed two people come out of the store. Each of them witnessed the exchange, and much to my surprise, both of them smiled. One of them actually stopped briefly to take it all in before continuing to his car.
I walked up to the young men, purposely positioning myself between them and the woman. "What you are doing is called harassment, and you need to stop, right now. " They began to argue, giving me their reasons why 'she started it.'
I looked at them and said, "You need to leave her alone. She is developmentally disabled. You are not."
While I understand that we cannot singlehandedly change the world, I still believe that we have the ability to make our own little corner of the world a better place to live.
They continued to argue. "Leave her alone," I repeated.
When the arguments continued, I said, "We can call the police, if you like, and we'll let them decide whether you are allowed to ride your bikes on the sidewalk, whether you're allowed to ride them at the people standing there." I also repeated "Leave her alone," approximately a half dozen more times, before finally making myself comfortable, leaning against a concrete piling.
The two finally rode off to circle around the parking lot for a while, waiting for me to leave. When I did not, they finally rode east on Pennsylvania Ave complaining back and forth to each other. At approximately the same time, a car pulled up and the young girl was picked up by a person that I took to be her father.
This whole thing has disturbed me on three levels.
The first is that these young men, 12 or 13 probably, were bold enough that they would harass a woman with obvious disability in a busy public setting. They were completely aware that they were frightening and intimidating her, and they were enjoying themselves. That cruel streak in young kids was disturbing to witness.
The second is that the woman was defending herself as best she could, telling them to stop, and kicking at their bikes when they came in too close. It certainly was not unwarranted, but the boys were using her behavior to justify their own. She was to blame, not them. Their lack of conscience disturbs me too.
But the third level is that this incident was witnessed by at least two bystanders who did nothing. I am not sure how long this had been going on, but presumably these people walked past the incident on the way into the store. It was clear what was happening there. The young woman needed help. People smiled and went on.
It would be very easy to dismiss this whole incident as a couple of poorly supervised boys behaving badly. They confirmed the unfortunate stereotype of the poorly mannered, ill behaved teenagers, the stereotype that dogs all teenagers (and is undeserved by most of them) but what captured my attention more than the behavior of those boys was the behavior of the adults in this situation.
While I understand that we cannot singlehandedly change the world, I still believe that we have the ability to make our own little corner of the world a better place to live. That means that we behave honorably, to the best of our ability. That means we do the right thing, to the best of our ability. That means that we work hard. Play fair. That means we model the behaviors we wish to see in others, and if we cannot do this, we have no business complaining about anyone else.
Mostly it means when we see boys harassing a woman who cannot protect herself, we do not walk by. It seems to me that there were three responses that could have been chosen that day. One was to speak to the boys directly, as I did. Another was to tell the manager of the store what was going on just outside his door. The final solution was to call the police, who hopefully would have explained to these boys that they were actually breaking the law and could be punished.
Did I effect any long-term changes that day? Probably not, but I am an idealist. We may not be able to fix the problem, but, by God! I do believe that we certainly ought to try. If we choose to remain bystanders in situations like these, then we have allowed ourselves to become part of the problem.
Debby Hornburg can be reached at debby-(underscore)firstname.lastname@example.org, and her blog can be found at lifesfunnylikethat.blogspot.com