Being a witness to violence

This is the third in a series of guests posts by Dena Simmons, activist, educator, and writer. Dena would like readers to be warned that this post contains graphic descriptions of violence and could be triggering.

I was walking east on Fordham Road in the Bronx after having just gone to the post office on Jerome Avenue to buy some stamps.  The streets were packed with window shoppers, stopping to marvel at some piece of merchandise, and teenagers handing out flyers that ended up on the floor anyway. The stores sported shiny windows filled with the latest fashions on sale. I marveled at how much more developed my old neighborhood had gotten with the arrival of the Monroe College Campus.  Of course, it’s all an illusion—the Bronx has been up and coming for as long as I could remember.

Right in front of the Modell’s Sporting Goods Store and across the street from the former Rockbottom’s, I caught part of a conversation: “Man, I told you we are going to fucking wait until we get to Brooklyn.”  I looked in the direction from where the rage came, wondering what the hell the hostility was all about. There, at the passenger side of a rental car stood a heavyset woman with a brown wig.  She had directed those words to a man, maybe her boyfriend, who was bald and overweight.  In response to her words, this man, Big Man, stormed around the car from the driver’s side to where she stood.

I slowed my pace to see what was going to happen.  Big Man stopped in front of her, as she continued to spit insults in his face, her anger overwhelming her speech.  As if in slow motion, I watched Big Man’s stance change.  He put his left foot forward and his right hand back, and then BAM! He punched her right cheek with all his might in public, in front of everyone, like nothing.

At the punch’s impact on her face, she jerked back—her body jiggling.  Having had enough and in the natural fight or flight phenomena, she walked away, throwing ‘fuck’ around, piercing the air with curses.  Her cursing seemed to piss him off even more, and as if he needed to make a point, to regain his pride and manhood, he ran behind her and punched her one more time at the back of her neck as she walked away. Perhaps, beating the shit out of her made him a man.

This time, she almost fell and had to take several awkward steps forward to catch herself.

“Get out the fucking car,” Lady-with-wig yelled to her friend, who had been in the back seat the whole time, confused and speechless.   Big Man shoved angry and hateful words at Lady-with-wig, as she tried to escape his violent outburst in her beat-down condition.  Pissed off and fed up with her nonsense, he walked back around his car, jumped in the driver’s seat, and zoomed away in his rental silver Nissan Altima, leaving Friend and Lady-with-wig dumbfounded on the sidewalk.

Passers-by and on-lookers, also dumbfounded and speechless, stood still like statues; we watched all of this and did nothing.  In my utter disgust at Big Man’s actions and at other’s and my apathy, I was suddenly reminded of a woman I met in the Dominican Republic, who was in hiding from her husband who shot bullets of verbal insults to her daily.  The thought of my Dominican friend made me think of all the women and men in the world, who endure abuse, and sometimes death, at the hands of angry partners.

I lamented at Big Man’s actions and at the fact that Lady-with-wig did not fight back.  I lamented that I, we, did nothing but watched. Even the police officers in their patrol car did nothing.  We took his beating as we watched and did nothing; Lady-with-wig took his beating as though it were something she was used to. I imagined what he did to her behind closed doors, the way he must bruise her body, dent it in, and scar her mind, body, and soul more harshly when no one is looking.

What would you have done in this situation?  How can we empower ourselves to do more than be passive bystanders?

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