CW: assault, threats of violence
Yesterday, someone threatened to kill me on a train. Straight up, I’m physically unharmed and am safe now.
I was on a busy train in Sydney on my way to see my partner. I was sitting in front of a woman who was making various racial and other demographical slurs at passengers of varying levels of disgustingness, bragging to herself about how she’d beat the fuck out of them if any of them got off at her stop. I half turned and said something to the effect of “That’s enough ma’am.” I don’t know if she heard me.
A short time later, she answered the phone and started telling whoever she was speaking to about how disgusting various other passengers on the train were for their race, weight, sexual preferences and other traits. I turned around and said “Ma’am, that’s not ok.”
She started screaming at me. She got very close to me and yelled in my ear that she hoped I was getting off at her stop, because she was going to “bash your fucking head in”. I’m no stranger to death threats – I get them all the time online and shouted at me across the street for my ethical/political views while doing advocacy or political outreach. This was the first time I’ve ever actually felt like it was a credible threat of violence. It’s different when you can feel their breath on your ear.
I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I kept my head half turned to her, keeping her in my peripheral vision and trying to mentally prepare to defend myself. I didn’t know what she was going to do. Maybe I should have walked off or tried to de-escalate, but it turns out that’s easier said than done when your fight or flight kicks in (I can thank my shit evolutionary wiring for that I guess). All I could do was sit there and hope it didn’t escalate beyond screaming.
This went on for about 5 minutes until she eventually got off at her stop, continuing to scream until she was out of ear shot.
There were about 25 other people in that train car within eyeshot. Not one of them said anything during this altercation. One passenger got off at the next stop and said “Good on you for standing up for yourself mate.”
“Thanks mate.” Was all I could bring myself to hoarsely say back.
I felt stiff and in shock until I got off at my stop, got in my partner’s car and started crying.
My first thought after the woman got off the train was probably something like anger or frustration. Not one person tried to intervene? To take my side? Barely a word after for trying to stand up to everyone? What would it have taken for them to do/say something? Would someone have done something if she started hitting me? If she pulled out a knife? Started stabbing me? I wish I could say I thought the answer to any of these questions was definitely yes.
After taking some time to think about it though, I don’t think I blame them. That was a fucking scary situation. I would guess it was a combination of some kind of bystander effect and people just not wanting to get involved out of concern for their own safety.
I’ve always had this view that a good person will do something if they see something. If you don’t intervene in violence, assault or harassment, you’re complicit or something. That one Gillette ad comes to mind (“Bro, not cool”). But if I’m being honest, I genuinely don’t know if I will anymore. I want to want to, but I don’t know if I want to. I like to think that I’m happy to make sacrifices to do the right thing, and I want to be the sort of person who intervenes in the face of injustice, but holy fuck that was scary.
I’ve been in several situations previously where I’ve noticed this level of bystander effect personally. First was on a bus which was stationary at a bus stop. I saw two men outside beating each other up. I quickly called the police and told them what was happening and where. No one else on the bus moved or even seemed to notice/care.
Second was also on a bus where a man was drunkenly leering and making sexist passes at women. I told him to stop, then informed the bus driver what was happening and to keep an eye on him as I got off. Again, no one else seemed to care. Yesterday was different because my own personal safety wasn’t threatened previously.
Most people share this view that we should cultivate a society where people will intervene when someone is getting screamed at or assaulted in public, but how many people would actually act on that? Sure, most of us probably think we would, but when actually put in that situation, how many people would?
Serious question, how the fuck do we expect to cultivate a culture of intervening in the face of this shit if no one actually does it in practice? This isn’t rhetorical. How? Is the only thing we’ve cultivated a society of people who shame those who do nothing but sit in shame and do nothing when their time comes? Or am I just post-shock overreacting to an outlier?
How can we actually get people to stand up for each other in public? Just telling people to do it and then pretend that it’s trivially easy is not the right approach, because it’s not easy. It’s really fucking hard. What if we actually educate people (from school to the workplace) on how to stand up for others and what to do? How to de-escalate and how to stay safe while doing the right thing?
My writing this might be perceived as a ‘look how brave and good I am’ attempt, and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that. But it’s not, and I don’t think I’m brave at all. I was fucking terrified, and I still am a little. If this happened again today, I might not say anything. Again, I want to want to, but I’m scared. What level of harassment or assault would it take for me to do something now? I don’t know.
They say talking about scary things helps, and writing is my favourite form of communication. It feels a little better to talk about this in a public space too. Thanks for hearing me out.
tl;dr Someone screamed at me for 5 minutes on a train and threatened to kill me for asking them to stop making racial slurs, but none of the other 25 passengers in my car did anything. We need to do better at not just shaming people for doing nothing to intervene in the face of harassment/assault but educate them on how to do it, because it’s not easy.
Edit – A friend convinced me to report the incident to the police, which I have (thank you).