Editor’s Note: This piece contains a description of domestic violence, which could be triggering to some.
In a densely populated walking city like New York, life happens outdoors. People use their stoops, sidewalks and local parks as their living rooms ― especially in the summer ― which can contribute to an amazing sense of connectedness and community.
It can also make walking home from the subway at night feel like that opening villager scene in “Beauty and the Beast,” except instead of everybody yelling “Bonjour!” they’re sexually harassing you.
So many people eating, drinking and generally living on top of one another also means that sometimes you 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 sort of a rage blackout that surprised me, since I’m the kind of person who just eats what I get when the waiter gets my order wrong.
The first time, I was a college student and I followed a couple for a few blocks while the guy shoved and threatened his girlfriend. I felt 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 caring for my 9-year-old son and two of his friends by myself. The playground was sparsely populated for a Friday afternoon ― there were just a couple of other solo moms with their very small kids running through the sprinkler and climbing on the jungle gym.
For the better part of an hour, a couple was sitting on a bench in a remote corner of the playground having an argument. As things got more heated, the kids came over to tell me people were yelling at each other, and some of the moms started to exchange eye contact.
“Do you come to this playground a lot? Have you ever seen them here 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 kid and his friends, who are also Black, and sincerely hoped she did not.
I sent the kids over to the basketball court, where they were in sight but away from the situation, and kept one eye on the fight, which continued to escalate until the couple was standing and moving around the playground as they yelled.
Suddenly, the guy reached out and gave the woman a hard shove. I instinctually rose to my feet, then realized I had no idea what to do. There was no one else around but the two other mothers, each juggling kids much younger than mine. I stood there frozen for a minute.
“HEY! Are you OK?” I finally settled on yelling.
“Me? Oh yeah, I’m fine,” the woman responded, as if I’d just seen something nonchalant, like her tripping on a subway stair.
They sat back down, and for a minute, things seemed to have been defused, but a few seconds, later they were back up — and the man escalated to punching the woman repeatedly in the torso. This time, I charged the distance 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 broad daylight without a care in the world.
I had tunnel vision. The world narrowed down to me, this man and woman, and the distance between us. I was acting on complete adrenaline and some kind of primal instincts kicked in like I was an antelope visually tracking a lion.
“Listen, you gotta take your hands off her,” I tried. “I really don’t want to call the cops, but you’ve gotta take your hands off her.”
In response, he grabbed a bucket of water some child had left in the splash pad, dumped the entire thing on her, and then pushed the empty bucket onto her head. As I continued to plead with him, he pushed her against a chain-link fence and ripped her entire shirt off until she was standing there in her bra with one strap torn loose.
She turned and looked me in the eye and spoke: “Call the cops.”
“I had tunnel vision. The world narrowed down to me, this man and woman, and the distance between us. I was acting on complete adrenaline.”
I dialed 911, running to the playground entrance to read its name off the plaque. I’d been coming to this playground for my son’s entire life and had never known what it was actually called ― all the kids and parents referred to it as “froggy park” for what remain mysterious reasons.
The couple followed me, and as I explained the situation to the dispatcher, the man turned his attention my way, 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 he took forward, my arm extended in the universal sign for “back the fuck up off me.” We stayed 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. After a few minutes, a set of police officers approached from behind me and the guy bolted.
Since I’d just dialed 911 minutes ago, I assumed these officers were responding to the call from the other mother who had spoken to me before, and I felt slightly bad for initially thinking she was a bit of a Karen. Whether I thought her call to the police was warranted at that point or not, I had to admit they’d shown up at just the right time.
I fished an unopened bottle of water from my bag for the woman who had been attacked and texted an explanation of what had happened to the mother of my kid’s friends, also asking her to bring the woman a new T-shirt since her old one was in shreds.
The kids had wandered back over from the basketball court and witnessed the tail end of the confrontation and were now staring at me wide-eyed, so I took them over to a bench and talked to them about what had happened, while the police were questioning the young woman.
Everybody was a little shaken up, and while I was especially concerned about potentially traumatizing somebody else’s kids, they were back to playing a few minutes later, and I ultimately felt I had done the right thing ― or at least that somebody had had to do something.
In the days that followed, however, I became less and less sure. I had trouble sleeping, laying awake at night and playing out scenarios in which the police hadn’t shown up at just the right moment or the guy had a weapon.
I told a friend, a lawyer for the NYPD, the story and he chastised me, telling me it was incredibly dangerous to “interrupt a domestic.” A mom friend remembered a similar story from when she’d been in San Francisco. She said the intervening woman had been filming the guy, right up until he walked over and stabbed her in the head.
“Maybe that wasn’t the best story to tell you...” she tapered off.
It started to sink in just how dangerous my actions had been and how seriously I had jeopardized my safety. I started to mentally play out scenarios where I’d been killed that day, imagining the aftermath. Pros: I’d probably make the New York Post, maybe even with a nice headline. Cons: Three children traumatized for life. Also, you know: being dead.
A friend gave me some pepper spray in case I ran into the guy again in the neighborhood, and that made me feel a little better. But I also wondered: Had I made things worse? I hadn’t wanted to get the police involved and the police had gotten involved. The man’s actions had possibly gotten even more violent and degrading after I intervened.
I wanted to know what I should have done in that situation. 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 must be methods for deescalating potentially violent situations and ways to prioritize my own safety.
“I hadn’t wanted to get the police involved and the police had gotten involved. The man’s actions had possibly gotten even more violent and degrading after I intervened.”
A Google search led me to Hollaback!, an organization that aims to eliminate harassment in all forms partly 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 trainings in bystander intervention, one focused on street harassment and one focused on anti-Asian-American and xenophobic harassment.
The methodologies taught in these trainings are not specifically intended for situations that have already turned violent. What I had attempted to do (without realizing it or having any idea how to do it), was conflict deescalation, which Hollaback! also offers trainings in.
Conflict deescalation is based on trying to connect and empathize with the violent or potentially violent individual to “deescalate” their feelings. Before attempting to deescalate conflict, you’re supposed to observe the situation and ask yourself if you’re the right person to step in, based on factors including whether your identities put you at increased risk.
For instance, as a woman, stepping into a conflict with a guy who likes to beat up women maybe wasn’t the greatest idea. (And it certainly would have been a great time to have a dad on the playground.)
But even if you decide that it’s not safe for you to intervene directly, one of the D’s in Hollaback’s “5 D’s” for intervention, there are still 4 other ways to do something without getting directly involved. Again, these strategies are intended for witnessing harassment, but most of them are still relevant here.
One option is to delegate ― essentially, ask somebody else for help. This especially applies to authority figures or people in charge of the area like 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.” Multiple bystanders create an environment of safety, according to the training.
According to Hollaback!, since members of many communities don’t feel safer when the police are around, you should check in with the person who is being harassed and ask what they would like you to do before calling the police.
Another option is to distract ― literally, make a loud noise or spill something or approach the target and start a conversation by asking for directions or pretending to know them. With this strategy, you’re supposed to focus on the target and let the harasser fade into the background.
You can also document ― once the person is getting help in some way, this is filming the situation discreetly/from a distance. If possible, film street signs or other landmarks to identify the location and say the date and time. Hollaback! emphasizes that you should only send the footage to the person being harassed and let them decide what they want to do with it.
And finally, you can delay. This is where 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 them and they’re not alone.
If you do decide to intervene directly in a harassment situation, Hollaback! emphasizes quickly setting a boundary with the harasser, such as “Hey, you need to stop what you’re doing,” then turning your focus to the person being harassed to get them to safety and avoid escalating the situation.
“Next time, I’ll pause to think more critically about my ability to intervene safely and the very real possibility that I could make the situation worse.”
In my situation, my focus 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 utilize 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 the playground that day.
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 spoke about her situation a bit after she was safe, and I think about her and hope she was able to disentangle herself from it. My son and his friends are fine now, and maybe I even showed them that we need to stand up for people who need help when we see them. (“Everyone on the playground was saying you’re a hero!” my son told me shortly after the incident. Nevermind that “everyone on the playground” was median 7 years of age.)
But next time, I’ll pause to think more critically about my ability to intervene safely and the very real possibility that I could make the situation worse before I go charging in. I’ll probably always be the kind of person who feels compelled to do something. But as I learned in my trainings, doing something doesn’t have to mean doing everything. It can be as simple as being the first person to turn to the person next to you and say, “Hey, do you see that?”
Ultimately, we’re all safer when we work together to keep each other safe and help create a better world.
You can sign up for bystander intervention training with Hollaback! here.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.