Responding to Apparent Abuse in A Public Place

This afternoon as I was walking in The Glebe with my housemate we witnessed what was, apparently, a young man being verbally and physically abusive towards a young female. My estimate at initial look was late teens or early twenties. Both of us stopped and observed what was going on. Being familiar with the stats of how often people respond me instinct was to respond and intervene. At the same time I was aware that as a trans woman I would also be placing myself in a vulnerable position. Further, my housemate has a disability and walks with a crutch, also a vulnerable position. There were two other people present, one of whom seemed to be about to intervene and one was about to call 911.

While observing the two young people were moving away and were half way down the block, but it seemed that the abusive behaviour was escalating. I was not able to run after them, slippery sidewalks and a knee that has arthritis in it does not make for safe running on ice. My response was one of decisive action using one tool at my disposal that tends to work well, my voice. I projected at full volume and dropped my register a bit saying, “Hey you, stop right now!” At that point the male did stop his abusive behaviour and turned towards me. At first I wondered if he was going to come after me. What transpired was not quite what I expected.

Both people approached us and the two other people who were starting to respond. They informed us that they were conducting a social experiment for an anthropology class at the local high school. They asked why I responded. My initial response was that given my experience and knowledge of intimate partner violence and violence against women I just don’t put up with it. My adrenaline levels were up, and I had not really processed the event at that time. Both the young man and the young woman stated that my response was quite effective. He told me that his knees were shaking in response. There was also a classmate who came over while we were talking about why we responded, but I do not know if this student’s role was as an observer to what was transpiring.

When I reflect further on my response I realize that personal safety was an important part of my decision to intervene. I ask myself if others hadn’t been around me if I would have intervened, and I don’t have a decisive answer to the question. I like to think that I would have, but I also know that there would be a very real physical risk to myself, particularly if an aggressive person realizes I am trans and attacks me for not only responding, but also because I’m trans. Further, if police were to get involved there is apprehension as to how they might respond.

An important factor in my thought process was also the knowledge that the more bystanders are around and witnessing something there is a decreased chance that anyone would get involved. Being focused on what was going on I wasn’t really observing any of the other people in the immediate vicinity, but there was little response. One question that I would have for the students is whether or not their fellow student was observing what was going on and recording their observations. I did not think to ask in the moment.

With regard to this as a school project I see a number of problems with it. I don’t know if the students were carrying a letter from the school. I also wonder how good the information they are getting from people with regard to why they intervened is given that there is little time to reflect on not only the responses in the moment, but the underlying schema and attitudes that lead to one’s reactions in any given situation. Further, I don’t know whether or not the class had discussed the various reasons why people may or may not respond prior to them going out to conduct the experiment. Yet another concern is for the physical safety of the students. What would happen if someone would just respond with physical force rather than intervening verbally to the situation. I worry that the student would be beaten up rather than the person listening to what the student was doing.

I plan to speak to the school in the new year to find out more about this project and provide some feedback based on what I find out in terms of how students were prepared for this exercise. It may also be a good opportunity to have a discussion with the class about intimate partner violence generally and talk about what it can look like in various types of relationships.

2 Replies to “Responding to Apparent Abuse in A Public Place”

  1. Good for you for speaking up, but I agree with you that conducting such an experiment has the potential to be very dangerous. I think it is very brave of you to say something without knowing if you would be endangering yourself.

  2. I’m glad U responded, with ur voice, Talia. U did the right thing. I’ve had occasion to respond to this type of situation more than once.

    In those cases, just taking the 1st step led others to follow silently.
    Altho not planned, this had a positive twofold result: I was no longer confronting the situation alone, + the perpetrator was now faced with dealing with the verbal opposition of more than one person. Their behaviour stopped.

    I agree that a quick, intuitive response happens. We don’t put much thought into personal consequences – + for survival, that is how it should be. We are responding to a human being in distress who needs help.

    That’s why ur post is important. It reminds each of us to think about this type of situation when not in it, + to assess any personal limitations that could prevent us from being able to deal with it – preferably without negative personal consequences.

    Both of the situations I remember turned out well + resulted in no responsive violence.

    As U can see, ur mere presence among others could likely be enuf to help diffuse the situation.

    I believe, regardless of potential consequences to ourselves we are all responsible for responding to the best of our individual abilities.

    The episode that haunts me after 40 years, is the one I did not respond to (because to respond would have made me late for work. I could have lost my position. But to this day, I berate myself for not stopping to do something for a human being in trouble.)

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