The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

It's up to all of us

One day you get off the Tube at a station in a reasonably well-heeled part of London. Greeting you on the platform is a young man threatening a young woman, looming over her, with one arm up against the wall effectively blocking her way. He's yelling, screaming at her to give him his money. Two other young men, obviously unattached to anyone, are just sitting there watching. The young woman is clearly scared, and both she and the man threatening her are holding beer cans.

What do you do, as the person alighting from the train and happening upon this scene? Do you choose to act, do you choose to watch, do you choose to walk away?

The above is a story from my recent travels, my recent past. My partner and I chose to act. We stopped and asked the woman if she was ok. At first I thought maybe she was too drunk to reply, but as things progressed it was obvious she was in fact too scared to really say or do much. The young man, let's call him XY for the sake of avoiding confusion, rounded on us, particularly my partner, Nickname Pending. What ensued was us trying, with words, to get the woman away from XY, whilst staying safe ourselves, particularly in light of threats by XY to push one or tuther of us in front of the next train rushing to the platform, or just to generally beat the crap out of us.

If I'm honest most of the threats were aimed at Nickname Pending, but the thought of my partner being pushed in front of a train terrified and paralysed me. I was torn between leaving my partner in this dangerous situation to get help or staying with him, and I chose the later. At least that way it was more like one and a half standing against XY, not just Nickname Pending alone.*

What amazed me was how many people went past and did nothing, ignored it, didn't even press the panic button at the far end of the platform to summon help. One particular man looked as if he was going to intervene, but, despite pleas from both Nickname Pending and myself that he do something (help us, get the cops), he remained hovering - not involved beyond obviously feeling that he ought to be. That didn't help much. (The title of this post refers to the posters up all through the Underground network, put up by the UK Labour Government to encourage people to not turn a blind eye, but clearly this campaign is not working.)

Afterwards I realised why none of these bystanders did get involved, why it was only a couple from the other end of the world who did. Britain's "knife culture" isn't reported on much here in NZ, but there death by stabbing is becoming a twice- or thrice-weekly event. When it was all over I suddenly understood this and had a horrible vision of Nickname Pending with a knife in his guts, pushed in forcefully by the drunk XY in full vitriolic flight, and I nearly cried all over again.

Eventually the woman sort of started to leave with us, and she walked to the exit, our bodies in between her and the enraged XY. As we started up the stairs XY hit Nickname Pending from behind, although I didn't realise this until we were home. The ear was swollen and sore for a few days, but nothing serious, either because XY wasn't really as violent as his words made out, or he was too intoxicated to aim well.

Unfortunately this was a Tube station which you left by lift, instead of stairs or escalator. So we all had to wait for the elevator, Nickname Pending and myself, the man who wasn't quite involved and his partner, XY and the woman he was abusing, and a few other people, together. At this point XY was able to catch up to his victim, who seemed to decide that there was no way to escape him as she walked out with him at the end of the ride and made no other efforts to get away that we saw. We were soundly abused by XY as "colonial convict scum", which actually nearly made me laugh.** Perhaps the woman felt less unsafe now, as XY seemed to have focused on us as the authors of his woes, rather than her.

I had pushed the panic button on the way past it to the lift but nothing had happened. When we got out of the lift I went straight to the nearest panic button in the ticket hall and hit it. Everyone else went through the turnstiles and started to leave the station, XY and the woman together (not in a lovey-dovey manner however).

The panic button communicated directly with the guard station, and I ended up in there, talking to a couple of the guards, and looking straight at their impressive array of screens, all live-feeding the CCTV from all over the station. Given that the altercation on the platform had involved pushing and shoving, and lasted at least ten minutes, you would have thought they might have noticed it and actually done something, particularly post the July 7th 2005 bombings and given the knife crime worries mentioned above.

But no. And I was soon to find out why.

The guards were not at all concerned about violence between XY and his partner, by XY towards his partner. They were worried that XY might have hit me, or Nickname Pending, but when it came to the woman who was actually most at risk of harm, they claimed it was purely a domestic matter, and thus out of their hands. I believe one of them might also have shrugged. What does the word "guard" actually mean? Does it mean to sit on one's hands? Apparently so, if the situation is between a man and a woman who may be in a relationship. (Clearly the Underground guards do not consider themselves part of the "us" in Blair's posters.)

I was still shaking from the incidents on the platform and I could tell from their faces that there was no moving them. One guard told me he had gone up to the woman, who was now sitting in the bus stop outside with XY, to ask her if she was ok and she had said yes, thus there was nothing they could do. I did feel slightly better when we walked past the two of them on the way out and XY did seem much calmer and the woman seemed to be doing some of the talking (certainly there was no yelling), but I know that even if she didn't get hit that night she probably will have been thumped by now, or will be in the future. Her paralysed response may be explained by past domestic abuse; XY certainly gave the impression of being familiar with delivering the bash, both psychologically and physically, to his partner.

In rough order, I felt worried, angry, proud (of Nickname Pending for standing up to a bully), scared, frustrated (with the woman involved), terrified, increasingly paralysed by fear, pissed off (at the bystanders), scared, tense, angry (at the guards), scared (as we were walking home down the road, and every time after that when we used that Tube station). I can only imagine how the woman felt, feels.

I'm not going to be overly analytical about this here and now, except to say that a society which turns a blind eye to violence and abuse within a relationship is sick.

It used to be that rape within marriage was not considered legally possible. I doubt that many rapes by partners, married or not, are reported, even though the law has changed, and incidents like this (and this) make the actions of those women who do not come forward understandable. It seems as if, to some (too many), abuse within a relationship is not the business of anyone but the victim and the abuser. In which case justice can never be served.

* Nickname Pending and I discussed this strategy afterwards and have decided that in future the one not irretrievably involved will get help, although I'm not sure either of us will be able to stick to this.
** I have a nasty and seemingly unbreakable tendency to laugh when I am in hysterical disbelief or terror. I once did this and hurt a friend a great deal and that is one of the few incidents of my life that I would change if I could.


red said...

wow powerfull story...

Peoples lives are pretty much governed by media these days.

media being all those messages that are created by others and transmitted, adverts, news, bill boards etc.

Mostly that media conveys social anxiety and fear.

I also suspect that every night on the News in the UK they get "another" knife attack.

When confronted with the situation live people flash back to thier living rooms and are paralized with fear that they could be the next news item.

You and nickname pending probaley haventing been exposed as fully as those other commuters and so were not paralized.

Apathy Jack said...

I've got a great (and by "great" I mean: "ranty")story to tell you about this sort of thing. Remind me to tell you when we have dinner.

stef said...

That bothers me a lot in Korea, where at least we have confusionism to blame for other people's inaction. Especially with abuse, or someone clearly in danger.

But every so often a stranger does something wonderful, and things work out.

Good on you for getting involved and I hope he's ok.

Asher said...

Good on you for getting involved indeed.

Reminds me of an incident I was involved in in January in Wellington - while waiting for a bus at the bottom of Cuba St (right in the central city, for those who don't know it) I saw a young 13-or-so year old girl running away from a man in his 30's, who was screaming at her. He caught up with her, spun her around and punched her in the face, and began to drag her back towards a van parked a few metres away.

I ran across the road and stood in between them. I asked the girl if she was alright, but she was in tears and didn't really reply. I told her that if she wanted she could leave, walk across to the road to the police station (which it later turned out was closed anyway) and I would stop the man from following her.

He then began to scream at me, telling me that I should "mind my own fucking business". I told him "You just hit her in the face, you made it my business". He replied "it's my daughter and I can do whatever the fuck I want with her!" then clenched his fists and told me to move out of the way, which I refused. I turned back to the girl, who said "I have to go now". I replied that it was her choice, and she didn't have to do anything she didn't want to do, but she got in the van with her father nonetheless.

He got into the car, and as they drove off I made sure he knew I was writing down his number plate, in the hope that it might deter him from beating her up when they got home. I caught my bus and then rang the cops and reported it. Had a follow up from them 2 days later, but no idea what came of it, if anything.

What really freaked me out though was that the 40-50 people waiting at the bus stop or walking along the street at the same time did nothing whatsoever, even when it looked like I was probably going to get beaten up (the father was considerably larger than me).

After they'd driven off, around 10 people came up and said "good work". Would've been better if they'd actually helped out though.

span said...

What frustrated me the most about this incident was the attitude of the guards - they were actually being paid to protect people in the Tube stations, must have seen what was happening on the CCTV, but didn't take it at all seriously. The situation sounds quite similar to your story Asher - it's depressing that so many people have stories like this, still :-(

I look forward to your story Jack - let me guess that the woman concerned started yelling at her would-be rescuers too? I've heard of that happening as well. Even more depressing.

Apathy Jack said...

Strangely not in this instance (had it happen though). It's more that my friends ended up being dicks.

(Note to friends: Not you. My other friends. The one's who are dicks.)

Hobbo said...

you are pretty bloody lucky that you didn't end up with a bottle stuck in your guts. I was on a bus in Bermondsey where some louts were "having it large" with a couple of black women - some guy said something and ended up getting bottled. Another well known report is of a guy on another bus who had his eye keyed out after saying something to some other fuckwits. I wouldn't even think of intervening in a dust up in the UK - the odds of a knife getting pulled is just too great. Call me a coward but I care more about my family than some homeless drunk.

stephen said...

Unpleasant synchronicity.

Anonymous said...

That guy Briggs - what a deadset fuckin wanker.

span said...

Hobbo - Yeah, thinking about the knife stuff afterwards I do think we were probably a bit naive, to get involved in such a situation in the UK.

Anon - well you've just proven that you are a total winner yourself, haven't you?

Cactus Kate said...

Nightmare time.

What you did not mention is that the woman may have snapped out of whatever state she was in and turned on you and nickname pending with XY. Or it could have been a setup by a gang. That's why the Brits don't intervene.

They also know that security is pretty useless at the train stations as well. That's why no one looks at each other for fear of a fight breaking out. Especially late at night when everyone is pissed up and out of it.

I had a potential mugging incident in Rome. Gypsy kid wanted my leather jacket. Pounded the kid to a pulp and then afterwards had the reality check that it was rather stupid as there could have been a gang waiting around the corner etc...

While I obviously have no love for well meaning lefties, I do say you are not in Pakuranga now!!

Only get involved where you are confident your side can beat up the other.

span said...

Actually I've never lived in Pakuranga. Howick is the closest I've got, and that wasn't in the nice part.

Anyway, it's all a reminder that I need to get fitter so I can start learning to kick box. I'd like to be able to defend myself if the need arose. Although I've always done a good line in scratching, elbowing and hair pulling.

As for the woman turning on us, yep I've heard of that happening, and if that had happened to us it probably would have broken my heart.

Cactus Kate said...


That's the difference between us :)

It would not have broken my heart, it would have really pissed me off.