Bystander Effect


Here’s the scene:

The camera pans over a neighborhood at dusk. There’s the ice cream/coffee shop, the community garden. There is the neighborhood god, which isn’t a boy making perfect three-pointers in the pocket park, but the Greek god painted on the side of a building in a swirl of blues and purples. There is the basketball court, and no boy working on his game, but a man sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette. There is the man talking in what might be Creole, walking toward the apartments with the No Vacancy sign. There is the man waiting at the bus stop. There is a woman on a bike, and a woman walking a dog.

And there, in the alley north of the park, a man who can’t be more than 20 is choking a woman, who has a basket of laundry at her side. She’s crying and telling him to stop. He’s slamming her against the chain link fence that borders the park. Down the street, three cop cars are parked in front of a house, lights flashing

He keeps telling her she can’t do that again, though the that is unclear. And he’s choking her, and when she tries to brush him away, he pushes her against the fence again. The woman with the dog pauses at the end of the alley, and asks the woman with the laundry basket if she is alright. The woman with the laundry basket doesn’t respond, but for now the man no longer appears to be actively choking her, and he is no longer shoving her. His hands are still at her throat.

The woman and the dog start down the alley. The woman on the bike pedals up alongside, saying, “I’m with you.” Together, they approach. They ask the woman with the laundry basket if she’s okay, and the man says, “Get the fuck out of here.”

One woman says, “Maybe you’re the one who should get the fuck out.”

He calls her a name.

The woman with the laundry basket wipes her eyes, and says she is okay. The man is staring the two women down.

The two women ask the woman with the laundry basket if she wants to leave with them. She shakes her head. One woman tells the man, “The cops are right down the street,” not as a threat, but as a statement of fact.

~*~*~

I wish I could say this story ended in some other way, some better way. But the truth is, this story is a true story, and one I was part of last night, as one of the two women who walked into the alley.

The thing is, I know perfectly well that intervening in this type of interpersonal violence is the type of thing that can get me killed.

I also know perfectly well, that the other woman and I may have made things worse for the woman with the laundry basket, because it was clear the man she was with was in a state of unhinged misogyny, and that because of this, there’s is a good chance that he blames her for anyone approaching them.

After I left the alley, an older man approached me. “The girl in the alley, did she seem alright?” he asked.

His skin was papery. “She’s being assaulted by her boyfriend,” I said.

The man gestured toward the cop cars, and the six cops who surrounded one man in a yard. “I think that’s related to this,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll check on her after they’re done here.” I wasn’t so sure, but I said nothing about these doubts to him. He continued on his way, and I stayed in place. Men who look like the man in the yard have a way of dying when cops are around.

Other neighbors were out, and while I’m sure some were watching the drama, it was clear most of us were watching the cops.

Afterward, once the cops had dispersed without making an arrest, I realized how shaken I felt. I called a friend.

~*~*~

What I can’t wrap my mind around is how come we still won’t talk about misogyny as a society. We won’t talk about the messages we give people raised as  boys that indicate it’s acceptable to use violence to get their way. We won’t talk about how a man who feels slighted may revenge rape a woman (and then face only limited consequences), or if not that then post her pictures on a revenge porn site, and if not that then stalk her. We won’t talk about how another man got a light sentence because he was a pretty good swimmer or how women die for turning men down or how ridiculously easy it is for a person with a history of perpetrating domestic abuse to get a gun.

We don’t talk about women as sex objects, or how women learn that one of the surer ways to get a guy to stop talking to you when you’re not interested is to claim a relationship with another man because our “no” is seen as something to erode.

Men’s magazines make “how to turn a no into a yes” their cover stories.

I have lovely, strong female friends who have men in their lives who scare me. One has a “friend” who won’t take her no, and instead actively tells her about the way he imagines their future together. Another friend is married to someone who makes jokes at her expense and isolated her by moving her across the country a month after they got married; I haven’t heard from her in more than a year–and neither have any of our mutual friends. A different married friend has a husband who keeps a list of every single thing she screws up as a mother and holds it against her when she threatens to divorce him. I could let this list go on, but what’s the point?

~*~*~

This morning, I was out running with my dog.

The guy I approached last night drove past. He slowed down his car, and started yelling at me. He threatened me. I turned around, and went the other direction, back toward another person I’d seen out with their dog. The man pulled up to a stop sign and continued to yell. I watched him, through some landscaping, and partially around the corner from him, and texted a friend I knew would be up. My messages were cryptic, but I wanted someone to have a starting point, because the man I’d approached was still unhinged with misogyny. He yelled for perhaps another minute or two, before driving away.

I considered going home, but then that is letting misogyny win. I texted my friend that I was going to continue my run, that probably everything was fine.

And it was, at least for today.

But I live in the same neighborhood as that man. I now know what time he goes to work, and he now knows that at least sometimes I am up and out and alone in the mornings.

For the rest of my run, I felt vaguely sick. I stayed away from his street and the street he’d passed me on. I tried to stay in the sight lines of people who were out running or walking their dogs or watering their gardens–but of course, that is far from a guarantee. And, just maintaining that added level of awareness (because, let’s face it, I’m a woman in the world and already in a state of hypervigilance) is exhausting and upsetting.

I tell this story not because I want advice (please don’t, in fact), but because we have to start talking about the culture of misogyny, and because I talk to too many men who haven’t ever had a woman tell them what it’s like to be a woman in our culture, and because women stepped up to try and intervene in a situation of interpersonal violence, even though men were around, and even though we are more likely to be targeted or attacked for this than a man would be.

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