Don't Be a Bystander: Abuse in the Public Eye

A lot of times we think about abuse, whether it's physical or emotional, as something that goes on behind closed doors, and it's hard to change that frame of mind when, in reality, nobody sees the vast majority of abuse that occurs. Like many of the ST Staff, I've seen my share of abuse as the victim, not the witness. So it seems somewhat surprising that I was so shocked to see it, in full daylight, on a busy downtown street this past weekend.

As the student of a "suitcase" college with a non-existent nightlife, I very rarely get a chance to go out with friends in the evenings, just because there just ISN'T anywhere to go. However, I decided to go up to a nearby city (the only city in Vermont, really) about an hour away for the weekend. As far as cities go where I live, Burlington is about as big as it gets. The Marketplace is pretty amazing, and it's right on the Waterfront of Lake Champlain. There's plenty of cafes and restaurants, shopping, street performers, etc. You can spend all evening there and not see the whole thing. I, however, saw a little more than I bargained for Saturday afternoon.

I was walking with a long-time girlfriend down the main connecting street, which was a pedestrian only walkway. We sat down at a small french-styled cafe for something warm to drink (with buildings on either side, the street acts as a wind tunnel, and it can get pretty darn cold.) We chose a two person table by the window, and hadn't been there for more than 5 minutes when we saw a young woman, who couldn't have been much older than us, ran by the window, stumbled, and fell.

Immediately we both stood up (as did everyone else in the restaurant) and moved toward the door to see if she was alright. She got to her feet and continued to run, dodging stunned onlookers and street lamps. My friend turned to me and said "she probably got in trouble with the cops." I was about to turn to go back to our table when a man, dressed in leather jacket and khakis, also came screaming by the shop. I stepped out of the cafe and watched as he caught the woman by the hem of her jacket, threw her to the ground, and started kicking at her stomach and back.

Needless to say, I was shocked. Abuse happens, far too often, but hardly ever in the public eye. That's part of what makes it so hard to get prosecuted in serious cases: unless there is physical evidence, it's almost impossible to prove, as it pits the victim against the abuser. Plenty of people probably kept walking, figuring it was an angry pimp chasing down a wayward sex worker (and yes, Vermont has sex workers. Almost everywhere in the U.S. still does.) Those people wouldn't have seen what followed.

I'm tempted to say that the person who witness the abuse feels almost as helpless as the victim themselves; your better judgment leans toward self-preservation, but the human side of you wants to help. As someone who's experienced it, I couldn't help but try and act. I started running toward the woman, who was around 40-50 yards from me. Another man was already trying to drag the man away as he continued to throw kicks and punches at the girl on the ground, spitting on her and calling her a "cheating bitch", and as I got about 15 yards away a middle-aged man grabbed my arm and pointed to two police officers pulling up in a patrol car just across the way. I stopped and watched as the first office ran in and tried to subdue the attacker, while the second pulled his collar radio to his mouth and got the woman up and out of the way. Her coat had been ripped off, she was bleeding from her head, her eye was swollen, and I was close enough to see the bruises on her arms and neck. I watched the gentleman and police officer struggle with the man as he continued to scream and yell obscene words at the girl, calling her a "bitch" and a "whore", repeating the phrase "I should have f****** killed you when I had the chance". They finally got him cuffed and on his stomach, and the other officer waited for EMS to arrive to take care of the woman.

I wish I had made all this up. I have never wished so badly that things like this don't happen, but the reality is unkind and often denied: people are abused every day, every month, every year. It's just rare that it's shoved in our faces as it was mine. Needless to say, I've never heard the streets so quiet. I listened to a woman whisper to a man next to her, "Wonder what she did to deserve that?" and all I could feel was the anger growing inside me. I left without saying a word.

Abuse is never the victim's fault. There is never a good excuse to hit, slap, or even speak unkindly to someone, much less let one's anger turn into the full-fledged attack I and dozens of others witnessed. This is the other problem with the public and abuse: the first instinct isn't to feel sorry and sympathize with the victim. The first instinct is to ask "why?".

I could make this post a rant about the ignorance of people, and how frustrating it is for myself and those who have experienced it first hand to explain to others the pain we feel in trying to move on from it, knowing full well that they can never understand. But that isn't my purpose here.

My purpose in telling this story is to show, plain and simple, that abuse happens. It happens everywhere, every minute of every day. And most of the time, the people who are being abused don't have anyone to tell. They continue to be abused, with no one to turn to.

I read the headline online in the paper Sunday afternoon: apparently, the girl was the man's long-time girlfriend. Reports from medical experts and eyewitnesses stated he had been abusing her for some time, both physically and verbally/emotionally: she had suffered multiple concussions, had had broken bones, and far more than the average person's share of cuts and bruises. After years of suffering, she had finally had enough, and was planning on leaving him. He caught her having lunch with a male co-worker, with whom she wasn't involved, became enraged, and chased her down the street, and I witnessed the rest.

If doctors and witnesses can testify to all this, and it can make the front page of a newspaper in a day, why, why, WHY didn't someone call the cops? Call her parents? Call someone? The woman I saw on the street is 26 years old, just a few years older than myself. Why wasn't someone watching out for her?

It's the sad truth that all too often, no one notices or thinks too much until it's too late. The woman will recover physically: she's being kept at the hospital for further medical treatment. But emotionally, it may take years before she can truly continue her life as it was before this happened. She may never recover at all. And what's absolutely infuriating is that it could have been stopped a long time ago.

You don't have to be helpless as a bystander to abuse. If you ever see someone being physically hurt, or being emotionally/verbally abused by someone they know, it is your DUTY to tell someone. Tell a friend, a teacher, a mentor, a counselor, a police officer, or a parent. Talk to the victim, and encourage them to report the person, or at least distance themselves from them. Abuse victims are often too frightened to admit they are being abused, or if they aren't, are convinced that it will stop, or that somehow they deserve it. No one every deserves to be abused. No one.

Don't be a bystander to abuse. You can do something, even if it's as simple as speaking out. Just that small act could save someone's life.


Abbie, I'm so glad you wrote this all out and posted it here. Fantastic, important work.

Editor & Founder, Scarleteen: Sex Ed for the Real World
Author, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and Col