Short story: Practicing Being an Active Bystander

A woman yelling from downstairs to upstairs: Mia, don't make mommy late for yoga again.

Yesterday I was in a nice flow on my bicycle. I had timed it perfectly: I picked something up in the west of Amsterdam, I would bicycle back to the east, just in time for my weekly meditation group.

I was about halfway when I contemplated crossing a red light, at a crossing where there were no cars waiting for the stop signs. As I was approaching the crossing I noticed a police officer on a motorbike stopping a hundred yards from the traffic light. There was my answer. I stoppped for the red light.

And then I watched a man, with a food delivery bag on his shoulders, cross the red light. It must have been three seconds later when I saw the police officer drive by to go after him.

Everything inside me screamed: “No”. Over the past couple of months I have talked to a bunch of people who deliver food and in each conversation it seems that these people already have a rough time in our society. They don’t need another setback.

Without really thinking, I went after the two. After two blocks I caught up with them, they were both standing on a busy square in downtown Amsterdam. The man appeared to have his roots in an Asian country like India, pretty slender and not much bigger than 5″4′. He appeared to be scared and was apologizing to the office. In a kind of rambling way he explained that he is just a tourist here.

The police officer was more like my size, 6″3′ and with his motorbike and all of his gear, there was a stark contrast between the two.

I got off my bike and – I must admit – was not in a state of nonviolence yet. So I said to the delivery man:

“Whatever the fine is, I’ll pay for it. Because I think there are more effective ways than this to deal with this situation.”

The police officer turned to me and said with a voice that sounded more like a military office:

“Can you please just let me do my work, understood!?”

I was boiling inside. Usually I’m pretty spacious in these situations, but because of the adrenaline from the bike ride – remember: I was rushing to get to my weekly meditation in time – plus the sadness that must have been building up into anger from seeing the systemic ways in which people of color or people with less priviliges than I are being treated, must have formed a violent cocktail inside of me.

But this energy also helped me to at least stand up and speak up, instead of remaining passive. So I said to the police office:

“Could you let me know what it is that I do that is getting in the way of your work?”

The police office said:

“Well, you’re talking to him and that is preventing me from having a conversation with him.”

I could see his point. And I started to see him more as a human being than before. But then, with the same tone as before he asked me the question, that didn’t sound like a question, but more like a demand.

“So could you just let me do my work, understood?!”

Now, I had landed sufficiently to have respect for his needs, as well as my own, and also for the man who got pulled over. So I said:

“Well, I want to ask if that is OK with him. So I asked the man with the food delivery bag:

“I would like to help you, would you like my help?”

The man said: “yes.” I explained to him what the officer had said in Dutch to me:

“So the police officer would first like to talk to you and then after we can talk so I can see where I can help you.”

He was happy with this.

As I was listening to the police officer talking to him, I realized why the man was more scared than I would be, when I would be fined for crossing a red light.

It turned out he only had a visa for Italy, not for The Netherlands.

His breath became shallower and his eyes more fearful.

At that point I was wondering: how can I support him?

As the police officer was looking things up in his computer, I said to the man: “I can imagine you’re feeling nervous and scared.”

He nodded.

Then I put my hand on my heart and said that I would breath with him.

Then he put his hand on his heart.

And while the police officer was doing his thing, the man and I were standing there, breathing together on a busy square in downtown Amsterdam. I felt so peaceful and connected.

After a minute or two the police officer started to explain things to the man in English, which sounded more like Denglish: a combination of Dutch and English.

The man didn’t seem to understand him and I helped the police officer with the translation. The police officer thanked me and actually started to smile. I could sense him relax more as well.

I had put my hand off my heart – being the translator and all – and continued to help them understand each other. The police officer said:

“This time I’m going to let you off with a warning for crossing the red light. You have to go to the immigration office to report yourself. If I catch you again I will arrest you and bring you to the immigration police.”

The man sighed with relief, I sighed with relief and the police officer thanked me, I thanked him. The man with the food delivery bag thanked the police officer as well, as he drove off on his motorbike.

As the two of us were left standing there, the man explained that he had had a horrible life in Bangladesh and had fled to Italy, but due to the epidemic, life had become horrible over there as well. So he was staying with a friend – illegaly – here in Amsterdam to wait until the worst was over.

He told me he was so grateful. At first he thought that I was also against him, but when I said I wanted to help, he was feeling really supported and more relaxed. Not alone anymore.

I felt grateful that I was able to contribute and we both smiled.

We talked some more and I started to reflect on my action.

I said:

“I guess the only thing I wanted was to support you in a situation when you have less power than the other person. And to bring the humanity into the system. Whatever the outcome is.”

As I’m writing this story I’m grateful for the two facilitators who gave me a class in active bystander training this year. They helped me see that just being present with someone and offering your help, can be enough to stop harrasment and power-over-dynamics.

The next time I want to bring more humanity and respect to the police officer. Or someone else with structural power. Straight from the start. By saying something like: “I want to respect your work and I also want to support him. Do you have any objections against me asking if he wants my support?”

In the end I missed the group meditation. Although, now that I’ve come to think about it: maybe two guys with their hands on their hearts, breathing together, with a police office who gives us a smile, that sounds a lot like a group meditation.

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