Mary Rogers, Guest Columnist

Bystander Failure

From across a four-lane thoroughfare, I witnessed something.

It was Labor Day weekend and I now find myself feeling ashamed by how I responded; or rather, how I failed to fully respond. Maybe.

I think that when you and I hear stories of bystanders failing to help a stranger in need, we assume that we would have been better people if we’d found ourselves in the same position.  Funny thing is, we never know when we are going to be tested. The moment is immediate, surely presenting itself while we are most likely in the middle of doing something else.

Here is what I saw and how I processed it:

From a parked car, I saw three people in their early 20s sitting together on the lawn of a small apartment building playing with a very large dog. They leaned into the dog who was happily squirming as the three rubbed his tummy and rough-housed with the playful pup.  I noticed a few other young people standing near them watching with varying degrees of interest.

I watched from the passenger seat of a friend’s car as she had quickly run into a store to get an ingredient needed back at home for our dinner.  I didn’t have my phone with me and was half-heartedly watching this Americana scene unfold as I had nothing better to do. Honestly, if I’d had my phone on me, I would have been playing Words with Friends and never would have noticed.

At some point, my eyes and my brain realized that I wasn’t processing this scene correctly.

  1. That is not a dog. That is a human.
  2. That is not playing. That is a young woman struggling.

Now I was giving this scene my full attention, trying to get more visual details as I watched through the heavy traffic, getting glimpses of a woman’s body thrashing and her friends trying to keep her body still. Was she convulsing? Are they hurting her? Is she being raped? Was she having a seizure? What the hell am I seeing?

A pedestrian walked past, only ten feet from the woman and her friends, and with the look of appalled distaste, he continued walking, never slowing his pace or looking back.

Appalled distaste. This took my thoughts to the idea that maybe the woman was having a seizure from a drug overdose. Now I notice that there are tenants coming out of- and then retreating to- their own apartments, seeing the woman in full convulsions. These people were most decidedly not coming to her aid. In fact, nobody, including the three “friends”, seemed to be in any particular hurry to do anything.

call 911More racing thoughts: Had they called 911? Should I? They all seem to be stoned, are they dangerous? Why aren’t they doing anything? Should I try to stop traffic and get myself over there? What then? What can I do? Would they have guns? Are these drug dealers? All snap judgments.

I felt as though I was the only person witnessing this that had any sense of alarm, feeling that I was in an emergency situation and asking myself “Mary, what do you do?”

My friend returned to the car and I yelled across the street, “Do you need help?”.

One young man stood up and cupped his hand to his mouth to be heard over the holiday traffic replying, “No, she’s fine”. My interpretation: She was anything but fine and these people were not her friends. My friend agreed.

I ran into the store and told the clerk “Call 911, a girl is overdosing across the street”. Flustered and very concerned, he made the call stepping outside as he spoke to the dispatcher from the parking lot of the store. The young woman’s “friends” took notice of the call being made. She had now stopped convulsing and her friends were trying to move her, seemingly to get her as far away as they could from the assistance we had called for. Finding it difficult to drag her, the guy who said “She’s fine” then hoisted her now lifeless body up into his arms and walked away with her.

And we drove home, and we made dinner. This entire story happened over two, maybe three, minutes.

I don’t know if that girl is dead or alive. There may be a family in Traverse City wondering why their daughter has not been in touch. Did I totally misread the situation and it wasn’t what it looked like? Did an ambulance ever come?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I do know that I did not live up to my own expectations. A call to 911 falls far short of how I could have helped that girl. I should have found my way across the traffic.

Has your own inner moral compass been challenged? I ask you: What is our duty to other’s safety when

A: intervening may put us in danger;

B: our neighbor may be at least partially responsible for creating their own crisis; or,

C: we are not equipped to offer any meaningful solution to the complexity of their larger problem?

Do we get our hands dirty or focus our energy on consoling our own feelings of guilt and frustration?  My own experience weighs heavy as I have no answers.

What would you do?

Visit the Northern Express archives to read Mary’s past columns.

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