I’m sure Wednesday started out as a pretty typical day for Nicholas Francis and his family. Get up, shower, have breakfast, brush teeth, leave for school. Oh, wait. Lunch money. His father tells him to take what he needs from the money on his dresser. He leaves the house, heads to Jamaica College, goes about his day. School is dismissed, he probably stays back a few minutes to hang out with his friends or go to a club meeting, then it’s off to the bus stop to get transportation home. Only he never makes it back home. Some depraved member of the dregs of society spies the cell phone in his hand and decides he is entitled to it. But Nicholas refuses to hand it over, so he is stabbed in the arm and chest, then thrown from the bus, breaking his arm. He dies at the University hospital.
His father is at home feeling ill, unaware that his only child is taking his last few breaths. He gets a call from the school’s acting principal, who informs him that his son is in the hospital and he should head there immediately. But he never gets to see his son alive again, as Nicholas dies while he is en route.
This is every parent’s worst nightmare, losing a child. And to lose one to a senseless act of violence must transform the heavy grief of that nightmare to a living hell. Nicholas’ mother had to be taken to the hospital and sedated, and his father is heartbroken.
Meanwhile, the individual who snuffed out this 14-year-old child’s life is somewhere drawing breath at this very moment. Because somehow, on a bus that was probably so full of passengers people were hanging out the door, no one came to Nicholas’ aid. No one tried to disarm or stop this thief, even as he reportedly took Nicholas’ bag, lured him from the back of the bus to the front – probably scuffling, stabbed him, stole his watch, threw him off the bus, then made his escape.
When I saw the news on my Instagram feed yesterday morning, the first question I asked was whether the bus was empty, because surely, that must have been the case for all of this to happen. I mean, this is Jamaica, where jungle justice is often meted out with a severity and swiftness that is (or should be) the envy of the court system. Have we stopped grabbing and beating thieves, especially ones actively preying on a child? Were there no other adults who could have banded together to take this guy down? Was everybody else on that bus so tuned in to their own phones, earphones plugged in, that they didn’t see or hear what was going on around them? Did the conductor not see or hear what was going on, even as the thief headed towards the door with Nicholas in pursuit, trying to get his belongings back? Did everybody just clear the way and let it happen? I really want to know.
But as I sat there yesterday digesting the story and stewing in righteous anger, fueling my disgust with the comments on social media, I had a moment of pause as I asked myself, really and truly, what would I have done had I been on that bus? I wish I could say with 100 per cent certainty that I would have intervened in some way, but for all my bravado, when that adrenaline rush kicks in and it’s fight or flight, my reflex is to freeze. One night, a few years ago, I was in a bus in Half Way Tree waiting for it to finish loading so I could head home, when two men jumped on the bus, guns drawn, and started demanding that all the men get out. I froze so hard I couldn’t even move out of the way to let the man beside me get out of the seat. I just knew I was going to die, but I was so catatonic I couldn’t even muster up the thought of Jesus’ name, let alone say it. (It turns out they were plainclothes police officers and they were looking for someone, but it surely took them a few minutes to identify themselves. And this was only after they found out one of the men they had ordered outside was an out-of-uniform soldier, who had started reading them the riot act.)
Honestly, for anyone reading this, what would you have done if you were on that bus with Nicholas? Not everybody who is now cursing up a storm on social media would have waded in to help him. Let’s tell the truth and shame the devil. Many of us just ‘chuck badness’ online, after the fact. Faced with a knife-wielding maniac, most of us would have done the same nothing to help prevent this young man’s death. But it makes us feel good to curse and act like we are all so interested and invested in being our brother’s keeper, doesn’t it?. That’s essentially what I’m doing here, isn’t it?
There was a time when Jamaicans looked out for one another. It’s safe to say those days are long, long gone. Because even in the aftermath of nobody rushing to Nicholas’ rescue, the police have to be begging witnesses to come forward with information. You know, those same people who were able to recount how Nicholas refused to hand over his phone, and how he was lured from the back of the bus to the front, where he met his untimely end. This is something that happens all too often whenever a crime occurs. A hundred people could have been there, but it becomes a case of mass blindness and deafness when the police try to get information on what happened. This is cowardice, to be sure. But it’s also fear. Because many eyewitnesses have ended up dead, and nobody wants to be the next victim. So what are we going to do, just turn around and blame ‘the system’ if/when nothing comes of this case?
Have the criminals won? Have they successfully intimidated a whole nation of law-abiding citizens into silence? Are we, the law-abiding citizens, just going to sit back and accept that? I certainly hope not. And while I’m hoping, I hope even one person who was on that bus will speak to the police, and that he or she will have enough information to get that murderer arrested and charged and rotting in jail. Because he didn’t just steal a watch (he never managed to get the cell phone.) He stole a life, a son, a friend. He stole a future, robbing Jamaica and the world of the man – the doctor, lawyer, teacher, journalist, engineer, entertainer, scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, husband, father, mentor – Nicholas might have been. Are we really going to allow him to get away?