Editor's note: This article contains a description of domestic violence
that may be upsetting to some readers.
use their stoops, sidewalks, and local parks as their living rooms in a densely populated walking city like New York, which can contribute to an incredible sense of connectedness and community.
It can also make walking home
from the subway at night feel like the opening villager scene in "Beauty and the Beast," only instead of everyone yelling "Bonjour!" they're sexually harassing you.
Because there are so many people eating, drinking, and generally living on top of one another, you occasionally witness
some pretty intense interpersonal conflict and even violence, whether it's a fight breaking out on the subway or a man putting his hands on a woman during an argument. I've seen the latter twice in my 20 years in New York City
, and both times, I went into a sort of rage blackout that sucker punched me.
I was a college
student the first time, and I followed a couple for a few blocks while the guy shoved and threatened his girlfriend, feeling compelled to "keep an eye" on the situation, but as a 20-year-old, I had no idea how to help and was relieved when the guy finally stormed away.
The second time was a few weeks ago, in the middle of the day, at a small playground in my Brooklyn
neighborhood where I was alone caring for my 9-year-old son and two of his friends
. The playground was sparsely populated for a Friday afternoon, with only a couple of other solo moms with their very small children
running through the sprinkler and climbing on the jungle gym
For the better part of an hour, a couple was arguing on a bench in a remote corner of the playground; as things heated up, the kids came over to tell me that people were yelling at each other, and some of the moms began to exchange eye contact.
“Do you frequent this playground? Have you ever seen them before?” a mom asked as she approached me with her phone in hand. “I'm thinking about calling someone.”
I looked at the couple, who were very young and Black, and then at my child and his friends, who are also Black, and hoped she didn't.
I sent the kids to the basketball
court, where they would be out of sight but not in the way of the fight, while keeping one eye on the fight, which raged on until the couple was standing and moving
around the playground yelling.
Suddenly, the man reached out and shoved the woman, and I instinctively rose to my feet, only to realize I had no idea what to do. There were no other people around except the two other mothers, both of whom were juggling children much younger than mine, and I stood there frozen for a minute.
“HEY! Are you all right?” I finally decided to yell.
“Me? Oh yeah, I'm fine
,” the woman replied, as if I'd just witnessed something innocuous, like her tripping on a subway stairwell.
They sat back down, and for a moment, it appeared that things had calmed down, but a few seconds later, they were back up — and the man escalated to punching the woman in the torso repeatedly. This time, I charged across the playground without thinking, stopping about 10 feet away from them and yelling at him to get away from her. Ignoring me completely, he continued to beat this woman in the torso.
I had tunnel vision; the world had shrunk down to me, this man and woman, and the distance between us; I was high on adrenaline, and some primal instincts kicked in, as if I were an antelope visually tracking a lion
“Listen, you have to take your hands off her,” I tried, “I really don't want to call the cops, but you have to take your hands off her.”
As I continued to beg him, he pushed her against a chain-link fence and ripped her entire shirt
off, leaving her standing in her bra with one strap torn loose.
“Call the cops,” she said as she turned to face me.
I had tunnel vision, and the world had shrunk down to just me, this man and woman, and the space
between us, and I was acting on pure adrenaline.
I dialed 911 as I dashed to the playground entrance to read the name off the plaque; I'd been going to this playground for my son's entire life and had never known what it was called; all the kids and parents referred to it as "froggy park" for reasons that remain unknown.
As I explained the situation to the dispatcher, the man turned his attention to me, advancing toward me on the sidewalk and yelling "What are you calling the cops for?" over and over as specks of his spit flew at my face.
“He’s coming at me now,” I told the dispatcher, taking two steps back for every step forward, my arm extended in the universal sign
for “back the fuck up off me.” We remained locked in this awkward samba for a few minutes, with me yelling “You need to get away from me!” every time he took another step forward.
I assumed these officers were responding to the call from the other mother who had spoken to me earlier, and I felt slightly bad for initially thinking she was a bit of a Karen
. Whether or not I thought her call to the police
was warranted at that point, I had to admit they'd arrived at just the right time.
I took an unopened bottle
from my bag for the woman who had been assaulted and texted an explanation of what had happened to the mother of one of my children's friends, asking her to bring the woman a new T-shirt because her old one was ripped to shreds.
The kids had wandered back over from the basketball court and witnessed the tail end of the confrontation, and they were now staring at me wide-eyed, so I took them over to a bench and told them what had happened while the police were questioning the young woman.
Everyone was a little shaken up, and while I was especially concerned about potentially traumatizing someone else's children, they were back to playing a few minutes later, and I eventually felt I had done the right thing, or that someone had to do something.
However, in the days that followed, I became increasingly unsure; I had trouble sleeping, laying awake at night and imagining scenarios in which the cops did not arrive at the right time or the suspect had a weapon.
I told a friend, a NYPD
lawyer, about the story, and he chastised me, saying it was extremely dangerous to “interrupt a domestic.” A mom friend remembered a similar story from when she was in San Francisco
, in which the intervening woman had been filming the guy right up until he walked over and stabbed her in the head.
“Perhaps that wasn't the best story to tell you...” she ended.
It began to dawn on me how dangerous my actions had been and how seriously I had jeopardized my safety, and I began to mentally play out scenarios in which I was killed that day, imagining the aftermath. Pros: I'd probably make the New York Post, possibly even with a nice headline. Cons: Three children traumatized for life. Also, you know: being dead.
A friend gave me pepper spray in case I ran into the guy again in the neighborhood, which made me feel a little better, but I also wondered: Had I made things worse? I hadn't wanted to get the cops involved, and the cops had gotten involved, so the man's actions could have become even more violent and degrading after I intervened.
I wanted to know what I should have done in that situation because I couldn't imagine watching a man assault a woman in the middle of the day in front of everyone and doing nothing, but I knew there had to be ways to deescalate potentially violent situations and prioritize my own safety.
I didn't want to involve the cops, and the man's actions may have become even more violent and degrading as a result of my intervention.
A Google search led me to Hollaback!, an organization that aims to eliminate harassment in all forms, in part by training people to intervene in situations where someone is being harassed because of their gender, sexual orientation or gender identity
, race, or other marginalized identity. I signed up for two virtual bystander intervention
trainings, one focused on street harassment and the other on sexual harassment
The methodologies taught in these trainings are not specifically intended for situations that have already turned violent; instead, what I had attempted to do (without realizing it or knowing how to do it) was conflict deescalation, which Hollaback! also offers trainings in.
Conflict deescalation is based on attempting to connect with and empathize with the violent or potentially violent individual in order to "deescalate" their feelings. Before attempting to deescalate conflict, you should observe the situation and ask yourself if you're the right person to step in, based on factors such as whether your identities put you at increased risk.
For example, as a woman, getting into a fight with a guy who likes to beat up women
might not have been the best idea. (It would have been much better to have a dad on the playground at the time.)
Even if you decide that it is not safe for you to intervene directly, which is one of Hollaback's "5 D's" for intervention, there are four other things you can do without getting directly involved. These strategies are intended for witnessing harassment, but the majority of them are still applicable here.
One option is to delegate, which means asking someone else for help. This is especially true for authority figures or people in charge of the area, such as a security
guard, flight attendant
, teacher, or store manager. You can also delegate to another bystander, saying something like, "Hey, do you see that? Can you say something? I can't today
, my kids are with me."
According to Hollaback!, because members of many communities do not feel safer when the police are present, before calling the police, you should check in with the person being harassed and ask what they would like you to do.
Another option is to distract the harasser by making a loud noise or spilling something, or approaching the target and starting a conversation by asking for directions or pretending to know them; with this strategy, you're supposed to focus on the target while fading the harasser into the background.
You can also document the situation by filming it discreetly/from a distance, identifying the location with street signs or other landmarks, and stating the date and time. Hollaback! emphasizes that you should only send the footage to the person being harassed and let them decide what to do with it.
Finally, you can delay. This is when you approach the target after the fact and check in with them, letting them know that you saw what happened and it wasn't OK. You can ask them questions like "Are you OK?" "Do you want me to sit with you?" "What do you need?" According to Hollaback!, research
shows that even a knowing glance can reduce trauma from harassment, letting them know that you see what they are going through.
If you decide to intervene directly in a harassment situation, Hollaback! recommends quickly setting a boundary with the harasser, such as "Hey, you need to stop what you're doing," and then shifting your focus to the person being harassed to get them to safety and avoid escalating the situation.
Next time, I'll pause to consider my ability to intervene safely, as well as the very real possibility that I'll aggravate the situation.
My focus in my situation was largely on the attacker, which I now realize led to a back-and-forth and potentially escalated the violence; if I was going to focus on him, I would have wanted to use the conflict deescalation skills Hollaback! teaches, which, they emphasize, require a calm and relaxed approach, not the adrenaline-fueled rage blackout that sent me careening into the conflict on t.
I couldn't know what I didn't know, and I'm not going to beat myself up for sincerely trying to help. The woman and I talked about her situation briefly after she was safe, and I think about her and hope she was able to untangle herself from it. My son and his friends are fine now, and maybe I showed them that we need to stand up for people who need help when we see them.
But the next time, I'll pause to consider my ability to intervene safely and the very real possibility that I'll make the situation worse before charging in. I'll probably always be the type of person who feels compelled to do something, but doing something doesn't have to mean doing everything.
In the end, we are all safer when we work
together to keep each other safe and to make the world a better place.
Register for Hollaback!'s bystander intervention training here.
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If you need assistance, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).