As I climbed the subway stairs on an unusually warm and sunny Spring day, I saw the shadows of two people in conversation. I could see from their body language they were in a conflict. One was male and the other, female. As I waited for my shuttle, I could not take my eyes off the way the young man, likely in his early 20s was speaking and gesturing towards the young woman, at best 18 years old. I stopped the music blaring in my headphones to listen.
“I’ll beat the shit out of you, b*tch. You think I won’t. Keep talking slick to me!” My heart sunk and the heat of the day intensified. The young woman stood leaning against the wall as her companion berated her. He then demanded her phone and said he’d call whomever she had been speaking to “speak to them.” She refused. The more he yelled, the less she engaged him. Enraged by her silence he continued on, “Oh, so you think you’re smart? You think you’re a woman now? You ain’t no real woman! You’re immature. You’re a little girl. You spend your money on dumb things like clothes and red bottoms [the popular and expensive Christian Louboutin heels] You ain’t not woman, I’m a man. I take care of myself. I get money. I put a roof over my head. I’m in school.”
As he barked, I then noticed something: I was the only one watching. We were on 145th and Saint Nicholas in Harlem at one of the busiest train stations in New York City and the corner was well populated. But no one, besides me, was paying attention. Droves of weathered urban villagers exited the subway, looked at the couple and turned away quickly to block them from memory. For decades, sociologists have written about the sense of complacency that falls over city dwellers when they live in a world where the poverty and problems feel too big too solve. For some it is a survival tactic. For others, it is the way that we’ve learned to exist within our neighborhoods without actually being neighbors.
As I stood watching, two, then four officers walked up the stairwell and passed the pair. Moments before the fourth officer came out, a local shopkeeper heard the young man yelling and joined me in standing lookout. As he saw the police he attempted to flag them down. He waved, he pointed to the couple and mouthed, “can you do something?” The police officer looked back, looked at the pair, and then in a bewildered fashion said, “Huh? I’m gonna stop by and get something to eat later.” The shopkeeper, trying not to create a scene emphatically shook his head to signal he wasn’t talking about food. His shaking was to no avail; the cop bolted into his patrol car and sped off. The shopkeeper looked down at me with a look of exasperation and then returned to watch.
Many of us have been taught to think "safety first," but "safety first" does not mean we have no power.
The young man continued to yell at his companion, even at one point asking her to “walk with him to the park” so he could show her how much of a man he was. And still, no one looked. I am not naïve enough to think the shopkeeper and myself were the only people who noticed something awry. In fact, at one point a man entering the train station tapped the irate young man and said, “Be cool, the cops are right over there.” The young man looked back over his shoulder at a not too distant patrol car and continued to back the young woman into the corner.
Many of us have been taught to think "safety first," but "safety first" does not mean we have no power. About five minutes after the shopkeeper joined me watching the couple, a delivery boy for the shop dropped off his goods and stood watch. As people filed on and off the buses and shuttles that stopped nearby, the young woman noticed us standing. The young man then noticed us standing. As the world was moving, we were not. He barked to her, “What are you looking at?” She spat back, “I’m looking at the men looking at you talking about hitting me and being a man.” He rang back, “I don’t care. Do you think anyone cares about you? I hold you down when you need stuff. I’m making something of myself. When you have problems you call me. I’m THE man.” She quietly stood. We quietly stood.
Moments later, a Black woman emerged from the train station and reached under her shirt to reveal a badge. She asked, “Is there a problem here?” Two other plain-clothes cops came out of the stairwell behind her and asked the young man to step to the side, as the female officer questioned his companion. The plain clothes