officers greeted the young man cheerfully and said, “Well man, just don’t come up around her anymore or we’re going to have to lock you up, understand?” The young man nodded. Wiped his brow and walked away from the corner. The young woman concluded her brief interview with the woman officer and one of the male officers came over to speak to the shopkeeper.
One of the male officers complained loudly to the shopkeeper and I: “See that’s the problem. She’s going to be calling him up before we know it and he’s going to be back up her with her.” The words I was going to share about the scene fell from my mouth as I was caught off guard. In the span of 45 minutes, we’d watched a young man be verbally abusive, threaten physical violence, and get some “marching orders” between smiles from the two male officers that interviewed him. I wanted to ask the officer, “Why is she the problem, but he isn't?” I wanted to ask, “Aren’t you trained on how the cycle of domestic violence works?” I wanted to ask, “Why didn’t you talk to him about options for dealing with his violence towards women?” Instead, I turned my back and walked away.
Of the literally 100+ people who passed the pair, only a few decided to not turn away from the conflict. If just 15 people had turned and looked, the situation would have likely de-escalated. Instead, it went on until the police had to stop the scene. What the shopkeeper and I took part in is what is called bystander intervention. We found a way to be present and intervene that did not compromise our safety and let other know what we were witnessing was a problem. Admittedly, this will not end the cycle of violence; once the couple is behind closed doors, new challenges will likely emerge. However, imagine if we had communities where acknowledging problems collectively created more safe spaces? Instead, we often act as if it is “none of our business.”
The solution doesn't just lie in “standing watch,” but also in training our officers and community members to deal with issues of intimate partner violence and cycles of abuse. Incarceration does not stop violence nor does telling someone, “don’t come around here again.” We have to develop systematic responses that provide tools for people to find help for themselves. As the officers talked to the young man, he was calm, respectful, repeated several times he was in college and listened intently. Imagine if they referred him to Connect NYC or other resources for ending violence in our community? Imagine if she was a part of Girl/Friends and understood gender violence as violence and how to help stop the cycle. Imagine if the young man was challenged on his definition of being a man and why he thought hitting women demonstrated his manhood? Instead, the situation was diffused but no seeds were planted.
Violence, in all forms, is difficult to deal with, but our greatest tool in the face of violence is action. If community members can muster enough courage to not turn our backs, we can be standing there to provide help when our brothers and sisters need it. There are no perfect or easy answers, but that does not mean we should not try or should think of ending violence as hopeless. We cannot ever turn away.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his offical website