Unexpected Outburst

The fact that I was so close to the outburst, plus its location, combined to shock me.

I was in the East Columbia library on Tuesday.  Lots of folks were in the library, and all the computers were in use.  I ended up using one of the stand up reference computers for the quick check I wanted to do.  Behind me I was aware of a Hispanic man (I’ll call him H1) at one computer, and a bookbag on the chair of the other.  With school having just released,I’d assumed one of the students had dropped their bag before heading to the bathroom or to grab a resource.

As I was working, I became aware of the voices behind me.  Doing a half-turn, I saw a well dressed, mid-50’s salt and pepper haired African-American man (let me call him A1) looking for a computer.  He had passed by, and had returned.  “Is someone sitting here?” he asked of the decade-older Hispanic man.  “Someone is coming” was his response.  At which point I heard M1 heavily drop the bookbag on the table and make some pronouncement that since no one was there he was going to use it.  The tone, authoritative, articulate, and yet loud and powerful, carried more than a hint of anger and animus. H1 made a comment about having a little respect, in a slightly slurred, flippant low tone.  And that’s when the dust-up began.

What followed was an embarrassment, as A1 proceeded to call H1 a “genetically inferior half-breed of white scum”….and more that I won’t print. A1 insisted he had a “legal right” to use the computer and proceeded to not only carry on the initial tone of the dust-up but to suggest that H1 “step outside and settle this” while berating him.  To his credit, H1 , with some humor in his tone, told him to go outside and wait for him.  A1 continued, with the tirade, the insults to the other man included disparaging his mother and continuing to call him white scum.  I ended up leaving during the dust-up.

The event surprised me in several ways.  I was shocked to hear this in Columbia.  This is a very ethnically diverse, generally liberal town that has never outgrown its almost hippy flavor and feel.  To hear such racial disparagement was shocking.  It was also a shock to hear it from someone who, based on appearance and language, was an educated, articulate, upper middle class, middle-aged man. The dichotomy was so strange — appearance of class, with the actions of unclass.  As they say, never judge a book by its cover.

And while it surprised me that no one comment, interceded, intervened, the bigger surprise was my lack of response at the time. Looking back on it, I realize I should have stepped forward and tried to defuse the situation. I should have stepped forward and defended the one set-upon.  But I didn’t.  I don’t know if it was fear, or embarrassment, or just not having thought about it before.  Or all three.  I’d like to think that it was a scene that just caught me off guard, although that may be granting me more absolution than I deserve.

Still, it does cause to think, and wonder, about the state of affairs where this could happen in a place I’ve been for 30 years.  Choose Civility…..(sigh)

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