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Paris is a big city like any other, so why am I always shocked to encounter petty crime and stupefied about what to do?
Three teenagers, with a look about them that said they did not belong amid the hustle and bustle of morning commuters, were loitering at the bus stop, outside of a bank. I noticed immediately that the two girls and the boy with bleached hair did not have book bags and were not wearing winters coats, and all three wore hooded sweatshirts. One girl stepped into a phone booth and pretended to use the phone. They all took long drags from their cigarettes. They were waiting for an opportunity.
I was conflicted about profiling but I had a feeling about what would probably happen next and felt powerless to stop it.
As I stepped onto the bus, along with many others, leaving the street less populated, I looked back to see the trio surrounding a woman at the ATM. I was left to imagine what happened next to the woman in the yellow skirt. A few others on the bus noticed as well and craned their necks. I took out my phone to call someone, the police, but what would I say? That I was on a bus and I think I saw a possible assault on this and that corner? My current phone did not automatically list an emergency contact; did I even know the number to call the police? Meanwhile, the bus was carrying me farther and farther away from the scene. In the end, I did nothing but hope someone was able to intervene in time.
I encountered a similar incident a few months back. A man had been withdrawing money from an ATM in broad daylight and two young boys, with the same look, surrounded him. The victim wasn’t going to give up without a struggle. He dropped his belongings and chased one boy; a passerby caught the other and practically sat on him until police arrived. The ensnared boy, who looked no more than 10 years old, wailed and cried out that he had not done anything and that the man was hurting his arm. I picked up some of the victim’s belongings and turned them in to the bank. The police eventually arrived. The victim returned without his money or the other teenager. Again, I was left wondering if I could have done more, like stay to tell police what I had seen. I didn’t.
My ambivalence, then and this morning, was perhaps due to an experience a few years ago when I witnessed a crime outside the window of an apartment I had just moved into. I was unpacking a box in the early afternoon when I heard glass shattering outside. I peeked out across the narrow street to see a man ransacking the inside of a parked car, removing a radio and other items. The man was wearing a brightly colored two-piece printed outfit, had disheveled hair and was on roller skates.
I began writing a note to the car owner to say what I had witnessed, but what good would that do the person later. I didn’t know the number to call the police but I remembered there was a pre-programmed emergency number on my mobile phone so I pressed the button. A male voice on the other end said he would call me back. I guess this was to make sure it wasn’t a hoax. A minute later, an officer was asking me for a description. The first question was put like this: blanc, black, ou beur? Translation: white, black or Arab.
I knew the expression "blanc, black, beur" was used to describe the soccer team that won the World Cup in 1998, and beur was used to describe second-generation people from the Maghreb, but I wasn’t sure whether the word was a slur. I was uncomfortable reducing someone, even a criminal, to a label that might be a slur. Eventually, I had to answer "beur" since that is what I had seen.
Not long after, some officers on bicycles rode past my apartment, more officers in a wagon appeared outside my window, with the suspect. One officer shouted my building door code to another, right in front of the colorfully dressed man in rollerskates. A female officer came upstairs and asked me to hide behind the curtain, look out the window and identify the apprehended man. She then asked me to provide my name and details but it was what she said in asking that gave me pause. She asked me to show her my identity papers in order to expedite the process. In other words, I was being checked out to make sure my paperwork was in order.
The interaction left an impression about dealing with the police as the foreigner that I am — it makes think twice about getting involved to help a fellow citizen.