How do you handle witnessing small scale injustice when in public spaces?
June 9, 2005 10:24 AM   Subscribe

On public transit last night, I watched a man tell off a panhandler with such vitriol I found it roundly disturbing. Yet, I did and said nothing. How do you all, and how should I in the future, handle these moments of small scale injustice?

This panhandler on the el train was utterly berated by another passenger when he asked for some change. It was an ugly scene. The passenger went into a 5-10 minute rant, taking the panhandler to task using vulgar language, racial slurs, outright yelling and threating violence. The panhandler did not respond, but was visibly shaken and got off the train at his next opportunity. Everyone on the train, including myself, watched this unfold, saying nothing. As you might imagine I felt pretty icky afterwards, with a strong sense that I had shirked a moral obligation to intervene, to verbally defend the panhandler or at the very least comment (to the other passengers? to the Public? to the gods?) my distaste for the passenger's actions.

Mine is a somewhat extreme case but I feel like these moments, which are not so serious as to be deemed criminal but not so trivial as say overhearing an off-color joke, are fairly common. I'm wondering what to do when they arise again in the future.
posted by verysleeping to Human Relations (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think appealing to the harasser's sense of propriety (as lacking as it may currently be) is the best bet. Threatening him or getting equally aggressive could end very badly, but sometimes just a simple "Sir! You're being offensive." or "Sir, there are children on this train, and that language is inappropriate," can let the guy know that his behavior isn't appreciated.

I think in most of these cases the harasser, assuming he's not just a thug, thinks that the other passengers are on his side ("Goddamned pickpocketing panhandlers!"). Letting him know that you're not may be all that's required.

And that way, even if he doesn't stop, you've empowered the other passengers to say something as well, and let the harassed guy know that not everyone is against him.

I saw this work well on the subway in Boston once. A bible-thumper was haranguing a young gay guy about sodomy, god's judgment, sin, etc. The conversation was already going when I got on the train, and it looked like the younger gay may have actually started it but it had gone WAY out of control. After a few minutes of listening to this man spout ridiculously offensive shit with this poor boy trapped on the seat beneath him (the guy was standing over him) I said loudly, "Sir, it's god's place to judge, not yours." (I'm not religious, but I thought appealing to his own values might be more effective.) He looked at me, started speaking again, and I repeated myself. At which point everyone sitting near us on the train started to support the young guy -- "Honey, be proud!", "Don't listen to him!", etc.

It stayed polite and positive, got the message across, and shut the guy up.
posted by occhiblu at 10:34 AM on June 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Stuff like what you describe on the train I would not get involved in. I have tried in the past and I've come the closest I come to physical confrontations because of it. Something like this happened right after I moved to NYC and made me hate life there.

Jokes: Say: "I don't think that's funny." You don't have to say more than that, it's actually quite a powerful thing to say. I would resist the urge to justify yourself. Especially with things like racist jokes I think the goal is to decrease the number of places people feel safe telling them. If you say something like this it sends that message; if you try to explain why people get pissed and defensive.

Kids being screamed at or roughly handled: "What a lovely son/daugher you have." Paradoxical but effective. Say it with sincerity. Again, don't try to change anyone's mind, but it takes a real asshole to go after their kid when you've said something like this.

Kids being hit for real: "I'm going to call the police if you don't stop that." In this case I think it's more important to stress that there are serious consequences for hitting a kid.

posted by OmieWise at 10:37 AM on June 9, 2005

I would hope I would say something like "Why don't you leave him alone, go home and be thankful you have a place to sleep", but would most likely sit there as you did, since it's a much easier option.
posted by null terminated at 10:45 AM on June 9, 2005

If you can reduce your indignation down to its very core, and reveal what an ass the guy was being, it's hard to argue against.

"Leave him alone!" would have been my response. On preview, null's, too.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:46 AM on June 9, 2005

I'd like to think I'd wander over and give the fellow some money, pat him on the shoulder and wish him a nice day out loud. would depend on my confidence level or something like it at the time - more likely I'd be sitting there, wishing it wasn't happening.
posted by peacay at 11:10 AM on June 9, 2005

Looking at the screaming passenger: "Excuse me, sir, sorry to interrupt."

Gives the panhandler a dollar. "Here buddy, you need it more than me, God Bless and good luck."

Don't know that I would have actually had the presence of mind to do this in your situation, but it is what I would have wished I had done afterward...
posted by LarryC at 11:12 AM on June 9, 2005

Perhaps if you found a way to get the person being abused away from the attacker. If you had stepped between them, the attacker maybe would have thought that initially you were on his side, giving him pause, but then if you had gently led the homeless man away, that may have diffused the situation.

I took some crisis intervention training a few years back while working with at risk youth and found it to be extremely helpful. The course was from these folks. It gives one a lot of confidence in these types of situations, and I honestly believe that everyone could benefit personally and socially from some education in this.
posted by Heatwole at 11:13 AM on June 9, 2005

Once when I was roughly 10 and my mother and I were on the subway, a man started screaming at a woman who didn't reply, just cowered in her seat and wept. I think they were together, but I'm not sure, and I don't remember what he said very clearly. My mother got up and sat next to the woman. She took her hand. She didn't say anything to the man, just sat by the woman, letting her know she was there. Eventually, he left, and my mother helped the woman calm down until she was ready to go on alone.

There are a plenty of intelligent reasons why you wouldn't ever want to do this, but I've never forgotten it -- the way my mother's eyes looked, and how pale her face was. But she walked over and sat down anyway.

(Small scale injustices in general? It's an honorable goal, but pretty exhausting to live that way every minute. Pick your battles, know that you won't always have the swiftness or courage to react, and don't beat yourself up because you can't be a hero every minute. No else manages it, either.)
posted by melissa may at 11:19 AM on June 9, 2005 [2 favorites]

I will never understand the phenomenon where a large number of people stand by and watch this kind of thing happen. All it takes is one person to act and then the rest will act as well. Be that first person.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:37 AM on June 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

taking the panhandler to task using vulgar language, racial slurs, outright yelling and threating violence

That sounds like a bit much.

Gives the panhandler a dollar. "Here buddy, you need it more than me, God Bless and good luck."

Keep in mind that the panhandlers might NOT need it more than you. NPR did a report a few years ago and found that the street hustlers (panhandling, windshield scam, used magazines, etc.) make around $50k a year, untaxed. Some friends that lived by canal street watched the windshield scam people via telescope for a few days and estimated that they were pulling down $45k a year. This is untaxed, in NYC, which is kind of like making $80-100k above the table.

I'm not particularly angry at people who make their money under the table, but I see panhandlers just like I see used car salespeople or stockbrokers. The ones that talk to you are selling their tale of sorrow just like the broker is trying to dump a bad stock deal on you. It is the people who can't communicate well who really need the help.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:50 AM on June 9, 2005

I meant to say in my post: I would try to refrain from engaging the abuser in an argument about the content of the rant, and focus on the act of ranting itself. Saying "Homeless people are people too!" seems more likely to just switch his vile over to you, while something like "Your yelling is offending the other passengers on this train" is something much harder for him to argue against.

You're not attacking his beliefs, just reminding him that his actions are inappropriate.

I mean, he obviously already thinks that the person he's yelling at is beneath him; getting into a "No, he's not!" "Yes, he is!" battle probably isn't going to get you anywhere.
posted by occhiblu at 11:53 AM on June 9, 2005

As LarryC said.

I watched a guy get threatened in a McDonalds for asking for a dollar. I thought it was going to break into a fight. As soon as there was a break in the diatribe, I said to the homeless guy, "Good luck tonight." and handed him a buck. The aggro guy told me I was encouraging this kind of shit (blah blah blah) and I said, "Actually I wouldn't have given him anything if you weren't such an asshole to him."

It helps that I'm a girl. I might have gotten punched otherwise.
posted by Gucky at 11:55 AM on June 9, 2005

also, what everyone else said about conflict resolution.

It would be cool if everyone started taking conflict resolution classes instead of getting concealed carry permits.
posted by b1tr0t at 12:10 PM on June 9, 2005

Occhiblu said it well. Totally agree with criticizing the behavior, not the content. After all, that IS the problem. Hey, if the guy wants to think that homeless people are worthless pieces of crap, wants to tell the guy to shove off when asked for money, and uses profane language regularly, that's all within his rights. (Doesn't get him a dinner invitation to my home, but then again, I doubt he wants one.)

But berating a stranger, picking a fight, and loudly using foul language are NOT acceptable.

On preview, if I felt that the guy was too volatile to address directly, I'd likely do something like melissa may's mother did, or do as Larry C suggests. In fact, in the case of the latter, I have done something similar -- got dirty looks and some dumb insults from the jerk, and a very sad thankful look from the person getting yelled at.
posted by desuetude at 12:26 PM on June 9, 2005

I had jury duty Monday. There was a 3-hour gap between the time I was named to a panel and when I had to report, so I walked around the downtown district. Eventually, someone came up to me and asked for some food. We went to a sandwich place and I spent about $5 on a hamburger basket for him. He hinted at needing some money for medicine, but I make it my policy to offer help only in real goods, not money (thus I will buy food, gas, etc.) I told him good luck and was on my way. I find that the vast majority of the time, people will decline if you offer to give them not money, but what they claim to need the money for. This is one way to filter out the people b1tr0t was talking about. It often takes people out of their comfort zone, though, in that you have to actually spend time with the person you are helping.

I was once on an airport shuttle in Germany and two men with what seemed me to have Israeli accents were discussing an aircraft issue with each other in English (they seemed to be engineers discussing a project they worked on). If the project was a military one, I'm sure they should not have had it publicly. But what really got me was that they seemed to be in a contest to see who could cuss the most, with the emphasis on the f-bomb. I was just tolerating it in silence.

Then two women got onto the shuttle, so I turned to the men and asked them to refrain from such vulgar language in front of ladies. One replied that they were in Germany and speaking English. I answered by pointing out they had no way of knowing who spoke English and who didn't. He threw one last f-bomb in my direction, but then they went silent for the rest of the ride. One of the ladies turned to me and (in English) said, "Thank you."

There are lots of times when I just keep silent, though. One of the things I consider is who is being hurt by the bad behavior. If it's only me, I just pretty much keep quiet because if it's only words, there is no real harm done. If there are others present and/or someone else is being hurt, I am more likely to intervene, but even then it is often nothing more than a dirty look.

Part of the problem is that I don't think of the stop-them-in-their-tracks remark until the appropriate time has passed.
posted by Doohickie at 12:44 PM on June 9, 2005

I did what desuetude/LarryC/others suggest when I was witnessed a very similar situation about 8 years ago (also on the el in Chicago!) with a rich asshole in an expensive suit calling an elderly, hunched panhandler every filthy name/racial epithet in the book until the elderly man was actually starting to cry. (Mitigating factors in my choice to get involved: broad daylight, half-full train car, my sense of social justice amped up to 11.)

The jerk did indeed turned on me verbally, but I stood my ground and responded "sure, I might be a sucker, but you've proven you're a racist." The panhandler whispered quiet thanks and got off at the next stop. Also, so many riders told the asshole that he should be ashamed of himself for his behavior that he kept turning redder and redder and finally moved into another car.
posted by scody at 12:56 PM on June 9, 2005

guh! please excuse weird syntactical mistakes above.
posted by scody at 12:58 PM on June 9, 2005

i agree with occhiblu's suggestion, although i would likely be too afraid of a big belligerent yelling guy on the el to do it.

i did once ask some guy conducting on a cell phone on the commuter train to please refrain from using the f-word every other word because, well, it was the train to the zoo and chock full of small children whose parents couldn't find any free seats in other cars. man, that guy was just such a loser. but at least he responded politely.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:38 PM on June 9, 2005

"conducting business", that is
posted by crush-onastick at 1:39 PM on June 9, 2005

I witnessed a similar situation on the bus a few years ago, only it was a young white guy berating a younger black woman for talking on the cell phone (not loudly, either). Even after she hung up, he kept at it. Several of us verbally took her side, and he settled down a little bit. However, he started up again just as I was going to get off - I was really mad by then, and got in his face (I don't remember what I said, but I didn't cuss). Then he turned on me and claimed that "...all you lesbians stick together, don't you?" That was so ridiculous, I was laughing out loud as I got off the bus.
I find that a simple "Shame on you!" is often effective, especially if you are older than the offender.
It's always at least a little scary to do this though, and depressing when I don't, for all the reasons you've articulated.
posted by dbmcd at 2:38 PM on June 9, 2005

I had an old roommate who taught me a trick to break through the barrier of nonaction, and what he told me was, look them right in the eye, and quietly say, "That's enough."

Sometimes I have to say "Hey," or take a step toward them to get their attention, but it has worked every time.
posted by atchafalaya at 3:02 PM on June 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

I step into things like this pretty often, usually just by offering my help to all invovled.

"Can I be of any help here?" That usually injects some civility and calms things down. Really, it works.
posted by snsranch at 4:46 PM on June 9, 2005

b1tr0t: I must protest on behalf of people who carry concealed weapons. The majority of people I know who hold CCW permits tend to be level-headed, decent folks. Many of them vote Republican, which is somewhat unfortunate; but then I vote Libertarian, so nearly everybody thinks my politics are unfortunate.

Yes, there are jerkoffs, people who aren't very good at descalating situations, and fools. But, even they know that if their gun has to clear leather, it's going to suck, even for them.

In Florida, which has had CCW permit statutes on the books for the longest, the revocation rate for permits is around .01%. Keep in mind that a revocation occurs whenever a CCW holder is found guilty of any felony--shoplifting or homicide, doesn't matter. The number of those felonies that were weapons-related is much, much lower. Rates are similar in other states.

The folks who go to the trouble of getting a CCW permit are not the ones you should be worried about.

(Disclaimer: I own firearms; I'm going to get do CCW interview on Tuesday; I intend to carry.)
posted by Netzapper at 5:13 PM on June 9, 2005

I dunno, I think every one of us has a moral obligation to do our best to stop "small-scale injustice" when it appears right in front of our eyes. Like LarryC said, we don't always have the presence of mind to act properly in the moment (I know I've shied away lots of times), but that doesn't mean the obligation to minimize the injustice goes away.

I'm a big fan of trying the ultra-polite approach, like snsranch suggests. If that doesn't work, try, "That's enough" or "What are you doing?" in a deep voice while staring at the jerk. It helps if you're sure of back-up, so maybe, "Does anyone else think this guy's gone on long enough?" would work as well. And bravo to you for caring.
posted by mediareport at 7:36 PM on June 9, 2005

I had an old roommate who taught me a trick to break through the barrier of nonaction, and what he told me was, look them right in the eye, and quietly say, "That's enough."

Sometimes I have to say "Hey," or take a step toward them to get their attention, but it has worked every time.

There should be a disclaimer with this statement: Don't write checks with your mouth (or body language) that your body can't cash.
posted by mlis at 8:01 PM on June 9, 2005

Yeah, you're probably right, although I've never had a problem. I don't do it like I'm John Wayne, I just try to get across I've heard enough of the rudeness or whatever. All in all, I like snsranch's solution best and will use that.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:52 PM on June 9, 2005

Not specifically regarding politeness, but I had a pair of incidents that really brought into sharp relief the pressures that can keep people quiet in situations like that one.

I ride the bus pretty much everywhere, and as with most forms of mass transport, our buses are vandalized fairly frequently by monkeys with magic markers. I was privy to one such incident on a late night bus ride, and -- purely out of fear -- I chose to remain silent, rather than speak up.

A few months later, I saw another couple of kids whip out a sharpie and start marking up a bus bench at the stop I was waiting at. Discarding the whole 'politeness' thing, I basically laid into both of them, but the best part was the first response to my "Why in the hell are you drawing on that?" to which the leading wit of the two of them replied: "Well, how about I draw on your face a bit, then?" In the end, I managed to get him to state that the entire deep message he was trying to convey with his countercultural, adbusting art was that "Well, his eyes are black now." Like I said: Monkeys with markers.

The thing is, in both of those cases, I was significantly bigger than either of the people doing it, but they were both in pairs. The fear that keeps people quiet is a good survival instinct in cases like this, since even with the one for which I spoke up, I knew I was taking a risk, and just decided that because of my failure to speak up the previous time, I had to do so this one in order to feel right about myself. It's pretty easy to see that others would choose to remain quiet, though... since I did, too.
posted by ChrisR at 10:44 PM on June 9, 2005

melissa may, i love the story about your mother. thanks for sharing it
posted by BoscosMom at 11:42 PM on June 9, 2005

I really appreciate everyone's taking time to respond. melissa may, i too found that story terribly moving. Thank you all.
posted by verysleeping at 9:54 AM on June 10, 2005

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