An accident happened yesterday down the road. Two cars were involved, one with an elderly white woman, the other with four black and colored kids probably in their late teens. When I went to see, the white woman was being cared for but the kids were on their own so I went over to see if they were okay. Somebody said they’d been accused of being drunk or taking drugs.
One of them was sitting on the ground with his back to a wall, head in his hands, in quite severe shock. His girlfriend was trying to comfort him. He was the driver, a gentle kid, sober as a judge, but traumatized. He was trying to figure out what happened. I stayed with him for a while. Ambulances, accident officials and quite a few neighbors arrived, and everybody had drifted over to the white woman’s car to sympathize with her. Everybody. I thought that was kind of weird. Why didn’t anybody want to see if the kids were okay?
They were left on their own. One of the neighbors, who had said she didn’t witness the accident, came over and listened while the kid driver was trying to explain to me what he could remember. She accused him of lying and had no caring for the fact that he was a kid or that he’d just been involved in a scary accident. He was confused and thought it hadn’t been his fault but worried that maybe he had been in the wrong. His remarkably astute sister interjected and said “don’t talk until we have a lawyer, because people are making wild accusations here”! The neighbor accused her of being obstructive, but from where I was standing, the girl was right.
I decided to stick around to make sure there was fair play. Over the next half hour, I watched empathy for the white woman and anger against the children gain momentum amongst people who hadn’t witnessed the accident at all. It seemed to be fed by something that clearly had nothing to do with the reality of the situation. The woman had not been injured, and her car wasn’t as badly beaten up as the kids’.
So what was the problem? The pompous self-righteousness and finger-pointing of the adult bullies was mind-boggling. The four kids were non-violent, non-aggressive, sober, vulnerable and totally traumatized. They stood in a group on their own. I was the only one who stood with them and talked to them. Weird doesn’t come lose.
The police arrived. A man who had been driving behind the white woman leaped forward and told his story making the kids out to be liars and reckless. I wanted to interject with some truth, but emotions were flying around so I let him finish, then begged the policeman to be aware that some unsubstantiated accusations were being leveled at the children who were clearly good kids. I begged him to keep an open mind, and to realize that they’d been traumatized and were in shock.
A man approached from the accusatory group and tried to pick a fight, because I was offering some measure of protection to the children. I wanted to punch his lights out. Others in the group shot me dagger looks. The young girl noticed it and said “your neighbors are going to hate you now!” Every cell of my being was outraged at what I was seeing.
One of the children, a young man, really, trying to hold himself together, spoke to the policeman. When he was done the witness walked up to him, stood real close, and accused him of lying. Provoking him, speaking to him as if he was a piece of dirt. Aggressive. Abusive. The young man just tried to answer quietly and sensibly, but I could see he was getting angry and frustrated. And hurt. The man wouldn’t let him speak, kept interrupting. Bully. I’d have been throwing punches.
A fire department official barged in and very aggressively ordered the young man to stop provoking people when he’d already caused so much trouble. What??? When the young man tried to defend himself – verbally, carefully, respectfully – the official grabbed his arm, pushed him away. In my heart I begged that young man not to lose his temper. He had a right to, but he’d have been nailed. He restrained himself.
The violation was appalling.
But here’s the miracle. That group of four children, young men and women starting out their adulthood, behaved with more dignity and self-restraint than the whole group of about fifteen adults amassed around the alleged “victim”, ganging up, like a bunch of bullying school children.
But restrained or not, the children had been exposed to abuse. They’d been the target of something more than anger at an accident, and they knew it.
In the end, as far as the accident was concerned, it was two white adults’ version against that of four black and coloured kids. You do the math. Maybe the kids were at fault and were too scared to tell the truth. Who can blame them, with that mob? Maybe they were telling the truth, that the woman drifted over onto their side of the road, but who would believe them? The policeman listened to both sides of the story, and didn’t engage in the persecution at all, but he only spoke to three of the kids, didn’t even ask the fourth. Which she drily commented on.
I think he did his best. He waited until the group had dissipated a bit, then he came back to the kids. None of them had drivers’ licenses, so the driver was fined. The young girl said “that’s our fault, we do have to pay for that” which made me think they weren’t lying about the accident, but I really don’t know, I didn’t see it.
What I do know is that they were really nice kids and were exposed to a level of persecution and lack of caring that horrified me. Their car had to be towed and nobody came to ask if they were okay. Not one person in that whole group of 15-20 adults had even any vestigial stirrings of compassion for them. I felt sick to my stomach. Gradually everybody melted away, and I asked the policeman if he could help them get home because they were in shock. At first he said he couldn’t, but he melted, and arranged with the tow truck to give them a lift. They took my number. I said I’ll be a witness for them any day; that I saw what had gone down.
They deserved a medal for behaving with such dignity in the face of the provocation, and the lack of caring that was shown them. Even if the accident was entirely their fault, it wasn’t a massively reckless accident. Worst case scenario it was bad judgement. As adult drivers we make that kind of mistake all the time.
Of the four kids, I worry about the young man who was provoked by those aggressive bullying men. He was the one who tried to engage them intelligently and respectfully. They more or less spat in his face. I told him I’d seen what happened, and he had behaved with impressive dignity, that he was the better man. He looked like he wanted to cry. He’d been hurt and he’d done nothing to deserve it. Nothing at all. I could do nothing to take that hurt away.
Ah. What have we come to when we have to take our anger out on kids? I came away despondent. The most I could do was to encourage the children to not let themselves be provoked, show them kindness and caring, talk to them, stay with them, listen to them. It wasn’t enough.
The adults had the choice of rising to the occasion and rallying around the children, giving them care and love, telling them “it’s okay, you weren’t speeding or driving recklessly” – because they weren’t – “and even if the fault is yours, nobody’s going to punish you, nobody’s been hurt, everybody’s got insurance. Don’t worry, we all make mistakes. Let’s keep you safe now, we’ll call your parents, we’ll get you home, get you something to drink”. That’s what you do when people are in shock. When the shock is over is when you talk about responsibility. Especially with kids.
If the adults had done that, everybody would have come out unscathed and something positive would have emerged from the traumatic incident. The children would have thought “wow, these white people were great to us”. They’d have taken in the lesson about being more careful with their driving. The adults would have seen that the black and colored kids were really nice, responsible young men and women. It would have been love all around.
The onus was on the adults to create this win-win. Instead they created an inflammatory, accusatory, unjust, abusive situation which fostered prejudice and hurt everybody, most of all the kids. And they (the adults) walked away feeling good about themselves. Justified. Self-righteous.
I went home outraged and sad, hoping the children come out of this with something that’s positive for them; wondering about South Africa’s future. Then I realized something. Those who rose to the occasion under cruelly provocative circumstances – despite that they were in shock – were the children. And they are the future.
Out of the quagmire grows the lotus flower.