You need to come with me ma’am. You’ve been accused of waving your sticks around and making racist remarks.
I stand and see the policeman.
I’m in shock.
My hiking poles, or “sticks” are resting mute and unmoving against the side of the carriage.
I start to argue, denying the charges.
You need to come with me ma’am.
I point to the two young women sitting across the aisle from me. Ask them. They will tell you it’s not true. I don’t hear what he says to them. I find out later that they were not willing to give a statement.
Reluctantly, but clearly with no choice, I follow him off the train. I’m too bewildered, and distressed to feel embarrassed. I’m in shock. And angry.
The train leaves.
There’s another policeman on the platform who guides me to a place where we can both sit down. He then starts to question me. The first words out of my mouth are I’m so angry right now!
At some point I laugh briefly. The accusations are so absurd.
I’ve been out for the day, on a “Solo Travel Adventure” exploring the fishing village of Steveston, and I’m on my way home. Masks are mandatory on all public transport in Vancouver. I’d gotten on the train several stops earlier, grabbing one of the four very front seats, my favourite, so I can look out the front of the train as it travels through the city.
The two young women are in the front seats across the aisle from me.
A couple of stops later three men get on. One sits behind the two women. He is not wearing a mask. The other two, who are wearing masks sit behind him. The one without a mask talks incessantly. He speaks in Spanish. Presumably they are of Latinx origin and could be from anywhere in Latin America. They are just as likely also Canadian, like many people here from elsewhere, including myself. I don’t really think about it. Without the pandemic I might have even tried to have a conversation with them having travelled extensively in South America and lived in Mexico.
At first I think I’ll just ignore that he’s not wearing a mask. Then I realize I’m going to be on the train for a good twenty minutes, in an enclosed space with little air circulation. It is the worst situation for the spread of Covid-19. Suddenly I turn to him and shout
Will you please put your mask on. Some of us are more vulnerable than others!
I shout for two reasons. The first is that I’m full of righteous outrage. How dare he be so inconsiderate! The second reason is I want to be heard above the noise of the train.
He puts his mask on. I thinks that’s an end to it and turn to face the front again and we all continue in silence. I forget about them. (At some point I’m aware in my peripheral vision that they get off the train – or at least vacate the seats they were sitting in.)
I explain all this to the policeman. I hand over my drivers’ licence. I don’t try to hide that I was angry, and that I shouted. He asks me if I’d ever been in trouble with the law before. I tell him no.
So it’s alright for me to phone right now to confirm that?
Yes, of course. I’m still in shock. The other cop is behind me down the platform a bit. He’s on the phone, or radio, or whatever it is they use. Then he comes to me. He tells me there was a witness and that they’re still trying to confirm things, that they only just got the call making the accusations.
I say something about this mythical witness. I don’t remember what exactly. He kneels down beside me and starts asking me questions. I tell him what I’d told the other cop. I don’t remember what he says to me but it suddenly triggers a memory.
Oh my god! I was taking photos! They probably think I was taking photos of them but I wasn’t. I was taking photos of the reflections in the window when we went into a tunnel. I’ll show you. I’ll delete them.
No, that’s okay. It’s allowed. You were in a public place.
Then I say: They must feel so vulnerable right now. I don’t know what the cop makes of that remark.
Suddenly I get it.
Not only have I shouted at the guy to put his mask on, but I’ve been taking photos of him and I’m going to report him, or at least I can see why he would think that. I can just about hear the wheels spinning. That fucking bitch. I’ll get her! So he makes an anonymous phone call to the cops accusing me of waving my sticks around and making racist remarks.
I ask about the “witness”. He says they’re still investigating. It’s the only answer I can get. I ask how long I’ll have to wait. He tells me I’m free to go. The last thing he says to me is:
I’m sorry we frightened you.
A train arrives in the station and I’m asked if I want to get on it. Yes, if I can gather everything before it leaves. One of the cops holds the door open, I gather camera, camera case, backpack, and hiking poles and get on the train.
I’m still in shock.
Even now, over six weeks later, I’m still processing it, still dealing with the emotional fallout. I still feel traumatized by it. And I still don’t know if there will be any consequences should I ever again have any dealings with the Vancouver Police.
Here’s what I’ve learned (again!):
Don’t be a dink.
Choose your battles.
Get over your righteous outrage.
Righteous outrage seems to have exploded everywhere since the pandemic. It’s a secondary virus going around and I caught it. Not that I’ve never felt it before, not that I don’t have opinions about the perceived bad behaviour of others, or anger about it, but I usually keep it to myself. It’s only since the pandemic that I’ve begun to express it more. We’re all a little frightened I think. And stifled. And perhaps more easily triggered.
Here are four far more important things I’ve learned:
- If I ever witness someone being falsely accused I will make a statement. No matter what, I will make a statement.
2. I have learned how incredibly powerless it feels to be falsely accused. For the first time in my very privileged life I get an inkling of how devastating it is. I have a friend who was falsely accused and went to prison for it. For the first time I get a glimmering into her trauma, and why someone would suffer PTSD from it. I don’t think I can even put into words what it feels like when all that you thought was familiar and safe disintegrates into a pile of ashes and there is nothing you can do about it. I had empathy before. Now it’s personal.
3. Life can turn on a dime. What if the guy had been willing to accuse me without being anonymous? Then what?
4. I’m a law abiding white woman. All my life I’ve assumed the police were on my side, that they they are there to help me, to protect me, to believe me. For the first time ever, through this tiny glimpse, I begin to understand what it is like to not have this, to be brown, or black, or indigenous, to walk through the world knowing that the police are probably not on your side. It’s frightening. I wonder what will happen if I’m attacked or molested, if in some way I’m the victim of a crime and now because of this the police are less likely to believe me, less likely to be on my side. I had empathy before. Now it’s personal.
This has been a difficult post to write because of revisiting the trauma of it, but more because of the shame I feel. I could have just walked away, down to the other end of the train away from no-mask man. I could have just said Por favor. Mask. But I didn’t. I gave in to righteous outrage. And learned some things.
I’ll finish off with a bit about my “Solo Travel Adventure” days. Don and I have discussed the possibility of a future when I travel without him. We’re pretty much joined at the hip, and I rely on him for so much when we travel, especially planning, so I decided that I needed to practice travelling solo to get my confidence back.
Once a week I spend the day exploring as if I’m alone in a foreign country. I do all the research, and I travel by local transport only. My first outing was exploring the forests of Stanley Park. My big take away from that day is to make sure I carry enough food with me. The one cafe I headed toward was closed, I was starving, and the next nearest place was a very long walk away.
Stanley Park forest and Beaver Lake:
Next post: The second post of remarkable buildings around the world – Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Notre Dame, Alhambra, the Forbidden City, the Golden Temple, and more. Plus more posts to come on my Solo Travel Adventure days, but perhaps I shouldn’t be let out alone.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.