It was once self-evident that “eyes on the street” in dense urban neighbourhoods would lower crime and vandalism because they belonged to concerned citizens who were prepared to intervene when things got unruly. Yet, while downtown Montreal is not short of eyes, and while some people will brave a call to 911 if they witness a full-out brawl or break-in, many of us are unwilling to speak up in other, less urgent instances when a simple word could be enough to curb bad behaviour.
Is it because tolerance has been lauded as the greatest virtue in our society that people hesitate to intervene?
I have watched a child deliberately pound the glass out of a car window with a rock, and tolerated this behaviour. I have seen a woman place her laptop on the seat of a 105 bus during rush-hour, while fifty people stood crammed aboard and the driver left passengers behind at the bus stop, and every single one of us tolerated it.
Why, I wonder, in times like these, do I feel the compulsion to mind my own business?
If I had a living grandmother, I would ask her the appropriate way to discipline a stranger’s child on the street, but I do not, and I have been hardpressed to find role models in this matter. Still, I’ve tried to forge ahead in baby steps.
This summer, I biked by a drunk woman in the Concordia ghetto who was yelling at a group of students, “go back to your country,” and I mumbled, “hey, cut that out,” though I doubt anyone heard.
Then, last week, I saw a young man scrawl a tag in black marker in the back of a bus. Without thinking, I tapped him on the knee to get his attention and told him not to. I’m not sure which one of us was shocked more by this reflex.
“I don’t talk to strangers!” he said defensively, clearly unsettled by this unbidden contact.
“Well then why are you writing on other people’s stuff?” I asked, forced at last to find my voice.
“The bus belongs to the City. The City sucks,” he retorted.
I don’t know whether it was just your typical teenager’s distrust of authority, or whether he came to this conclusion from reading newspaper headlines, or through a more personal experience (working in high schools in the Sud-Ouest, I’ve heard enough stories of black teenagers being harrassed and ticketed for innocent infractions like loitering at the metro station or hanging in parks after hours).
None-the-less, I argued back: “the City sucks because they don’t have the money to do any better. It won’t help if they have to pay to clean up stuff like this.”
But as we pulled into the metro station, he and his friend defiantly threw up two more tags, and what could I possibly say to that?
Do you have any words of wisdom that have worked in instances like these? Can you, perhaps, ask your grandparents on my behalf?