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?

Join the Conversation

  • Chloe H.

    I work in Southern Westchester with men and women who are on parole or probation and are mandated to attend my 10-week anti-violence, anti-sexual violence workshop. The stories they tell along these lines (in grocery stores, at the park, in the movie theater…) are overwhelming.

    Even in whitewashed Rye, I was in Stop ‘N Shop once and the couple in front of me were “making a scene”. This woman’s husband was throwing insult after insult at her, berating her, grabbing her arm, yanking her around, telling her how stupid and useless she was. Aside from making long, painful eye contact with her, I did nothing. I talk all the time about how to be an effective, empowered, empowerING bystander, but I struggled, and failed, in that moment, to challenge years of privilege, social messages, and general weakness.

  • Heidi

    I hesitate to interfere in such situations as they are happening. That is, I’d never physically intervene, and I’d only verbally intervene if it seemed things were so out of control that the woman would be seriously harmed. Physically intervening is just too risky. I don’t have the self-defense skills necessary to make any difference. I’d just end up getting hurt, and further, you can never tell what someone’s reaction is going to be- it could just escalate the violence. People have been murdered for stepping in on such situations, and in one situation I personally witnessed, the abused woman went after the person who was trying to protect her.

    In this particular situation, I’d stay back and try to judge whether the police were needed, and once the man had left, I’d have asked the woman “Are you ok?” or something similarly neutral and non-judgmental. If it seemed she was receptive to my help, I’d offer to call the police and be her witness in court if necessary.

    If I was certain that the police had noticed the altercation and had done nothing, I would definitely let them know I had witnessed their inaction, and I would absolutely follow up by reporting their names to the appropriate authority. Come to think of it, I have no idea who to complain to in such a situation! I assume there some sort of process to go though if you have a complaint about the police. I’ve never been in a situation like that, so have never had to find out.

  • Tiffany

    Witnessing violence is never easy. We would all love to think that we would jump in and save the day, but that is just not the reality sometimes. One of the more concerning parts of your story is that there were police officers there in their patrol car and they did nothing. I do education with teens and adults on how to be empowered bystanders. People often think when faced with violence that they only have two options: 1. Do Nothing 2. Physically intervene. Your options are essentially endless and my suggestions is to get yourself in place where you ALWAYS choose do something that you are comfortable with and that keeps safe.

    I would have approached the officers and questioned why they sat in their car while a woman got beat and her abuser took off.

  • Katherine

    Feministing, can we have an informative post on the proper protocol to follow if you ARE witnessing violence or a “scene?”
    I am VERY much the type of person who jumps in defense of others, it’s how I was raised and I have a strong conviction to do so. Almost once a year I’ve intervened on behalf of a woman during a “scene” , and I’d love to have guidance on what to say or do when getting involved. Bystander’s syndrome infuriates me and it would haunt my conscience if I let the abuse continue when I could give the woman a break from being yelled at.
    Luckily, I’ve never witnessed physical violence, but the man’s verbal anger is always redirected at me (and it’s always a man) once I tell him I’ve called the police/security because of his behavior. I know the dangers of intervening, and it’s not like I throw my body down, but I always speak up. I simply can’t let that abuse go on without confrontation (especially with how long it takes authorities to respond sometimes.) My responsibility can’t be as simple as calling the police and being done with it. What else do I need to know? What else can I do?

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    On few occasions where I or a male friend have attempted to intervene in physical conflict, the women have been upset. One told us to mind our business, once a woman seemed almost ashamed and angry that people had come to her aid, that she’d been perceived as The Girl With The Abusive Boyfriend. Which I can understand, since abuse can be a gradual thing and also a confusing thing with “gaslighting”, “hearts-and-flowers” phases, etc.

    I guess now, with cell phones and all, my first response would be to call 911 and report an assault. And also report the cops on the scene who were sitting there not doing their job.

  • Phaedre

    “…heavyset woman with a brown wig…. At the punch’s impact on her face, she jerked back—her body jiggling. ”

    Jiggling? Is that seriously necessary? It was important to note that because she’s fat, her body “jiggled” when she was punched in the face? Really?

    • Emolee

      I, too, wondered why it was necessary to describe her as “heavyset” and him as “overweight.” I kept waiting for those observations to become relevant.

      With the problematic connections society makes between weight and class and weight and acceptable behavior, I think choosing to include these descriptors when many others were left out (their ages, races, heights, etc.) is odd at best and harmful at worst.

      On another note, I’m appalled that the police did nothing. But not really suprised, when I think about it.

      • unequivocal

        The descriptions seemed to me to be just that: descriptions.

        Given that there isn’t any sort of common stereotype that overweight people (or, for that matter, bald people or people wearing wigs) are particularly prone either to violence or to being victims of violence, I don’t see the inclusion of this description as being problematic in the way that dwelling on the race of the subjects might be.

        The stores had shiny windows, the man was bald and overweight, the woman wore a brown wig and was overweight, the Nissan Altima was silver, the bystanders were still as statues.

        • Emolee

          But “overweight” is not just a description. It is a judgment (i.e., over *what* weight? An acceptable weight).

          I also think it says something that these details were included amongst a myriad of physical details to choose from. I don’t think that the poster did anything “wrong” by including these details; I simply think that she may want to examine what motivated her to include them.

          As for stereotypes? There are pervasive stereotypes that fat people are not good citizens and engage in bad behavior. Pretty much anytime someone fat is portrayed in the media, s/he is shown doing something “bad.”

          • unequivocal

            I understand what you mean about overweight being a judgment and not just a description, but that is a fairly nuanced understanding that probably isn’t readily apparent to most people.

            I will note that, for me personally, the description of the people served as filler; neither important, nor offensive. It painted a brief mental picture for me to associate with the scene. However, when this conversation started, I had to go back and review the article to verify that, yes, the author did specifically describe their weight. Hence my assumption that this detail isn’t particularly important in either direction.

        • Phaedre

          You see *nothing* wrong with talking about her fat “jiggling” when she was punched? That isn’t just description – it’s humiliation. The focus should be on the violence, not whether her fat jiggled when she was hit. I think the author should be ashamed.

          • unequivocal

            If I’m understanding correctly, the problem with the author’s description is that the weight of the participants is irrelevant to the subject at hand, therefore should not have been mentioned. Is that accurate?

            I don’t see anything inherently humiliating about “jiggling,” unless fat is, in and of itself, humiliating (and it’s not). At worst, the description is irrelevant (but so are most of the other adjectives and descriptions used in the article).

  • Phaedre

    @unequivocal: I’d love to live in your happy world where fat isn’t a focus of causing humiliation – just because it *shouldn’t be* doesn’t mean it’s not in a culture of intense fat shaming. There was NO reason to describe her body as “jiggling” when hit – why didn’t the author describe the ACTUAL impact of the violence – her face changing colour, swelling, etc? Why focus on “jiggling”? I’m really pretty pissed off about this – and I’m not going to come back because honestly right now I feel like biting your head off and that isn’t an appropriate response. I’m angry at the author and I’m angrier still she hasn’t bothered to respond.

    • Emolee

      The jiggling thing didn’t bother me on its own. I jiggle. For example, when I exercise, have sex, etc. I don’t find it humiliating. But you make a good point that the author put this detail in while leaving out arguably more important descriptions. What concerned me was the focus on weight- both people’s weights were mentioned (in very sparse descriptions) and THEN the jiggling comment. The combination of these three things made weight seem central when it really wasn’t relevant, and makes me feel that weight is not a neutral to this author, that there is some issue/bias there. I agree, I wish she would respond. And I hear you about the fat-shaming culture.

      • Dena Simmons

        Emolee, Phaedre: thanks for starting such an exciting dialogue. I have been consumed, saddened, burdened by hospital visits and overnight ER stays so I clearly could not respond until now and am still not as focused/centered as I would like to be. At any rate, writing these posts are learning experiences for us all. Thanks for this and for making my aware of how descriptions can be problematic and hurtful. That, of course, was not my intention but am thankful for the critique and will be more mindful as I move forward.

  • Kim Knapp

    I was in a restaurant in Capitol Hill in Seattle, and saw a man beating another man right outside the (open) windows. Others saw, looked away, pretended to not notice… it happened very fast. I stood up and yelled “Hey!” Once I had spoken, it was as if it was acceptable for others to notice and act… two men ran out the door and moved toward the victim, while the assailant ran away. The victim was given water, a cloth, a place to sit, and someone called 911.

    It was the first time I’d said anything like that, and the first time I’d seen such a thing.

    The other time was in the same community, a young couple was walking across the street from the bus stop where I waited. Words were exchanged, and the woman pulled back her fist and threatened the man, who cowered against the wall. They then walked on. From where I was, I could do nothing and wouldn’t have been heard… but others at the bus stop and I discussed it until our bus came, being surprised that (1) it was so public and (2) the woman was the aggressor. I like to believe that had I been close enough, I would have spoken out in defense of the person being bullied.