Years ago, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I was standing on a street corner with my friend Jean, waiting for some people to join us. As we stood there, we noticed a girl alone on the other side of the street. And nearby, two young men. There was something odd about the situation. Or at least, it seemed odd to us as we observed the three. Suddenly, one of the boys went up to the girl and she seemed to be trying to get him to leave her alone. Then, the other one started running up. Not knowing what to do, I instinctively started moving towards them and yelling something.
But before I could see what happened, Jean grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away. She was terrified. And suddenly, so was I. Maybe it was because we had just been robbed a day or two before by four young men with a gun. Maybe it was because I had no idea what I would have done if there was some sort of trouble. Maybe it was because in reality, I wasn't sure if anything was going on and maybe I was just making a scene. But as we ran the other way down the street I was overwhelmed by a horrifying sense of helplessness.
I was useless.
Last night, I was left with a similar feeling.
While some friends and I were eating dinner in a restaurant, a man came by pulling a woman aggressively by the arm. She pulled her arm away and walked out in front of him. As everyone at my table exchanged confused glances, I saw them walk by the window. Again, he was violently dragging her along. I mentioned this to my friends and decided to go outside and see what was going on. They were arguing on the street. I stood there for a minute and then... went inside.
I wanted to intervene somehow. I wanted to say something. But I didn't. I went back to the table and sat down again with my friends and we all went on almost as if nothing had happened.
Something did happen though. And I regret my lack of action. I don't know if it was because I was a little frightened. Or embarrassed. Or feeling silly since no one else seemed to think it was a big deal (and I am, to my shame, really sensitive about being considered an "over reactor"). Or maybe because I just had no idea what I could or should do. Whatever the reason, I should have done more than just stand on the street for a moment staring at them and feeling unsettled and awkward. I should have acted.
This morning, still feeling upset over the incident from last night, I started to consider the problem. Mostly, I feel like I need more information (and probably courage too). I need to know what the right thing to do is. Can you just go up to someone and say, "Is everything alright?" Is that too weird and invasive? Or is that the right thing to do when you are concerned about a situation? So I did a little research. I am attaching a few articles (here and here and here) in case anyone else is interested in some advice on dealing with abusive situations in public. I feel much more confident to act now. And though I still feel guilty for doing nothing, I think if I see something like that again, I will know what to do.
Also, in honor of International Women's Day yesterday (coincidence??), while I am proud of the great strides women have made in our country an around the world, there is still so much work to be done if we want true equality and justice for all people. Just the fact alone that I was the only person in the restaurant who even got out of my chair when a woman was being dragged out by her arm (and still did absolutely nothing useful), reminds me that physical (and emotion and mental) abuse is still far too commonplace in our society. We ALL have work to do if this is ever going to change. I love this article about the need for men and women to work together to end violence and promote equality. This is a conversation that needs to be front and center in our lives. And luckily, there are some great people and organizations that are facilitating discussion and awareness and making incredible strides in our communities! This list of things you can do from ONE is a great place to start.
Because the truth is, we don't have to be helpless!