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.
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 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