At dusk on Monday evening, I set out for the ESL class I teach a mile and half from home. I rode the diminutive two-wheeled electric scooter that I use to get into town, puttering around the corner by the store run by a Vietnamese family.
I can't drive a car or ride a bike in traffic because I'm legally blind. I can see well enough to navigate safely at walking speed on the sidewalk but not much more. And due to a joint and bone condition I can't walk more than half a mile without intense pain that lasts two days. So the scooter is the best way for me to get around.
As I passed the store an angry shout stopped me. "Get off the sidewalk, you stupid cow! You get in the road, right now!" A man was screaming at me in a harsh, ragged voice from a house across the street.
I knew even then that most people would say I should ignore him and keep going. But as soon as the words hit home, I couldn't hear or see, even as well as I normally can. I recognized the symptoms of a PTSD trigger and struggled to fight the wave of dizziness and disorientation. That meant first I had to stop to avoid running into a lamppost.
"I'm calling the police! You should be arrested, you pig! Get off the sidewalk with that scooter!" The man was still yelling. And I had heard the same thing from another man just last week. In this small town, rumor travels fast and there seems to be an epidemic of people accosting me about my mobility device.
To be clear, I have been very careful in the year since I've had this scooter. I've never come close to bumping a pedestrian, even though many of our sidewalks are no more than a foot wide. A wheelchair or a standard disability scooter with three or four wheels could not navigate on the sidewalks here and the few people who use such devices travel in traffic. But the traffic is also very bad, crowded and fast. It isn't safe for a person who can't see well. I have small children who still need an adult to accompany them to school. I have no real choice about whether I use the scooter or where I use it.
I have been afraid that people would judge me harshly and so I have made an effort to yield to anyone else on the sidewalk and to go extra slow around dogs and small children. Yet finally my fears have been realized and s group of people are lobbying the city to forbid me to use any wheeled mobility device on the sidewalks.
"Do you want me to come down there and push you into the road!" The belligerent man threatened.
I know what my husband and my friends would say. "Just ignore them. Mainly, don't make a scene. Whatever you do, just don't make a scene."
"I can't ride in traffic. I'm visually impaired," I finally called over to the man.
"Then stay the f--k home!" he fumed. "I'm dialing the police right now!"
"Fine. I'll show them my disability ID," I told him and moved slowly, shakily away.
I couldn't exactly make out the figures of people in front of the store several feet away or the figure of the man yelling at me. But I could hear by the shuffling of shoes on pavement that there were witnesses. By their quiet shuffling, I figured they were embarrassed and also hoping to avoid "a scene."
I have made a scene too many times in my life. I have been told over and over again not to make a scene--by my mother, by my husband, by my friends. Mostly I try not to, but there are times when a scene is just what is needed.
For the first 20-odd years of my life I experienced extreme social ostracism and isolation, which resulted in a kind of long-term PTSD, which is different from most PTSD because it doesn't stem from one traumatic incident but from repeated threats over the long term.
The result is that when I am threatened with social isolation, my brain shuts down. I cannot think clearly and talk my way out of the difficulty. Instead my brain can only do fight of flight. And that often means I scream back at whoever is harassing or threatening me and sometimes at anyone at all, if the attacker has managed to make him/herself scarce. The result tends to be more social isolation. Who wants to be around someone who is always making a scene after all?
In this case, I managed to fight the PTSD symptoms. I have been working on that. After 20 years of trying, I can finally respond relatively calmly... sometimes.
But the thing that stands out to me most painfully in the entire incident is not the belligerent man, but the bystanders.
I cannot count the number of times, I have been harassed, belittled, demeaned or even physically attacked in public due to my disabilities and bystanders have been silent or even made excuses for the abuse. I have been told I should not be allowed to have children, because clearly a visually impaired person cannot be safe with children and I watched with helpless horror as a group sat around discussing how valid that prejudice might be, while I was told to be quiet and allow others their say about my validity as a parent.
I have made many scenes, but I have also waited, hoped and prayed someone else would make a scene first.
When I saw the video of Sam Carter, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Arcitects, stopping a concert and making a scene (including quite a few F-bombs) because he just saw someone sexually harass and grope an unwilling woman in the crowd right in front of him, I started sobbing. The same thing happened when I read the story about waiter Michael Garcia who told a diner he could no longer serve him after the man said loudly "Special needs children need to be special someplace else" in a Houston restaurant where a five-year-old boy with Down Syndrome was eating with his family.
These are rare and famous incidents. It is unfortunate that they are famous because they are rare.
There are a few more incidents like this though that weren't caught on video. Some years ago, I was riding a street car in Prague when I noticed a white man who was clearly intoxicated harassing two young, dark-skinned children. There have always been issues with pickpocketting on the street cars and dark-skinned people are often blamed. But these children were standing away from other people and wearing school backpacks.
I went up to the man and tried to put myself between him and the children. I told him to stop. He pushed me roughly out of the way with astonishing strength. I turned to the other passengers on the street car, who were sitting quietly with their faces averted. I asked them to help and then turned back toward the man who was pushing the children physically toward the exit. The street car stopped with a jolt at a station and the doors opened.
I told the man I would call the police and demanded that he stop harassing the children, who were clearly younger than 10 or 12. Instead he grabbed the backs of their necks and threw them out of the street car. The driver, apparently wishing to avoid a scene, slammed the doors quickly and started the street car moving again. I did call the police and they said there was nothing they could do after the fact unless the street car driver was willing to get involved, which he was not.
Often making a scene does not stop the harassment or abuse and thus many people tell me it is useless and a worthless waste of energy.
I can't speak for those children because I was never able to locate them again, but I for one would not feel it was useless if a bystander had stood with me against the threatening man harassing me on Monday night.
It is easy to say we are against racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and all the rest. It is not easy to stand up and make a scene, to call a stop to harassment, ostracism or prejudice. It is in many situations damn scary.
I have been a bystander and I have sometimes stood up and sometimes things have happened too fast. I was confused, was afraid or had my own PTSD to deal with. I have wished I had been quick enough to say something or simply show by where i positioned my body that a vulnerable person did not stand alone. Sometimes I have managed to do it.
Once when I was a college student and I was first able to go out to a bar for a drink, I stood at a bar waiting to be served behind a group of three Black women with British accents. The bar tender was serving drinks to people in front of them but then he skipped them and asked for my order. I was shocked. I had talked to the girls and knew they were waiting to order. I slammed my fist on the counter and demanded that he serve them immediately. (This was even before I'd had any drinks, mind you.)
Certainly, there can be times when making a scene actually embarrasses the person you are trying to defend or the person is so triggered by past trauma that they do not realize you are trying to help and they lash out against you. But I for one am certain that some attempt to stand with the vulnerable is better than no attempt. We are not perfect but we can stand up for our tribe. And if our tribe is multi-hued and many splendered, then this is what we must do.
A friend told me about a recent incident in which she was out with a friend who has a condition that causes her eyes to move strangely. A child came up to her in a store and said, "Your face is ugly and you have weird eyes." The woman threw down her shopping and ran out of the store crying.
I do understand. I have been told many times that my face is not appealing and my eyes appear strange. I have overheard conversations and simply watched as groups of people turned away and excluded me. When you live with a vision impairment or other condition that makes your face different from those around you, it is a common enough problem.
My friend went to the child's mother and told her what had happened. The mother replied that the child's words were simply true and not harassment. My friend objected and asked her to teach her child not to comment on people's bodies or... well, she would have mentioned skin color, except the mother and child happened to be black and she assumed they already knew that.
We are all fallible and small children do say things that are insensitive without understanding. I have heard the understandable anger of black people when a small white child commented loudly that someone's skin "looks like chocolate." They rightly say white parents should teach their children to refrain from making stereotyping comments. The same applies to all people when it comes to commenting on disabilities and body differences. It isn't necessary to shame children over insensitive comments but it is necessary for witnesses to say something.
What is important is not that we never make a mistake or that a child or even an adult never speaks or acts out of ignorance. What is important is that when you know better. you stand by those who are vulnerable. Stand up and if necessary you should indeed make a scene.