In recent years, violence in New York City public transportation has become an increasingly frequent phenomenon, leaving many people feeling disempowered, scared, and helpless. Again and again, I receive emails from students or random people who seek advice about what to do when witnessing or being a part of a violent situation.
Last week, I got an email from my student, E.K., and she agreed we would share and discuss it in our blog this week, so here’s her story:
I was riding the PATH around 8:30 from the World Trade Center to my office in Newark on a normal workday. The trip is usually uneventful, with few other riders sharing the car since it’s a reverse commute. I was on my phone listening to music about midway through when I heard a woman sit down next to me and say something about being in her way. I looked up and apologized and registered that she was a middle-aged woman with a large bag of cleaning supplies and what looked like a cane or plastic rod. I didn’t think much of it, but then as the train started moving, I heard her talking to no one in particular.
Within a few minutes, she was ranting in a really loud voice, saying all kinds of racist and antisemitic things. At first, this didn’t feel particularly different from normal NYC events, but then she started hitting her cane on the train pole and floor as she was yelling. I stopped playing my music but kept my headphones in, and kept my head down with my eyes on the cane/rod she was holding. This went on for about 10 minutes—she kept yelling those racist /bigoted comments while hitting her cane. I was careful not to react to her; there were around 20-30 other people in the car, and everyone was avoiding eye contact with her.
During the last 3-5 minutes of the ride, she got up, walked around me, and confronted an Asian young man around my age sitting directly to my right. While standing, she bent down, got within a foot of his face, and started yelling more anti-Asian things at him. I could see little flecks of her spit hitting his face as she yelled at him. After maybe 20 seconds of this, he got up to move away from her and sat to my left while she kept yelling after him. It was only then that I started talking with the man to ask if he was ok, and tried to distract him from the woman who was still yelling. He was fine and didn’t seem horribly shaken, but he was still affected by it.
I don’t know if I handled the situation correctly. Everyone in the train car knew she wanted to provoke someone into doing something, so no one reacted to her comments or actions. I knew to ignore the woman, but I regret not intervening on that man’s behalf. I feel like I should have distracted the man from what was happening by talking with him; instead, I did nothing because I was scared that it would provoke her.
What’s the best thing to do in this situation? I want to help, but I don’t want to create a dangerous situation for everyone. How do I handle this?
I want to start by saying that from a self-defense perspective, E.K. did the right thing by ignoring the woman at first. It sounds like the woman was clearly trying to provoke someone, and reacting to her would have only made the situation worse. As long as there’s no physical threat to you or your loved ones, the right thing to do is to avoid contact.
Being concerned about your own safety is a valid concern, and it’s not selfish! It’s important to remember that you can’t help anyone if you’re not safe yourself. As the airline companies remind us every time we are on a flight – put your mask on first, before helping others.
However, I also understand why E.K. felt guilty about not intervening when seeing an innocent man being harassed. It’s natural to want to help someone who is being attacked, and it’s easy to second-guess ourselves after the fact.
I want to do a lot of good in the world. I want to cure cancer and end world hunger and starvation. Unfortunately, it is not within my power to do so. I don’t know the first thing about genetic therapy for cancer treatment. I also don’t have enough resources to feed the millions of starving people on this planet. So what should I do?…
Stay in your “genius zone” and do what you can do well. When I feel sorry for the things I can’t do, it’s usually in retrospect too late at that point in time to change that. If you haven’t mastered your ability to use your body as a weapon and are unable to defend yourself, and others, do the things you can do while keeping your safety as a priority. Acting in bravery without a plan or at least a skill, isn’t bravery, but ignorance. Unless what you have to fight for is big – like your safety and the safety of your loved ones, it’s better to avoid the violence.
I see self-defense skills as similar to CPR skills. You only need to be sorry once for not knowing it. Both self-defense and CPR are skills that can help you save a life. Both skills require training and practice under pressure testing.
We never assume that today is the day we are going to need it. It is more comfortable to attend to urgent matters and other fun activities.
The truth is, there is no easy answer to the question of what to do in this situation. The best course of action will vary depending on the specific circumstances. However, there are a few general tips that can help you stay safe and help others if you witness a public disturbance.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to who is around you and what is happening. If you see someone who seems unstable or aggressive, try to avoid them.
- If you see a disturbance, don’t get involved. This could escalate the situation and put you at risk. Instead, call 911 or the police non-emergency number.
- If you feel unsafe, remove yourself from the situation. This could mean getting off the train, bus, or subway car. If you’re in a crowded area, try to move to a different part of the crowd.
- If you are a bystander, be an upstander. If you see someone being harassed or attacked, and you feel safe to do so, speak up and let the person know that you’re there to help. It’s also important to remember that you don’t have to do everything yourself. Ask others for help. The more people that are involved, the less likely the situation is to escalate.
I know that it can be scary to intervene in a public disturbance, but remember that you could be making a difference in someone’s life. If you see something, say something. You could be the one person who helps to stop a crime or prevent someone from being injured. Be the kind stranger!
Do something amazing,
CEO/Founder Krav Maga Experts