One evening nearly two years ago, as my daughter and I waited on the subway platform, I noticed a woman and a man standing several steps apart on the staircase. What caught my attention was a clatter as an umbrella bounced down several steps. Then I heard the woman say, very loudly, “Get away from me!”
I asked my daughter to stay where she was, and I walked closer to the two. By then, the man had closed the distance between them and was standing less than three feet from the woman. As I drew nearer, I could hear what he was saying, soft enough that no one else but her could hear him: “Be quiet. You’re acting crazy. Everybody thinks that you’re crazy.”
I looked at him, holding the umbrella out to her. I looked at her. I thought of the word “crazy” and how often abusers use it to manipulate the person they are abusing into thinking the violence is only in their head. I wondered if the man would try to hit me or shove me into the subway tracks if I intervened. I worried about my daughter’s safety. But I had also just picked her up from a self-defense class, and I thought about what the message would be if we simply ignored the abuse that was playing out in front of us.
“Would you like to stand over by us?” I asked the woman. She turned to look at me and, for a moment, I worried that she might punch me — or, at the very least, tell me to mind my own business. After a moment that went on longer than was comfortable, she answered. “Yes, I think I’d like that.”
“Oh, you’re just going to go off with some stranger and dis me like that?” the man asked to our retreating backsides. But we ignored him and walked the 20 feet to where my daughter was standing. When the train came, we got on and the doors closed behind us.
The woman and I talked on the train. She told me that the man was her supervisor at work. He was also her ex-boyfriend. They had been involved but then he had started to become abusive, so she broke it off.
“But it’s so hard to find another job,” she said, and so she had to put up with him day after day. As is often the case with abusive relationships, her ex did not want to let her go and, that evening, had followed her from work to the train station.
The following week, I asked the staff at the Center for Anti-Violence Education, a women’s dojo that offers self-defense classes for teenaged and adult women (both cisgender and trans), about possible resources to give the woman. I reasoned that if she took this particular train from work, I’d probably see her again since my daughter and I were there every Thursday around the same time. Staff members provided me with a couple of resources and I carried those fliers in my bag all fall, winter and into spring. They got dog-eared and crumpled, but I held out hope that I would see her and would be able to offer her something more helpful. But I never saw her again.
I thought about the woman — and the incident — recently when domestic violence made headlines following the release of the video of Ray Rice beating his then-fiancée Janay Palmer. I also thought about how individuals, grassroots groups and communities have organized to respond to abusive situations.
In the 1970s, in a town called Neu-Isenberg near Frankfurt, there was a group called Fan-Shen. Instead of setting up a battered women’s shelter where women could flee violence at home, Fan-Shen took a different approach. When a woman called the local women’s center about domestic violence, members of Fan-Shen moved into her house. They lived in shifts with the woman, acting as round-the-clock guards against further abuse. Their presence also issued a clear warning to the abuser that his violence was known and would not be tolerated. According to the 1970s journal The Lesbian Tide, the tactic usually resulted in the abusive person moving out.
More recently, Sista II Sista, a collective of women of color in Brooklyn, utilized community to respond to gender violence. Recognizing that calling the police often resulted in more violence for both women of color and communities of color, they worked to empower young women of color to identify and work towards solving their own problems. One of these ways was their Sister Circle, where women came together to talk about the violence in their lives, both breaking the silence around these often-taboo subjects and talking about ways to address it. Sista II Sista also started an “action line,” which women could call when they experienced violence in their lives. The woman — and the group — explored options to change the situation utilizing the community rather than the police.
At a 2006 panel on gender, violence and alternatives to policing at Barnard College, Sista II Sista member Ide Uje gave one example of how the “action line” and community involvement stopped one particular instance of gender violence. A woman at the Sister Circle talked about the man who had been stalking her for over two years. Although no physical violence had occurred, he was becoming increasingly aggressive towards her. Members of the Sister Circle confronted the man at the barbershop where he worked.
“The community of men in the barber shop were like, ‘Yo, if this happens again, he’s going to get fired.’ But there was this connection around how people saw that it was wrong,” Uje recalled, adding that the incident occurred several years before and that the man has not bothered the woman since then.
Not every initiative waits until abuse and violence have escalated. I read about a group founded by queer people of color in the Pacific Northwest called Friends Are Reaching Out. FAR Out pushes for family and friends to stay connected with their loved ones when they start new relationships rather than let their (platonic) relationships slide. The initiative recognizes that if a relationship becomes abusive, the person may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of reaching out to friends with whom they have lost touch to ask for help. In addition, abusers often distort reality, telling a person that what happened was their fault or that they are overreacting to or misremembering a situation. Without other people to help them reflect reality, over time abuse victims often begin to believe these manipulations. By simply encouraging friends to stay in touch, FAR Out begins to combat the isolation that can allow abuse to happen unchecked.
But these are exceptions, not the norm. All too often, individuals, families and communities fail abuse victims. So do organizations and institutions — as the Ray Rice scandal clearly shows. We’ve been reminded of these failures with the renewed media attention paid to domestic violence and statistics that remind us that 665,000 women are victims of domestic violence each year, that 75 women are abused every hour, and that 992 women were killed by abusive partners in 2012 alone. (Additionally, we don’t know how many abuse survivors are imprisoned for defending themselves.)
Fan-Shen, FAR Out and Sista II Sista are examples of how we can address abuse in our own communities. By organizing community responses, they demonstrate how everyday people can break through the isolation and secrecy to interrupt abuse, either in the short term or in the longer term, and work to keep each other safe.