I’ve been fortunate to not need to call 911 for the past several years; that is, until today. I’m fine, but my experience showed me how, to make our community better, we must first make ourselves better.
As I was walking down the street from my apartment in Downtown Detroit this afternoon, I saw a woman laying in the middle of the sidewalk. She was maybe around 60 years old, 5’4” tall, dyed auburn hair pulled back into a bun, and dressed in work-casual clothes. Despite the block having several popular restaurants and a plethora of lunchtime-patrons going down the street, no one stopped. As I got closer to the woman, I noticed she was crying and babbling incoherently. I asked her if she needed any help, though through her slurred speech, I couldn’t understand her response. I didn’t smell any alcohol, nor did I know how long she had been there before I happened upon her. I called 911 for help – she might have been diabetic, might have been having a stroke, or could have had any number of conditions that require medical assistance.
It is important to note that, in the time I was standing with the woman, about 15 or 20 people walked by. Of that number, only 3 stopped to ask what was going on before continuing on with their day. When I called 911, one of the first questions asked of me was to describe the woman. I mentioned her age, her height, her clothing, but before I could get done, the operator interrupted, “is she white?” I understand the need to help the first responders identify the person in need, but shouldn’t the person’s height, age, hair color, and clothes (not to mention gender) be sufficient? I provided the information to the 911 operator who told me help would be arriving shortly. I made a point to say that I would stay with the woman until they arrived.
Two other people came by and offered to help after I hung up the phone. I informed them that I had just called 911 and was waiting on the paramedics. We waited and waited, keeping an eye on the woman in need and hoping to hear the sirens or see the flashing lights of an ambulance to let us know help was on the way. Twenty minutes later, no one had arrived. Angela, one of the good Samaritans who was waiting with me, went on her bike to try to find a patrol car or an ambulance in the area, but to no avail. Fortunately, several minutes later, a police squad car drove by. We flagged down the officers who were able to join us to finally help the woman.
Over nearly 30 minutes and 30-50 pedestrians walking by, only a total of 3 people stopped to help someone who was clearly in dire straits. When people complain about public safety, that the streets aren’t safe, that the police/firefighters/paramedics aren’t doing their jobs, they are ignoring the role that they play in keeping our community safe. When something happens in our community, we are the ‘first’ responders, not by choice, but because we’re there. We cannot shirk our responsibility to our neighbors, regardless of how they look, and outsource it to others. Our first responders play a critical role in our society. They risk their lives every day to help us when we’re in danger, but they can’t do it all alone. When we unfairly foist that responsibility on them by ignoring our obligation to our fellow citizens, it bogs down the entire system and creates the morass that people and politicians routinely pan.
Why didn’t more people stop? Why did the 911 operator’s first reaction to identifying the person in need go to race? Have we as a society grown so callous and so disconnected that we are not only used to seeing things like this, but we actually accept them, or even ignore them? These are the questions that we each have to answer if we’re going to actually change our community for the better.