I Intervened When I Saw A Guy Abusing A Woman. Then I Learned How Wrong I Was.
Editor's note: This piece contains a description of domestic violence that could be a trigger for some.
In a densely populated city like New York, life takes place outdoors. People use their stairs, sidewalks, and local parks as their living room - especially in summer - which can add to an amazing sense of connectedness and community.
It can also make the nightly walk home from the subway feel like the villagers' opening scene in Beauty and the Beast, except for everyone to scream, "Bonjour!" they sexually harass you.
So many people who eat, drink, and generally live together also means that you will experience fairly intense interpersonal conflicts and even violence at times, be it a quarrel on the subway or a man holding hands on a woman during an argument lays. I've seen the latter twice in my 20 years in New York City and both times I got into a kind of outburst of anger that surprised me as I'm the type of person who only eats what I get when the waiter gets mine Order is wrong.
The first time I was in college, I followed a couple for a few blocks while the guy pushed and threatened his girlfriend. I felt compelled to "keep an eye on" the situation. But as a 20-year-old I didn't know how to help and was relieved when the guy finally stormed off.
The second time was a few weeks ago, in the middle of the day, at a small playground in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where I looked after my 9-year-old son and two of his friends alone. The playground was sparsely populated for a Friday afternoon - just a few other solo mothers with their very young children ran through the sprinkler and climbed the jungle gym.
For almost an hour a couple sat on a bench in a remote corner of the playground arguing. As it got hotter, the kids came up to me to tell me that people were yelling at each other and some of the mothers started switching eyes.
“Do you come to this playground often? Have you seen her here before? ”Asked a mother as she approached me with her cell phone in hand. "I'm thinking of calling someone."
I looked at the couple who were very young and Black, and then my kid and friends who are also Black, and sincerely hoped she didn't.
I sent the kids to the basketball court where they were in sight, but unable, and kept an eye on the fight which continued to escalate until the couple stood up and moved around the playground, screaming.
Suddenly the guy reached out and gave the woman a hard push. I instinctively got up and then realized that I had no idea what to do. There was no one there but the other two mothers, each juggling children who were much younger than mine. I stood there frozen for a minute.
"Hello are you okay?" I finally decided to scream.
"Me? Oh yes, I'm fine," the woman replied, as if I had just seen something casual as she stumbled on a subway stairs.
They sat back down and for a minute everything seemed defused, but a few seconds later they were back up - and the man escalated to punching the woman repeatedly in the upper body. This time I took the route across the playground without thinking, stopped about 10 feet away from them and yelled at him to get away from her. He completely ignored me and continued to beat this woman in broad daylight without worry.
I had tunnel vision. The world was limited to me, this man and this woman, and the distance between us. I acted with full adrenaline and a kind of primal instinct kicked in, as if I were an antelope chasing a lion visually.
"Listen, you have to take your hands off of her," I tried. "I really don't want to call the police, but you have to keep your hands off them."
In response, he grabbed a bucket of water a child had left in the syringe and poured it on her, then pushed the empty bucket on her head. When I continued pleading with him, he pressed her against a chain link fence and ripped her entire shirt off until she was standing in her bra and a strap was torn off.
She turned around, looked me in the eye and said, "Call the police."
I had tunnel vision. The world was limited to me, this man and this woman, and the distance between us. I acted with full adrenaline.
I dialed 911 and ran to the playground entrance to read the name on the board. I had been to this playground my son's whole life and had never known what his name was - all the children and parents called him “Froggy Park” for still mysterious reasons.
The couple followed me, and when I explained the situation to the dispatcher, the man turned his attention to me, came up to me on the sidewalk and yelled, "Why are you calling the police?" Over and over as his spit poured into me Face flew.
"He's coming up to me now," I said to the dispatcher and took two steps back for each step he took, my arm stretched out in the universal symbol for "back the fuck up off me". We stayed locked in this awkward samba for a few minutes while I screamed, "You have to get away from me!" each time he took another step forward. After a few minutes, policemen approached me from behind and the guy ran away.
Since I had recently dialed 911, I assumed these officers were responding to the call from the other mother who had spoken to me earlier, and I felt a little bad because at first I thought she was a bit of a Karen . Whether I thought their call to the police was warranted or not, I had to admit that they showed up at just the right time.
I fished an unopened bottle of water out of my pocket for the woman who had been attacked and texted what happened to the mother of my child's friends and also asked her to bring the woman a new T-shirt for her old was in tatters.
The children had returned from the basketball court and had seen the end of the confrontation and were now staring at me with big eyes, so I took them to a bank and talked to them about what had happened while the police interrogated the young woman.
Everyone was a little upset, and although I was particularly concerned about potentially traumatizing other people's children, they were playing again a few minutes later and I ended up feeling like I did the right thing - or at least someone was doing it had to do something.
In the days that followed, however, I became increasingly insecure. I had trouble sleeping, lay awake at night and played out scenarios where the police didn't show up at the right moment or the guy had a gun.
I told the story to a friend, an attorney for the NYPD, and he reprimanded me, telling me it was incredibly dangerous to "break a house." A mother friend of mine remembered a similar story from San Francisco. She said the intervening woman filmed the guy until he came up to her and stabbed her in the head.
"Maybe that wasn't the best story to tell you ..." She paused.
It was beginning to dawn how dangerous my actions had been and how seriously I had endangered my safety. I started mentally acting out scenarios in which I had been killed that day and imagining the consequences. Pros: I would probably do the New York Post, maybe even with a nice headline. Cons: Three children traumatized for life. You also know: to be dead.
A friend gave me pepper spray in case I ran into the guy in the neighborhood again, and it made me feel a little better. But I also wondered: had I made things worse? I did not want to involve the police and the police intervened. The man's actions may have become even more violent and degrading after I intervened.
I wanted to know what to do in this situation. I couldn't imagine a man attacking a woman in the middle of the day in front of everyone else and doing nothing, but I knew there had to be methods to de-escalate potentially violent situations and prioritize my own safety.
I did not want to involve the police and the police intervened. The man's actions may have become even more violent and degrading after I intervened.
A Google search led me to Hollaback !, an organization dedicated to eliminating harassment of all forms, in part by training people to intervene in situations in which someone, based on their gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity, Racial or other marginalized identity is being harassed. I signed up for two virtual audience intervention training courses, one focused on street harassment and one focused on anti-Asian-American and xenophobic harassment.
The methods taught in these trainings are not specifically intended for situations that have already become violent. What I had tried (without realizing it or having an idea) was de-escalating conflict, the Hollaback! also offers training.
Conflict de-escalation is based on trying to connect with and empathize with the violent or potentially violent person in order to "de-escalate" their feelings. Before attempting to de-escalate a conflict, observe the situation and ask yourself if you are the right person to step in based on factors including whether your identity puts you at increased risk.
For example, as a woman, it might not be the best idea to get into conflict with a man who likes to beat up women. (And it sure would have been a great time to have a dad in the playground.)
But even if you decide that it is not safe for you to intervene directly, one of the Ds in Hollaback's "5 Ds" for Intervention, there are 4 other ways to do something without interfering directly. Again, these strategies are meant for witnessing harassment, but most of them are still relevant here.
One way is to delegate - essentially asking someone else for help. This applies in particular to persons in authority or persons responsible for the area such as security guards, flight attendants, teachers or branch managers. You can also delegate to another viewer and say something like, “Hey, are you seeing this? Can you say something I can't today, my children are with me. ”According to the training, several spectators create an environment of safety.
Since, according to Hollaback! If you don't feel more secure with the police around you should check with the harassed person and ask what to do before calling the police.
Another option is to distract - literally, make a loud noise or spill something, or get closer to the target and start a conversation by asking for directions or pretending you know it. The aim of this strategy is to keep your focus on the target and let the harasser take a back seat.
You can also document - as soon as the person receives help in any way, this films the situation discreetly / remotely. If possible, film street signs or other landmarks to identify the location and provide the date and time. Recall! Emphasizes that you should only send the footage to the harassed person and let them decide what to do with it.
And finally, you can delay. Here you approach the target in hindsight, contact them and let them know that you saw what happened and it was not okay. You can ask them questions like "Are you okay?" "Do you want me to sit with you?" "What do you need?" According to Hollaback! Research shows that even a knowing gaze can reduce harassment trauma by letting them know that you are seeing them and that they are not alone.
If you decide to intervene directly in a harassment situation, Hollaback! Emphasizes that he is quick to put a line on the harasser, such as "Hey, you have to stop what you are doing," and then focus on the person being harassed to keep them safe and to escalate the situation to avoid.
Next time, I'll pause to think more critically about my ability to intervene safely and the very real possibility that I might make the situation worse.
In my situation, my focus was largely on the attacker, which I now know led to a back-and-forth and possibly escalated the violence. If I wanted to focus on him, I would have wanted to use the conflict de-escalation skills, Hollaback! teaches what they point out requires a calm and relaxed approach, not the adrenaline-fueled outburst that plunged me into conflict on the playground that day.
I couldn't know what I didn't know and I won't beat myself up for sincerely trying to help. The woman and I talked briefly about her situation after she was safe and I think of her and hope that she was able to get away from it. My son and friends are fine now, and maybe I've even shown them that we need to stand up for people who need help when we see them. ("Everyone in the playground said you are a hero!" My son told me shortly after the incident. Don't forget that "everyone in the playground" averaged 7 years old.)
But next time around, I'll take a break to think more critically about my ability to intervene safely and the very real possibility that I could make things worse before I get started. I will probably always be the kind of person who feels compelled to do something. But as I've learned in my trainings, doing something doesn't have to mean doing everything. It can be so easy to be the first to reach out to the person next to you and say, "Hey, do you see that?"
Ultimately, we are all safer when we work together to protect one another and create a better world.
You can register with Hollaback for intervention training for spectators! Here.
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Do you need help? In the United States, call the National Domestic Violence Line at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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