January 24, 2013

IconNot just New Delhi: we’re all guilty of onlooker apathy

In late spring of 2001 I was working in Vancouver’s notorious downtown east side where drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution and poverty is rife. One day I rode to work with my then-supervisor. As we made our way toward work, a man sitting upright on a bench a few feet in front of us passed out and fell forward onto the sidewalk where his head met the pavement with a horrible ‘thunk’.

I immediately stopped and checked to see if he was conscious and told my supervisor to call for an ambulance.

My supervisor had continued on without stopping. I called after her and her response to me was, ‘we’re going to be late for work’. I was stunned by her lack of caring, empathy, consideration and basic humanity.

In January 2011 I fell and broke my right ankle.

In December 2012 a woman on a bus in New Delhi was viciously gang raped and beaten unconscious.

I don’t know if the man on the bench lived or died because another person stopped, called for an ambulance and was able to stay with him until help arrived. I did not die from the injuries I sustained when I fell. The woman in New Delhi died from her injuries.

One small yet significant common thread tie these events together: onlookers.

The day I broke my ankle, the bus was full and after raining all day, the windows were steamed up. I had a book in my hand and reading glasses on the end of my nose as I made my way home from work. At the time, I was working as a victim support worker with women and children experiencing domestic violence. It was a job I loved which gave me both a sense of social responsibility and purpose. I was assisting in the empowerment of women.

When I reached my stop I stepped off the bus while simultaneously removing my reading glasses and when I looked up I was nearly at the corner where the sidewalk turns. A large hedge ran the perimeter of the sidewalk and came to an abrupt end just before the sidewalk turned left. A small crowd of young people were rounding the corner as I was approaching. At the end of the hedge line I took a step to my left to avoid a collision with the crowd and lost my footing in a sudden 3- or 4-inch drop in the sidewalk’s structure.

A 3’ x 4’ cut-out in the sidewalk was hidden just beyond the sightline of the hedge and I twisted my ankle from the drop. My balance was thrown, my left ankle was sprained and in trying to catch myself from falling completely, my right ankle slipped as well and I heard the crack of a bone and found myself flat down on the ground, both ankles rendered useless.

One of the crowd of young people glanced briefly over their shoulder at me on the ground but didn’t stop. I was next to a busy road with cars going past at one- or two-second intervals and not one of them stopped. Bus after bus came by and not one driver, nor any disembarking passengers, asked if I was okay.

My body was going into shock; I could feel the swirling pain mixed with dizziness begin to take over. My fear of being ‘stepped over’ whilst unconscious on a busy street corner in south Vancouver was more powerful than my awareness that my body had given up on me.
Nobody stopped to care.

Onlookers: people unable or unwilling to step out of their own lives and help to ease the pain of another human being. It is a devastating feeling which reminds you rather painfully of your own insignificance.

The man who fell off the bench onto the sidewalk in the worst part of Vancouver in 2001 was filthy, smelly and was most likely homeless and an alcoholic. Two people immediately stopped to help him.

I was dressed professionally on my way home from work in 2011 in what was a decent neighbourhood. In the approximately 30 minutes I sat there awaiting the ambulance, nobody stopped for me.

The woman in New Delhi in 2012 was on a bus on her way to university and had a friend with her. There were people everywhere. For the two hours she was on the bus, and the 20-25 minutes she was on the ground, naked and bleeding profusely from her wounds, nobody intervened.

When the entire incident made headlines around the world, people stepped outside of their lives to lobby for change and to state what a horrific experience this was for such a bright young woman. The woman eventually died and people upped their petitions and took even more ‘affirmative action’.

The simple fact of the matter is: she didn’t need them after it was over and she was dead. She needed them as the group of men got onto the bus and picked her for their attack. She needed them when those men took from her what she was not offering. She needed them throughout the entire ordeal and nobody went to her aid. Only in death did she become significant.

Is this the world we now live in? If so, next stop, please.

1 Response to Not just New Delhi: we’re all guilty of onlooker apathy

  1. Tracy says:

    Thank you, Mia, for reminding us that so much of the pain of the New Delhi tragedy was avoidable, if only one person would have been a citizen instead of an onlooker. We forget that we have a responsibility to each other as human beings, and all too often “leave it to the professionals”.

Mia Lane

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