Commentary | Witnessing assault at the metro station

An account of the injustices on our streets

Two weeks ago, I was outside the Papineau metro when I saw someone assault a homeless man.  He was standing near a pay phone talking to another man in cut-offs and a knit fleece sweater. As I reached for the station door, the man in cut-offs backhand slapped the homeless man. “What did you call me?” the aggressor shouted.

The homeless man backed against the wall, turning towards the station. His nose was bleeding. He moved into the station and then doubled over as blood dripped onto the station floor.

Shocked, I followed the homeless man inside and stood beside him. Looking around, I realized that no one was coming towards us to offer help. I appeared to be the only direct witness, and no one else seemed to register that there had just been an assault.

I turned to the man and asked if he was all right. He stared at me and gestured at the blood on the floor. He mimed using something to stem the blood from his nose.

I went over to the STM ticket booth with an agent inside. I explained – with big gestures – what happened. The agent didn’t even move from the booth to get a better view of the man who’d been hurt. He leaned in to speak through the microphone and asked me calmly, “Does the man want the police or ambulance to be called?”

I looked over at the man two meters away, his nose still bleeding onto the floor, and I realized that I hadn’t thought to ask. I had assumed that he would want some kind of authority to become involved. When I asked him later, he dismissed the question with a wave of the hand and an eye roll. I asked for paper towels.

The agent ripped off several paper towels from a large roll and slid them through the small divot in the ticket counter to me. Then, I carried the towels back to the man and asked him again if he was ok. He replied that he needed money for medicine – did I have some spare change? I dug through my pockets.

Still, no STM worker had directly approached us.

I got in line once again in front of the STM ticket booth. Waiting for my turn, a loud commotion suddenly broke out. The man had left the station and was face-to-face with the aggressor. He had returned. With both arms spread wide, the aggressor was yelling and the man was retreating once again back into the station, abandoning his backpack outside at the feet of the assailant.

I pushed past the line and shouted at the agent inside to alert him that the attack was happening. The last part of their confrontation echoed through the station as the homeless man pounded the nearest door with his fist in frustration. The agent picked up the phone and told me to wait for the authorities to arrive.

Meanwhile, the man, his nose no longer bleeding, was upset and agitated. He began pacing around the station, speaking to himself, looking through windows to see where the aggressor had gone. He retrieved his backpack quickly, then took off.

Across the station, an STM worker was cleaning the floors on the inside of the metro turnstiles. She eventually made her way over to the bloodstains. She spoke to the agent inside the booth, mimicking the actions the homeless man had made around the station just before he had left. They laughed together.

I looked out the window and saw what appeared to be an STM security vehicle. On the other side of the station, I saw the aggressor in line to board a bus. I ran to the STM van and found it empty.

Five minutes later, an STM responder carrying a walkie-talkie came walking back to the van. I recounted what I had seen and how both parties had left. He told me that, unless I was hurt myself, their policy is to take down information from the person who was assaulted. He told me that if I wanted to file the description, I should go to the STM website.

The situation was shocking and deplorable. The STM neglected it until they were forced to acknowledge it. The man who was hit wasn’t offered any kind of protection from his aggressor. To receive the most minimal level of treatment for his injury – the paper towels – it took my asking. At no point did STM workers even become involved in the situation.

The STM’s handling of the situation gave the aggressor full freedom to act with impunity; he, or anyone else so inclined, can essentially harm whomever they wants if the victim is not judged worth protecting or defending according to the on-site authorities.

Not to mention the downright cruelty of back handing someone with full force is shocking in itself. Violence with no restraint is unnerving. The purpose of a security force is to protect and defend against the exercise of that kind of violence, and that system failed entirely in this case.

The right to be in public spaces, to feel protected, and to be assured bodily safety is a right that in practice not all have.

There are many assumptions and stereotypes concerning people who are homeless. But none of those judgments excuse the disrespect, diffidence, callousness, and neglect that the man at Papineau station experienced from the STM and bystanders. Those views disconnected the person from his humanity. I saw it happen: people continued to stream in and out of the metro, dodging the blockage, and STM workers continued their work.

Erin Hudson is a U3 Political Science and Middle East Studies student. You can email her at erin.hudson@mail.mcgill.ca.


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