Taking On a Full Grown Bully

October 18, 2012

Everyone knows what a bully looks like. For starters, a bully is a kid—one who threatens to beat up a smaller kid if the smaller one doesn't give up his lunch money, (or her Twinkie, or his place in line for the swings.) A bully is the one who mercilessly mocks the kid with braces or a birth mark or an accent or second-hand clothes.

A bully is the jock who calls the kid from drama club “faggot”, or the mean girl who trips the awkward nerd carrying a trombone to band practice, or the popular kid who starts ugly rumors about the unpopular one and posts them on Facebook.

It’s childish behavior, and all too often it’s dismissed by the adults who see it as merely kids being kids. “The bullies will grow out of it,” they say. “And the ones being picked on just need to toughen up.” But just because bullies grow up and the bullied survive to adulthood, that doesn’t mean the bullying stops.

A bully is someone who craves and abuses power over others, and you can find them everywhere. They’re the horrible bosses and horrible customers who inspire whole websites full of tales of their atrocities. They’re political pundits who froth at the mouth and whip up public frenzies based on lies. They’re road-ragers who tailgate and scream obscenities at other drivers.

I was the weird, artsy, sensitive queer kid: an easy target. The most important thing I took away from my own childhood facing bullies was a determination not to be like the adults who’d turned a blind eye to my plight, or blamed me for my own victimization. I swore that when I grew up, I wouldn’t ever tell a kid who was being bullied to recite, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I knew that was a fantastic lie when I first heard it at the tender age of four. Bullying hurts, even when it’s just words, and if I was ever in a position to do anything about it, I wasn’t going to let it happen to someone else. And that goes double for physical bullying.

Last week I ran right into that resolve. What I witnessed and intervened in wasn’t textbook bullying—it was a lot more like a simple assault—but it touches on the same issue. Here’s what happened:

My friends D and J and I were exiting the office where they work when we saw a pair of cars pull up at a stop sign across the street, one behind the other. A middle-aged man and woman got out of the car in front, and the man ran up to the driver-side window of the car behind, screaming threats and obscenities. He banged on the other car’s partially open window, and tried to reach through the window to grab the other driver. My friends and I shouted for the attacker to stop, but he ignored us. So while one friend, D, went to take cell-phone snapshots of the license plates of the cars involved, I dialed 911.

As I was describing the incident to the 911 dispatcher, the person in the second car swerved out and sped off. The couple got back into their car, and I presumed they were also going to leave, but instead they made a quick u-turn, pulled up right where we were standing, jumped out, and started screaming at us. They were especially enraged at D and me, shouting that he had no business taking their picture, that I had no right to call the cops, that we hadn’t seen what had happened. The guy in the other car, they said, had been at fault, had been driving recklessly, could have killed someone… I’m not really sure what exactly they thought he’d done, but they were furious, and with the original target of their rage gone, the “little fags” who’d tried to intervene—me and my camera-wielding friend D—made good new ones.

I was still talking to the dispatcher, so my friends bore the brunt of their verbal assault. Then, just as I got off the phone with a promise that the police were coming, the woman advanced on D, screaming and reaching for him with a heavily-braceleted hand. It looked to me like she was trying to hit him in the face. Her husband was a couple feet behind her, engaged with our much more mellow friend, J, who was trying ineffectually to calm everyone down.

D isn’t quite so mellow, and he’s definitely not the sort of person to stand quietly and let someone hit him. He did what I think most people would do in a similar situation: grabbed the woman’s wrist and pushed her hand away from his face.

It was one of those situations where time dilates and everything slows down. As the woman reached up to try to hit D again, the husband disengaged from J and started moving towards D, and I could see how very badly everything was about to go wrong. Without really thinking about it, I put myself in between D and the couple. I stood as tall as I could, with my arms spread wide, and shouted in my most commanding tone for them to back up. It took a second shout before D reacted, but then, bless him, he did back away. The woman and her husband, though, kept coming at me, spitting invectives and curses inches from my face, while I continued shouting back at them, “Back up, right now.”

Somehow it worked, and they did back up, maybe getting the idea that I was absolutely not going to let them get at D, nor was I going to let them provoke me into anything more physical than being an immovable, shouting wall.

As they started to calm down, I tried to diffuse the situation a bit. I told them I had no idea what had happened between them and the man in the other car, I just saw an altercation on the street, saw them go after the other driver, and called the police because I was afraid things were about to get out of hand. The wife had retreated a bit at this point, sulkily complaining that my “boyfriend” had hurt her wrist and broken her nail. Her husband continued with his assertion that we were “little punks” and “little fags” who should mind our own business. (I’m pretty sure they thought they were insulting D and me by calling us gay, which in retrospect is kind of humorous.)

J continued to be very non-confrontational, and at this point the couple were mostly ignoring him. D stayed at my back, silent, but reassuring. I was confident that if things did get ugly, it would at least be a two-on-two fight.

When the husband continued to insist that I should just mind my own business and stay out of things if I don’t know what’s going on, I told him I couldn’t do that. “That’s how people get killed,” I said. “As a citizen, I have a responsibility to intervene.” I didn’t want to be a witness to a tragedy, I told him. For all I knew, he could have been about to drag the other driver out of his car and beat him bloody in the street. Or worse, the other driver could have pulled out a gun.

“As a citizen you have responsibility to stay out of other people’s business,” the man returned. “I’m a former Army Ranger. If he’d tried anything, I’d have broken his neck.”

His threat was chilling and unsubtle: I could break your neck, too, if I wanted to. But his body language was becoming less aggressive, and I found myself answering back, “You and I have very different definitions of social responsibility.”

As I was speaking, I was thinking of Kitty Genovese, a woman murdered in New York City in 1964, whose repeated screams for help were ignored by neighbors who didn’t want to get involved or didn’t feel they knew enough about what was happening to intervene, until it was too late. The reporting on the case is controversial, and the callousness of the witnesses was allegedly exaggerated in the contemporary news accounts, but it nonetheless became the landmark example of the Bystander Effect, wherein the more witnesses there are to an event, the less likely any individual is to intervene. Anyone who’s taken an introductory psychology class is likely to have come across the case of Kitty Genovese’s murder, and the social psychology studies that followed it.

It certainly shaped my thinking. I came across that case when I was in college, only a few years past my own days of having been bullied while others turned a blind eye. Never, I decided, would I stand silently by and watch someone be mistreated. Even if it made me unpopular. Even if it exposed me to ridicule. Even if it put me in danger. I’ve called 911 to report domestic disturbances in neighboring apartments and hotel rooms, fights in public parks, and now this angry man and his wife.

The couple, after a few threats to report D and me to the police ourselves (for what, I’m not entirely sure), decided they’d rather not be there when the law arrived, and started to make noise about leaving. (I am unimpressed with my city’s police, since we waited a good twenty or thirty minutes after my 911 call without any law enforcement ever showing up.)

Eventually D’s withdrawal, J’s attempts to play pacifist, and my continuing effort to be politely and respectfully firm got through to the couple. I’ll admit I was peeved when I asked them and D if they thought they could be adults, apologize to each other for their physical interaction, agree that no one’s intent had been to harm, and shake hands. It wasn’t D I was peeved at, mind you, but this couple, who were easily twice or more D’s age. It felt good to call them on their childishness.

Ultimately that’s what that couple were: childish bullies. Bullies who tried to control first that other driver (who for all I know really had behaved badly himself,) and then me and my friends, with their insults and threats and aggression. I’m proud that I didn’t let them get away with it.

We should never let them get away with it. If you see someone being bullied, intervene. Speak up for the people who can’t speak for themselves. Don’t tolerate the boss who berates, the spouse who threatens, the pastor who shames. Call 911 when you think someone’s in danger. Offer support to the person targeted by the bully.

Don’t pretend you didn’t see it. If you want to live in a world where bullying doesn’t happen, it is your business to try to make it stop. (by Zach McCallum)

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