Thursday, August 28, 2008

When Should We Get Involved?

A reader sent in this story of a woman who intervened when she saw a girl getting physically abused, and I thought it brought up a lot of interesting questions about when to get involved.

I was waiting for my bus up to Ye Olde Transit Centre early this morning, and I noticed a young couple scuffling outside the Youth Employment Centre near my bus stop. They were older teenagers - the boy was 17 or 18, and the girl looked to be about 16. She was crying and yelling something at the boy, and suddenly they started pushing and shoving.

She took a swing and he grabbed her hand (he was easily 6' and she must have been 5'2 and about 100lbs) and he threw her up against the building and grabbed her throat. I was alone at the stop and reacted instinctively: I pushed my way between them and told the boy to back off. Predictably he started screaming at me to "stay out of his business" but I ignored him and worked on leading the girl away. She kept sobbing in apology, and flinched when the boy tried to grab her hand. The boy kept yelling at me to "stay out of it" and I told him that he if was going to assault his girlfriend on a public street than it damn well was my business, and that if he didn't back off and move away I was going to call the police.

...He muttered, "Fucking feminist bitch!" and moved away up the street.

Telling that he called her a feminist as a pejorative, but I digress. I've often seen things in public spaces that I found upsetting and/or well, criminal, and I've spoken up when I've felt safe. But how can we gauge safety, or if other women want us to get involved?

I'm reminded of two stories...

A women's studies professor I had as an undergrad told my class about how her sister was in an abusive relationship - his battering her was so loud that the neighbors called often the police. However, the police generally made things worse: Not just because they didn't arrest her boyfriend and treated her as if she was the criminal - not believing her, asking if she had attacked him - but also because once they left, she was beaten even worse. My prof went on to say that from then on whenever she saw or heard a woman being abused, she asked if the woman would like her to call the police - assuming that she knew what was best for her own situation.

Another one (apologies, can't find a link to the original article anywhere) was from a couple of years ago when a woman was grabbed on a crowded subway platform by a strange man who was attempting to drag her away. As she fought him, he pretended that they were having a "lover's quarrel" - saying things like, "Oh honey, I'm sorry, come on now!" - so that the surrounding crowd wouldn't help her. The victim ended up grabbing another woman passing by and saying to her, "I don't know this man." The woman beat him off of her and held him until police came. (It was a good story!) But I remember asking myself why people wouldn't stop to intervene even if they did think it was a fight between a couple.

When do we help? How can we assess a situation and react accordingly?


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