Why being a bystander is not an option


Cambridge Public Library park: Unlikely scene of hatespeech. File photo by Harsh V.

My column Personal Political published in the Cambridge Chronicle, June 8, 2017

Beena Sarwar

“You don’t even speak English,” comes a male voice across the fading evening light.

We glance past Cambridge Public Library’s main entrance. The man is bending close to someone sitting on a bench on the other side. A couple of homeless guys slightly drunk, ribbing each other?

The voice breaks through the dusk again. “This is not your country. Why don’t you go back?”

I jump up and walk purposefully towards them, suppressing a reminder that I’m a small brown woman heading towards an unknown situation.


Heroes forever: Ricky John Best, 53, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, fatally stabbed when trying to prevent public bullying

“What’s going on?” I call out authoritatively.

The aggressor is a tall, thin man with disheveled curly brown hair. Green hoodie, backpack, clutching a paper bag like those that typically conceal alcoholic beverages in public. He glances up, surprised.

“Nothing”, he slurs, gesturing at two Asian looking men sitting on the bench. “I’m just having a conversation with these people”.

“No, you’re not. You’re harassing and bullying them,” I say loudly. “Are you guys ok?”

The men nod. “Thanks”.

I’m relieved to see my husband behind me. He holds up his phone. “You need to leave,” he tells the man.

An older man who had stopped on hearing the voices comes up. “That was hate speech”.

“No, it wasn’t. I was just talking to these people”.

“That didn’t sound like a conversation”.

The man sizes us up. Two brown people including a rather large man – could be Indian (we’re Pakistani) — and a frail looking older man, Caucasian or Hispanic… But wait, a white woman with spiky black hair has stopped, straddling her bicycle. He addresses her.

“They don’t speak English. I’m trying to understand why they’re here.”

“Don’t look at me. I’m not on your side,” she responds. “I heard you. You can’t talk to people like that”.

“Oh, so now I’m the bad guy?”

“Right now, yes”.

“I’m not the bad guy. This is my country. I was born here.”

“Doesn’t matter. You can’t talk to people like that.”

My husband cuts in. “Are you leaving or am I calling the police?”

The man steps back. We press our advantage.

“You need to leave”.

“Just walk away.”

The man looks at us. We’re not budging. Now, it seems, neither is he.

“I’m calling the police,” repeats my husband, fingers moving over his cell phone.

“Oh man, don’t do that. The police know me.”

My husband brings the phone up to his ear. The man steps sideways, turns and starts walking. He stops. “I was trying to have a conversation.”

“Try that when you’re not drunk,” I call back.

“I was born here. I’m educated. I have more education in my ass than all of you,” he shouts. I feel sorry for him.

“Keep walking, sir,” my husband cuts in, phone to ear.

“That’s right! I’m ‘Sir’ to you,” he yells, weaving away into the darkness.

Meanwhile, my husband gets through to the police. Yes, he has gone. No, he didn’t touch anyone. The police won’t send anyone over. We should call again if the man returns.

The two men on the bench remain sitting quietly. Our four-person band in solidarity against bigotry breaks up.

This happened on May 24, in Cambridge MA around 9 pm. Some afterthoughts:

Bullies are cowards. We cannot let them get away with their harassment.

Numbers don’t guarantee the offender will withdraw. It took the threat of the police to make him leave.

We must publicly support those being harassed. Worse than threats or violence is the silence of onlookers, as a friend’s daughter found when a man on the Green Line near Copley accused her (Andover-born, Indian-Pakistani origin) of having a bomb in her briefcase. She opened her bag, showed her laptop and school ID to the men who surrounded her. They withdrew without apology. The worst thing, she said, was the silence and averted gazes of the other riders.


Portland turns out to honor the commuter train stabbing victims. Photo courtesy CNN

Intervening is risky. On May 26, an aggressor shouting anti-Muslim slurs at two women on the Portland OR metro knifed those who interceded. Two men died, a third was hospitalized. They are heroes forever.

Offenders are driven by self-righteousness. The Portland assailant, a white supremacist, feels justified in his violence. As does the gunman in Kansas who shot two Indian tech workers at a bar in February, killing one.

Cross-community solidarity is essential. On May 29, an Indian origin friend sat by another woman of color on an MBTA train, acutely conscious of the Portland stabbing three days earlier, as a white male shouted racial slurs at them. Most people kept their distance. The police arrested the man in downtown Boston. “I hate you bystanders,” wrote my friend in her Facebook post. “Your day will come and you better hope that you are not surrounded by people like yourself.”

Violence hits the headlines. The rising attacks on people of color and on Muslim and Jewish places of worship make the news. Less reported are public expressions of support for them.

It’s not just about race and religion. Everyone must be prepared to witness or face such incidents that African Americans have long been all too familiar with, as have women and the LGBT community. The threats are now rising again. Public expressions of bigotry, racism, misogyny that have only recently become politically incorrect are now being legitimized by those at the top. Cross-community solidarity is the need of the hour.

So, when the chips are down, how will you respond? “Will you stand by or stand up? What message are we sending if we stand by?” asked Dr. Deborah Bial, Posse Foundation president and educational access torchbearer at her commencement speech at Vassar College recently.

Fascist ideologies are rising, spurred by change, fear of the ‘other’ and greed for power and money. The resistance, driven by the higher aspirations of being human – respect, inclusivity, pluralism, must come together, stronger.


Muslim groups raise nearly $500,000 for families of ‘Portland heroes’

Muslims unite-Portland

CREDIT: Launchgood

It only took 5 hours to shatter their initial $60,000 goal.

Respond to hate with love.

That’s the slogan of Muslim organizations that have raised nearly half a million dollars for the families of three Portland, Oregon men violently attacked when they tried to protect Muslim women being berated by a white supremacist. Read the story here.

One Response

  1. […] I wrote after witnessing racist abuse here in Boston, being a bystander is not an option. We’re seeing Muslims, ‘Muslim-looking’ and ‘other’ people being attacked in the US too, […]


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