I saw a woman harassed and frightened by a man. I was too far away to do anything about it. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing until it was almost over. It was a crowded A train during morning rush hour. I had only just managed to squeeze myself onto the car. I wasn’t looking at people around me, was mostly thinking ahead to the meeting I was headed for. As we pulled into Hoyt-Schermerhorn, I focused. I’d been kind of staring off ahead, not really looking at anything.
At that moment I focused and saw a man, maybe close to my height (5’10”), stocky, doing some kind of bob-and-weave movement. He was about a third of the length of the train car away from where I was sandwiched in, but I could clearly see his weird bob and weave. I looked closer. He was bobbing and weaving into and away from the face of a woman. She was small, maybe five-foot-two or three. She was slight, not waif-slight, but very slender.
I stared at them for a few seconds, trying to tell if they were together. Had I seen the man’s face, I would have known they were definitely not together because when he turned around as the train pulled out of the station, the man’s face gave him away — he looked unstable, looked unkempt … not like a homeless person but like a madman who didn’t waste time pulling his look together.
But I hadn’t seen his face yet. I just saw him diving in and out of the woman’s face. I watched him for several seconds that felt a lot longer. By the time I registered that something was deeply wrong with what was happening, the woman had removed herself from the space, had ducked under the arm of the person on her other side and moved down the car. She was so small, I lost sight of her immediately in the crowded space. That was when her harasser turned around, when I saw that, whatever he’d been doing, it couldn’t have been pleasant for that woman. I would never want that man’s face anywhere near mine.
He turned and started talking to the people around him. Not like excusing his actions, but like bragging. He looked quite proud and pleased with himself, as if scaring that woman was a kind of triumph for him, and I guess it was. I couldn’t hear anything he said. It was loud on the train, and he was quiet, talking for the people directly near him, not for all of us. The train pulled into Jay Street, he took a seat and that was that.
But that wasn’t that. Couldn’t possibly ever really be that.
I was so angry. Angry at him, sure. Of course. More, I was angry at all of the people in that section of the train. I’ll grant that the man’s appearance was unsettling. I wouldn’t have considered it a small thing to confront him. But he was menacing someone. He was all up in that woman’s face, up in the face of a person who was small both in height and size. He was taking pleasure in frightening her — because that was the first thing I saw when he turned around, his big, I’m-the-man smile. He was having a great time ruining that woman’s commute, and maybe her whole day, maybe her week — who knows what that incident may have triggered for her? He was having a great time … and not one person thought of a way to do anything to stop him, to shield her, to defuse the situation.
Everyone stayed in their books and newspapers, stayed on their phones. Everyone chose to ignore what was happening right beside them. When the woman saw her chance to squeeze through the crowd to get free, she moved past the man standing beside her. He was tall and had one arm stretched out to hold the overhead rail. She ducked under his arm, and he bowed his body to make a little more room for her to pass … and then he held that position a moment longer, as if giving the harasser a chance to pass, too. He was prepared to facilitate the woman’s continued abuse by making way for her abuser. WTF? True, he hadn’t tried to help the woman at all, but simply straightening his body, putting a barrier between the woman and the man, would have at least been a protective gesture. Nope. No protection there.
I don’t know what I want from people, what I expect. I’ve had my own experiences with people on the street or the train not coming to my aid. I know it’s easier and certainly feels safer to stay out of a charged and troubling situation. But seeing this moment on the train really upset me. How can you stand next to someone who is being terrorized and do nothing? I was too far away and too tightly packed against other riders to do more than witness. I have no idea what I would have done if I’d been standing closer, but I would have done something. Some thing.
That’s easy to say, of course. But I have receipts. I’ve intervened between abusive men and their partners in the past. I’ve called out harassers on the train, even used some low-grade violence once, though I don’t recommend that. Confrontation isn’t a thing I make a habit of, but it has happened. There seemed to be something wrong with that man, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been stopped, couldn’t have been made to back off.
Full disclosure: a big part of my surprise is because the woman was white, and the man harassing her was Black. Our raison d’etre as a country is to stand up for the safety and honot of white women … especially in the face of a threat from a Black man. And yet no one stepped up for this woman.
But just on the level of basic human decency, I don’t understand what I saw on that train. Do not understand.
This morning I was at a conference and heard NYC Public Advocate Letitia James reframe Michelle Obama’s line, saying: “When they go low, we need to get loud.” She was talking about the opposition (the Resistance) being big enough, forceful enough to “drown out the noise” of harmful policies and ill-conceived decisions (hey, I’m trying to be generous).
I get what she’s saying. It makes perfect sense. But how does that happen, exactly? Where is this solidarity and readiness for the fight supposed to come from when we don’t care enough about one another as individuals to step up when the person next to us is in danger?
People knitted pink hats and came out in the hundreds of thousands for the Women’s March. They felt like, and were, a giant mass of “No!” directed at THOTUS¹. And yet, for all that sisterhood and comradery, there was also silencing, erasure, and exclusion.
Am I wrong to see a connection here? Empathy is going to be central to the success of whatever fightback is strong enough to carry us forward. If we can’t care enough for the woman standing beside us, how are we supposed to be standard-bearers for refugees we’ll never see, Palestinians losing their land in a place we’ll never visit, women denied reproductive care in nations we erase when we think of their continent as a country, Black bodies left in the street for hours?
But then I think about the people who came out for Muslims travelers over the weekend. They put out calls for lawyers, brought supplies, came out and stayed out. They stepped up. They gave me some hope.
I still don’t understand what I saw on the train. It’s just not okay to ignore someone in distress. Not okay.
And I can’t help but believe it’s these small acts of brave kindness and compassion that will help us feel strong enough, able enough to step up in bigger ways. Because we’re going to need to do that. We’re going to have to take risks, put ourselves in harm’s way. We’re going to have to stop pretending not to see what’s right in front of us.
We have to do that for strangers on the train, and we have to do it for this nation of strangers that has never needed us more than it does now.
In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week.
It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!
¹ Titular Head of These United States