"split their skulls open like the old days"
July 17, 2014 6:05 PM   Subscribe

I need some help processing a disturbing and scary interaction I had today with someone.

I won't be able to convey what it was like to experience this in person, but I'll try. Today I was out at lunch sitting on a bench near the metro stop, just enjoying the weather and looking at my phone. A black man walked by me slowly and said "Hey." I looked up and he looked like he was going to ask me for me money so I looked back down without responding. He said "What, you can't answer me?" apparently indignant. I looked back up and said, "What do you want?" in a stern but not disrespectful way. He then went off on a heated diatribe most of which I don't remember. He said, "I just got outta prison. I was there for twelve years." He looked me up and down, sneering, I guess offended by my professional clothing, which is probably the reason he stopped in the first place. He said, "Man I'm tryin' to deal wit all the gentrification and shit goin' on around here. Motherfuckers like you comin' in wit all your fancy bullshit. Maybe we gon' have ta start splittin' skulls open like the old days. You motherfuckas piss me off." I said, "I don't even live here." He said, "I don't care, bitch. You're lucky I'm in my peace mode cuz otherwise I'd fuck you up right now." He walked away and back over his shoulder he said, "You stupid motherfucker," shaking his head and laughing derisively.

Like I said, I don't remember half of it. This guy was seriously angry. I was scared that he would attack me. I've never in my life had an interaction like that with anybody. Not even close. It really shook me up. It was really awful. I guess all I'm asking for from you all is some perspective. I understand that I'm a privileged white male (with apparently pretty thin skin), and I can understand his anger. But I just don't know what I'm supposed to do -- in that situation and in general. What should I be thinking? Should I have handled it differently? What are your thoughts on the whole thing? I'm just at a loss. Thanks everybody.
posted by frankly mister to Human Relations (56 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You did fine. Escalating in any way would have been a bad idea.

You're shaken up because it was scary and now you're full of adrenaline. You may have flashbacks - and a sort of compulsive urge to retell the story - for a couple of days, but don't assume this is a permanent condition. It should ease and pass before too long.

If you're able to reframe it this way, I guess you made that guy feel better for a minute when he was feeling powerless and angry and unhappy with his life.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:10 PM on July 17, 2014 [19 favorites]

Here is some perspective: A crazy guy talked to you in a threatening manner because he is crazy. Being spoken to in a threatening manner made you feel shook and now you feel shook. It will pass. This had nothing to do with you. There was nothing you could have done differently. You did everything right.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:13 PM on July 17, 2014 [36 favorites]

It was not meant personally.

He was bonkers, and needed a place to unload the bonkery and you happened to be who he picked. Why you? You may never know why you, because he was bonkers.

About the only thing I personally would have done different is leave sooner, but that's a personal preference.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:15 PM on July 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I meant to say that it is actually a gentrifying part of the city that we were in.
posted by frankly mister at 6:18 PM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Sometimes there isn't anything you can do. He was either mentally ill or very, very angry and looking to express it to whomever he could find (or both). In neither case do you have any control over his actions.
posted by Justinian at 6:23 PM on July 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

No, your skin isn't thin. The first time this kind of thing happened to me I was incredibly shook up. I am a woman who used to be unattractive and then I got super thin, and the change in the way people on the street treated me was an intense shock. Now I am used to it but that's a different story.

You did fine. This creep won't remember you or anything. Don't worry. It's natural to feel upset and strange after that kind of interaction.

Try to do super soothing stuff tonight, things that make you feel cared for and comfortable and good. Time will make the awful feeling dissipate.
posted by sockermom at 6:25 PM on July 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Threat of aggression is scary; you did fine. I'm reminded of the recent question on street harassment. There's not a lot you can do when people project meanings onto you, when you stand for things you don't mean. He may have been crazy. And/or, a bigger craziness was working through you both. Idk, personally, I would want to sit with it for a while.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:26 PM on July 17, 2014

Whether or not the part of the city you were in was gentrifying or not has nothing to do with what he did.

You're trying to make this personal, which is understandable - because you're trying to find out an explanation for why he singled you out, so you can try to control this in future. But there is no reason other than his own disordered mind.

He was like a rabid dog - you don't try to figure out how to train a rabid dog out of its behavior, or understand the actions of a rabid dog, you give up because the dog is rabid and you get the fuck out of there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:27 PM on July 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

I understand that I'm a privileged white male (with apparently pretty thin skin), and I can understand his anger.

Your attempts to apologize for the aggressor are not helpful. Walking while white in the supposedly wrong neighborhood isn't a crime. (In fact, you were the opposite of a "privileged white male" — you were targeted for violent threats because you're a white man.) The idea that he's to be excused based on his race is also racist and unhelpful.

What I would recommend is not to speak back to him at all — except, if absolutely necessary, to say "leave me alone." Someone like this will be able to twist your words around no matter what you say, so don't bother trying to engage in a substantive discussion. Avoid eye contact. Remain alert and aware of him, but act as if you're ignoring him.
posted by John Cohen at 6:28 PM on July 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Today I was out at lunch sitting on a bench near the metro stop, just enjoying the weather and looking at my phone. A black man walked by me slowly and said "Hey." I looked up and he looked like he was going to ask me for me money so I looked back down without responding. He said "What, you can't answer me?" apparently indignant.

I had a class on homelessness and public policy in the spring of some school year, then went to school in the LA basin that summer. One day, a homeless man approached me as I left the building where I was attending school. I stopped and looked at him, giving him my attention. He said something like "Daaang. You stopped and looked at me. Most people keep walking and don't acknowledge that I exist."

My understanding is that someone fresh out of prison will have trouble getting a job and may be denied access to things like food stamps. He may be in a position of having basically three options: Beg, commit crimes, or starve. Begging is the least worst option and you were not even acknowledging his existence. So from his perspective it likely felt like you were politely and casually condemning him to death (or a further life of crime and then more prison time because of it) and feeling like you had the right to do that and not even be inconvenienced enough to have to acknowledge him.

There may have been no good way to handle it but I suspect that is the reason his reaction was so strong and negative.
posted by Michele in California at 6:30 PM on July 17, 2014 [35 favorites]

You actually can't understand his anger, which oddly enough is probably part of his point. Just let it go.

In the future, while it's happening, feel less bad and more ready to defend yourself or flee if necessary.

I've had similar situations, though I usually try to speak to them because I can direct them to agencies that can help people in need, and it is not a good situation all around whether or not you engage. You did nothing wrong here.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:33 PM on July 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

You are not obligated to respond to anyone who speaks to you (except if said person is lying in the road after being run over by a vehicle and crying "please help me").

You're ok. I'm sorry you experienced this.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 6:35 PM on July 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

You didn't ask for this, and you did nothing wrong. It doesn't matter that you're white, or that the neighborhood is gentrifying; don't fall for a just-world fallacy that suggests that this had to happen for a good or logical reason. He picked you randomly, and it was a really shitty thing to do, PERIOD. Feeling shaken, pissed off, scared -- all of that is normal and OK.

Take care of yourself.
posted by scody at 6:36 PM on July 17, 2014 [17 favorites]

"What do you want?"

Are you sure you didn't say, "Whaddya want?" or "Whuh d'yuh want?"

I mean, you took great pains to spell out his words in some sort of phonetic way, but not your own.

I raise this detail because it really jumped out at me that you felt the need to identify his race, and his manner of speech, when he himself said nothing about yours.

You had an encounter with a person who is angry and scared and lashing out. There is no excuse for his behavior; but there's also no excuse for you presenting the story in a way that casts him as "other" in terms of his speech and race.

His anger isn't about you, or your whiteness, or your maleness. Perhaps making it less about you will make it seem less personally hurtful.
posted by nacho fries at 6:55 PM on July 17, 2014 [43 favorites]

Mod note: Comment removed, please ixnay the needless rape reference.
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:55 PM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

You don't have all the facts, and there are people on the street that have experience hustling, as well as having things to say that are unsettling. Please don't read into this any further, this guy wasn't about to sit down and have a deep conversation with you about the state of the world. About the only thing I might have done differently is saying, "hi" and "sorry, I can't help." Only because the other person being perceived as noticed and being given the space to ask for something helps keep situations from escalating. Invisibility is a pre-existing problem. It's also a problem that has nothing to do with what you did, but can be used against you. It's one thing to be sensitive, another to be oblivious. Normal people don't jam you up for minding your own business. Just keep that in mind.

I want to qualify this by saying there are some situations you should avoid altogether. Outside of that, there is a police department you can file a report at, which if I were you, I would do, and living in a big city unfortunately means commingling with really bad people.
posted by phaedon at 6:55 PM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

He was using you as a scapegoat.
posted by brujita at 7:01 PM on July 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

You might have difficulty processing because you do actually at some level feel guilty -- or at least feel that, according to societal scripts, you SHOULD feel guilty -- for being white and privileged in a "gentrifying" area. You may feel that you SHOULD take the abuse as deserved.

You have to realize that whatever the truth of your privilege and the unfairness of society as a whole, his threatening behavior was immoral and utterly unacceptable.

You're allowed to realize that society may be unfair to minorities AND that minorities are just as capable as anyone else of acting immorally -- that to hold them to any other standard would in fact be dehumanizing them -- and that only by realizing both these facts together will you have any chance of living up to your full moral responsibilities.
posted by shivohum at 7:11 PM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Your responses to his attempts to engage you were cold. You pretty much blew him off. If he's to be believed about his serving time, then his exaggerated offense to your slight isn't surprising (and doesn't excuse it). But I don't think it was personal and I really don't think you could've handled it differently - he was ready to escalate further and itching for confrontation and your tactic - non-engagement - was appropriate.

My thoughts? You also kind of got lucky. If I were you I'd start thinking of some polite canned responses to people you think are going to ask you for change. Not only will it help you to avoid situations like these, but sometimes those people asking for money are pretty cool people and interesting to talk to (YMMV). Some just want to chat about the weather or tell you a funny story to make you laugh. And even if you give them nothing, many will thank you just for the consideration.

Personally, I use one of the following while generally giving a shake of my head in a 'no' way:

"Sorry, man."
"Sorry, I've got nothing."
"Sorry, I can't help (you)."

But yeah, kudos on keeping your cool. Yikes
posted by stubbehtail at 7:25 PM on July 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

In the future, if something like this escalates, I'd recommend standing up and backing up a step. This may seem melodramatic, but you're giving yourself space. Space is time and time allows you to act. If he'd decided to attack you and you'd still been sitting, there would be no way you'd be able to react before his attack had landed. Minor embarrassment is less important than your safety.

If you're scared of something, listen to your fear.
posted by kavasa at 7:36 PM on July 17, 2014

Actually, I think you handled this just fine. You tried not to engage, and when that wasn't possible, your stern "What do you want?" was the correct response. After that, second guessing, I probably wouldn't have answered or engaged at all. Here in my (sweet, small, southern) city, this kind of thing is not all that unusual. My default is to shut up, stay watchful, and let him run out of steam. Which you pretty much did.
posted by raisingsand at 7:45 PM on July 17, 2014

One time when I was walking to work, a couple young hoodlums were walking behind me and shouting sexual things at me. As a woman, I felt scared, like they were going to attack me. It was quiet, not a lot of people were walking around. There was a clearing in the traffic so I jaywalked to the other side of the street. It was months ago and I still think about it. But nothing like that has happened since. I try to be more mindful of my surroundings and avoid creepy guys on the street. But you also have to keep living your life. It's just one of those random things, you know? You can't do much about random chance encounters like that. The way you handled it was fine. You can move on and, if you can, avoid crazy-looking people.
posted by AppleTurnover at 7:57 PM on July 17, 2014

he looked like he was going to ask me for me money so I looked back down without responding

My perspective is limited, because I've never had to beg myself and I don't debrief the beggars whom I refuse to give money, but I think it often goes over better if you make eye contact as they approach and let them say what they want. My guess is that this goes over better because it preserves the polite fiction that you didn't assume they would beg for money, that it was plausible to you they might just ask for directions or the time or something. (And it's worth noting that some small but nonzero fraction of the time, that's exactly what does happen.)
posted by d. z. wang at 8:05 PM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I live in an area where we have many people who come up with sad stories to ask you for money. Sometimes I give, sometimes not. I try to always acknowledge them, even if it's with a nod in their direction.

However. There are people on here talking about how ~you~ did something wrong, or that your response was cold.. No. You felt threatened by someone threatening violence. Nowhere in your narrative was a request for money mentioned. If he did not ask for money, this was someone looking to find a scapegoat for his rage, not spare change. My go to with people I find threatening is "Sorry, man, I don't carry cash" and then a quick escape. Maybe I get this "leeway" because I'm female, and people expect us to be more likely to take fright. (This is BS, since men get mugged, beat up, etc.) You allowed this guy to vent his spleen, and hopefully he feels better for it. I would suggest that you recognize that, as has been said above, this ~isn't~ personal. You were handy, and a representative of something he hates, so you got both barrels. Plus, it must be hard to finally get out of prison and find that everything you knew has changed. Not an excuse for his behavior, but definitely a possible motivator.

ETA: Ah. You did think he was looking for money. My misread. But still, you have the right to stay within your safety zone.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 8:12 PM on July 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a thing that happens in cities sometimes and I would not focus on it too much, just chalk it up to experience and think about strategies if something similar would happen in the future. It is not that unusual to be approached when sitting on a bench outside, especially near a transit stop.

I live off a main street that is on the way to one of the local shelters, between two Metro stops, and there are a fair number of panhandlers in my home and work neighborhoods, both longtime regulars and transients. My husband and I know the circumstances of a few of them who have been around for a while, and there are a variety of issues, from plain bad luck, to substance abuse, to untreated mental illness. We do sometimes give money here and there to the ones we know (and also give money to the local shelters and food pantries.)

What phaedon said, which I will quote below, would be my advice/take as well for any future similar encounter:

About the only thing I might have done differently is saying, "hi" and "sorry, I can't help." Only because the other person being perceived as noticed and being given the space to ask for something helps keep situations from escalating. Invisibility is a pre-existing problem. It's also a problem that has nothing to do with what you did, but can be used against you.

When someone approaches me who appears to be looking for money, or I am walking past someone panhandling, I will look at them briefly to acknowledge their existence (but not so long that it is perceived as staring), say "sorry", or "sorry, can't help today" as they make their pitch, and then keep walking at a steady pace but not too fast and move on. In your case since you were seated, I would have looked at him, waited for his spiel, said "sorry, can't help today" if it indeed was a solicitation for money, and then said something along the lines of having to go back to work and would have moved on.

Also, when sitting in public in a city, especially holding a phone, you should try to maintain at least peripheral awareness of your surroundings and if someone may be approaching, if only because sometimes people snatch phones, especially if you happen to have an iphone.

This works a lot of the time (sorry is a helpful word to have handy), though sometimes you just run into angry people wanting to spew their anger at whoever is handy, unfortunately. (As a petite woman, I am sometimes seen as an easy target in that regard.)
posted by gudrun at 8:26 PM on July 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

What you should have done immediately after he left is call the police. That's what they're there for - to provide public safety. You were threatened with deadly violence ("split skulls") - that's actually a crime (making terroristic threats). You owe it not only to yourself, but to society at large - this person might very well attack someone else. He committed a crime. He needs to pay for the crime he committed - or alternatively get the help that he needs, should that be the case. Ignoring the problem, glad that you weren't a victim this time (well, you were actually a victim of terroristic threats), merely allows the next person to be attacked. We're all in it together, as a society. Therefore for the sake of others, and even the perpetrator himself (should he need help), in such circumstances you should report it ASAP, as soon as it is safe to do so.
posted by VikingSword at 9:48 PM on July 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

First let me say: OP, you clearly did nothing to deserve the attack. But -- although this attack wasn't personal, you fell into a moment -- race and class intersect in the US in particular ways, and they're doing something particular, right now, in your city. It wasn't a random event, exactly. If you want to use race to think through the event, or about how you relate to and negotiate the reality and space you share, I think that's a reasonable response (and probably a fair analysis). It is also reasonable to want to forget this sometimes to get through your day.

(And it's of course also reasonable to be freaked out by the threat of attack on your person (if not on you), and to see that as a separate thing.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:50 PM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

You are assuming that this was a racial incident. I don't think that's necessarily true. He could just be an angry guy with a big chip on his shoulder, or he might have some kind of mental illness. These types of things happen all the time. You just happened to be the person he crossed paths with. Tomorrow it will be someone else. Try not to let it bother you.
posted by Dansaman at 10:22 PM on July 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: A few comments removed. Reminder: Ask Metafilter is for helping the OP with their question, not for chatting, debating or arguing with other commenters. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 3:16 AM on July 18, 2014

Gosh that IS scary. I'm going to say that sometimes you do get accosted in public by the mentally ill. What he told you MAY have been true, or it could be just a mess of misfiring synapses.

I wouldn't take it amiss, insofar as there's something about YOU. Who knows why mentally ill people do what they do.

As for owing people your attention, you flat out don't. You have a right to sit on a park bench and look at your phone unmolested, if that's what you want to do. If the guy was panhandling, then it's on him to keep moving if he senses that you're not interested. If the guy was just hassling you because in his mixed-up world he sees you as emblamatic of the source of his problems, there's not a lot you can do.

When being accosted by a violent-appearing, mentally ill person, the best thing to do is to keep calm, say nothing and pray that he goes away. I might have filed a police report, only because that guy's right to panhandle, or whatever he was doing, ends when he starts threatening people. But that's me.

I'm sorry you had to experience this. I hope that you can chalk it up to one of life's more unpleasant experiences and that it doesn't bother you too much going forward.

Take care of yourself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:58 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Hey." I looked up and he looked like he was going to ask me for me money so I looked back down without responding.

Black people should be used to white people thinking that they are going to rob them or ask them for money, right?

Frankly your question oozes contempt for the guy before even starts talking. If you're in prison and people don't respect you, you're in a world of hurt. You showed him disrespect, he was trying to put you in your place. It wasn't crazy, it's a fairly rational response that he's developed over a decade spent on prison. You can't just turn those instincts off on a dime.
posted by empath at 5:05 AM on July 18, 2014 [17 favorites]

To be completely honest, he treated you like a caricature for everything you represented just like you (quite obviously from the way you described him) treated him like a caricature for everything he represented.

I know that white people like REALLY HATE to be lumped into together because you guys are mostly always treated as individuals but this sort of stereotyping is something that happens to black people all the time, but usually in much more insidious and indirect ways (but also in direct ways, like your experience). You happened to experience it once and it's especially upsetting because you usually never have to.

It doesn't make what that guy did right, and yeah, your experience is a little random. But it is an answer beyond him being "crazy" or "angry" and that's food to think about this more deeply.
posted by cajalswoon at 5:19 AM on July 18, 2014 [16 favorites]

cajalswoon and empath have shamed me a bit, so I wanted to clarify and re-direct:

Okay, yeah, it wasn't fair to call the guy "bonkers" and "crazy"; that was my own glib shorthand for "illogical". The reason I went there, though, is because it sounds like you are thinking that there is a specific thing you could have said or done that would have turned the situation on a dime and caused him to either a) apologize and walked away, or b) not have said any of that in the first place, or c) not have picked you specifically out for his speech.

And there isn't. You were the one he ended up speaking to just because it was the luck of the draw; nothing you said or did exacerbated the situation; and the reason he said what he said was entirely because of what was going on in his head, and had absolutely nothing to do with anything you consciously did.

There is literally nothing you did that contributed to that situation except for just happen to be the one there. If you hadn't been there, someone else would have been hearing him say that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:16 AM on July 18, 2014

Response by poster: I appreciate everyone's encouraging responses. The blaming ones (the "shaming" ones as EmpressCallipygos just said) I don't quite get. I didn't "ooze" contempt for him. I oozed caution. I treated him like a caricature? Am I supposed to like whitewash what he said into standard English? And the "otherness" was the what the whole thing was about. To say otherwise is disingenuous. And it's okay to threaten to kill someone because you've had a hard life?
posted by frankly mister at 6:24 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I....didn't....say "shaming".

And the whole thrust of what everyone is trying to say to you, I think, is that you're taking this situation very personally. And you shouldn't - I mean, yeah, it was something that happened to you because it was upsetting, but it sounds like you're still thinking of it as a situation that you contributed to. And you didn't. Think of it like, a tree falling on you or something - you were minding your own business and something just happened. Be freaked out about it or whatever, but this trying to analyze the situation to see if it could have gone differently just isn't helping you, is the point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:47 AM on July 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

A black man walked by me slowly and said "Hey." I looked up and he looked like he was going to ask me for me money

And the "otherness" was the what the whole thing was about. To say otherwise is disingenuous.

Indeed it was, because you made it so. A black guy says hey, and based on his race, and that one word, you say he "he looks like" he is about to ask for money? So you ignore him?

People here are saying that you don't "have to" talk to anyone who approaches you, but if you choose to defy social norms of acknowledging another person when they address you, be prepared for blowback. Ignoring another person is anti-social behavior. You didn't say that you initially felt threatened by him -- only that you somehow felt he might ask for money, and that that made it OK for you to ignore him. I can see if you felt threatened that you'd make the strategic choice to not engage, but that's not what you said. It was about not wanting to be pan-handled.

A simple acknowledgment of his existence is I think the minimum standard here. "Hey man, sorry, can't help you right now" would be respectful of both his and your boundaries. It doesn't cost you a penny to give the benefit of the doubt and show a fellow traveler a little courtesy.
posted by nacho fries at 7:21 AM on July 18, 2014 [14 favorites]

No. You don't have to acknowledge him at all.

It's so fascinating to see the differences in responses between this thread and the other, similar thread about a woman being approached on the street. A lot of people give her permission to ignore or disengage. Why is that advice different here?

You don't owe it to anyone to acknowledge them. Ignore. Disengage. It's fine to keep your eyes down. If you've ever lived in a big city, you master the "city glare," which is basically just a little invisible wall around you.

It is hard to be ignored but this man should not be approaching people on the street. If he needs to be heard, to talk, there are other places he can go. Churches keep their doors open, for example. Just existing on the street does not give other people the license to talk to me.

It sounds uncompassionate, but as a woman who has seen it all on the street, from a man suggestively eating figs in my direction to being propositioned for sex, I think it's within everyone's rights to go about their outside lives uninterrupted.
posted by sockermom at 7:28 AM on July 18, 2014 [20 favorites]

This thread is dissimilar from the one involving the woman because, well, there is no de facto assumption that a man approaching another man has a likelihood of being an act of sexualized aggression. The OP has noted that this is the first time he's ever experienced being rage-called by a strange man. That would not be the case if the OP were a woman, I am 100% safe in betting. To not experience that sense of danger until you are well into adulthood is a privilege very few women experience.

The threat level is very, very different for women vs. men, and hence the advice is different.

Mingling with other people in shared public spaces in a city environment like DC (or L.A., where I live) involves giving up the expectation of being uninterrupted. I think suggesting to the OP that he "should" be able to do so is setting him up for frustration and confusion and feeling continually put-upon. DC, like L.A., like many other U.S. cities, has a significant population of people who are in the position of "living out loud" on the streets. They don't get to go home and act out their daily frustrations in private; they don't get to log into Metafilter and ask for help; their private world is on display for all to see in those shared public spaces. Which sometimes means they will interrupt another person to ask for something.

In my experience, having a nuanced approach to interacting with others works well. Sometimes not engaging is the best choice; sometimes engaging is better. gudrun's advice describes this approach very well, I think.
posted by nacho fries at 8:10 AM on July 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

You didn't do anything wrong.

Sounds like the guy was pissed off about whatever, wanted to vent, and you were the convenient and unlucky target of his rage. Simple as that.

Another possibility is that he wanted to rage at you, as I just mentioned, with the intent of hooking you into a physical fight. In other words, maybe he was chomping at the bit to beat the shit out of somebody and was looking for a eager participant. Just a guess.

You don't know what was going on with this guy and it's not your job to figure it out either.

Sorry this happened to you. When similar emotionally/physically threatening things have happened to me, it creates major feelings of being unsafe and general rattling of the nerves. You'll get through this. Peace to you.
posted by strelitzia at 8:18 AM on July 18, 2014

This thread is dissimilar from the one involving the woman because, well, there is no de facto assumption that a man approaching another man has a likelihood of being an act of sexualized aggression.

I agree that it wasn't sexualized aggression, but the OP still immediately perceived the approach as aggression. And yes, it's indicative of privilege not to have been a random target of street aggression (whether sexualized or not) until adulthood. But it is still a reasonable response for anyone, regardless of gender, to choose not to engage when they perceive they are being approached aggressively, regardless of the type of aggression.
posted by scody at 8:34 AM on July 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

And if it helps with some perspective, the guy would have done the same thing to someone else sitting there minding his own business. You didn't cause the behavior. This man made a choice.
posted by strelitzia at 8:37 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Hey" is not an ideal way to start a conversation with a stranger. A more polite option is something like "Excuse me, ...."

But worse than that is just ignoring someone who is trying to speak to you, especially when your reason for ignoring them is--admittedly--based on prejudice.

Also, a bad way to acknowledge a stranger is "What do you want?" A more polite option is "How can I help?"
posted by General Tonic at 8:38 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to weigh in on your followup- maybe in your actual interaction he made it into an issue of race, but nothing in your post mentioned him making into a race issue- it just reads like you yourself made it into a race issue by immediately profiling him due to his race, and thus YOU bringing in the 'othering' business. In any case I think the race/othering issue is a red herring here- he got angry because you ignored him when he started talking to you and it snowballed from there and he brought other aspects to be angry about into it (your clothing, namely, and the gentrification and such). Whether you should ignore him or not is another can of worms I guess, but personally I'd further infer that if the reason for his anger was you ignoring him, then you further ignoring him/disengaging would just enrage him more.

Subsequently I reckon the most optimal way to have gone would've been path of least-confrontation, i.e. firstly acknowledging him (just a simple 'hey' back), and if he were actually pan-handling just say 'sorry man, I don't carry cash' or something. And it might be just me, but I can't think of a way of saying 'what do you want' sternly that doesn't sound confrontational to some degree. Perhaps something along the lines of 'is there something I can help you with?' would've been better in terms of minimising conflict.

'Why is that advice different here?'

I know that in the larger picture, it's about aggressor/imposer vs non-aggressor/imposed upon, but for purely speculation sake, I think, sweepingly, that the dynamics here are slightly different in that in the women vs aggressor scenario, the latter is generally the privileged party, whereas here, the aggressor is the less-privileged party (or both are equally the privileged party depending on how you read it), and that makes things very slightly complicated maybe.

Anyway, hope you feel better soon OP.
posted by SailRos at 8:39 AM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do some intense physical exercise (e.g. running or punching/kicking a heavy bag) to burn off the adrenaline and residual negative emotions.

Start carrying pepper spray so that you can defend yourself if you ever run into this guy again when he's not in "peace mode."
posted by Jacqueline at 9:04 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have also experienced someone going off on me because I didn't respond to their street harassment, and even though they didn't get as violent, it was super upsetting. No one who is minding their own business deserves violence.

You seriously didn't do anything wrong, and people who are blaming you because you brought in race aren't helping. Do what you can to take care of yourself for the next little while, like the exercise, talking with friends, get some ice cream or a drink or whatever. Treat yourself with the kindness you want to see out in the world.
posted by ldthomps at 9:31 AM on July 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

And it's okay to threaten to kill someone because you've had a hard life?

I am going to say this one more time: Your refusal to so much as acknowledge him is likely something he felt as a real and serious threat to his life because if he is newly out of prison and homeless and does not qualify for food stamps (which you can be denied for having committed felony, iirc), then begging and starving are his only alternatives to continuing a life of crime. And you were denying him even the opportunity to so much as ask. If you are hungry and have no other means available to you, yes, it is enormously threatening for upper class people to casually condemn you to death for failing to speak "properly" or be "polite" or whatever their issue is. And if enough people do that to him, yes, he actually goes hungry. He actually suffers real negative consequences, not just emotional upset that someone said mean things to him.

So he most likely perceived you as a threat to his life and met that threat with a verbalization of a similar level of threat.

You have gotten some good examples from multiple people about how to treat potential panhandlers with common human decency and, as a minimum, acknowledge their existence. That is very likely to reduce the odds of something like this happening again. If you want to be safe, treating others with respect is the way to go.

But the reality is also this: One study found that upwards of 90% of people on death row have head injuries so severe that you can find evidence of them with an x-ray even if there is no medical record of the event. And a high percentage of people on the street have a mental health diagnosis -- plus many of them are self-managing that (or some other) condition with drugs or alcohol. So the reality is that a lot of people in his situation are not right in the head and, for that reason, can be quite dangerous and difficult to deal with. Still, treating them respectfully and not dismissively is a good way to minimize the odds that things will go badly.
posted by Michele in California at 9:39 AM on July 18, 2014 [13 favorites]

One way you can make this scary incident work to your advantage is to use it as impetus to take on martial arts training. NOT so you can use your body as a weapon of self-defense, but so you can develop the mental chops to keep you out of adversarial situations as much as possible, and so you can stay mentally "present" if those situations do occur. Staying mentally present will in turn give you more options in the moment.

You will also eventually start to carry yourself a bit differently -- not in a "Come at me, bro!" tough guy way, but in a way that subtly transmits that you are alert and poised. Body language sends very strong messages to potential aggressors. This isn't to suggest that sitting hunched over a phone is somehow asking to be victimized; but it is to acknowledge that a person who is somewhat tuned-out from their immediate surroundings will be perceived differently than one who is sitting upright and paying attention.

I found it personally helpful to train with a sensei who worked with me to rewire my flinch-fear response, and to teach me to keep a 360-degree awareness when I'm out in public. If anyone escalates to physical violence with me, I'll still most likely flail and be an ineffectual combatant, but I do feel I've done as much as I can to learn to prevent those types of situations, or at least be more mentally prepared when they happen.

I apologize that my earlier responses didn't acknowledge how scary and upsetting that must have been for you. I do feel for you on that. My area has the dual challenge of rapid gentrification and an increasing population of people who live outside in the public areas, many of whom are carrying their anger very openly. This is an everyday type of thing for me, since I'm out on foot all the time; I forgot what it feels like for it to be new and scary. I'm sorry.

Hang in there, OP. You're getting a bit of a rough ride in this Ask.
posted by nacho fries at 9:49 AM on July 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

I just wanted to add that I live in an urban environment and it is very common not to acknowledge people whom you suspect of being panhandlers or just don't want to talk to. Nothing against the norm in that - as this guy needs to learn if he wants to continue to stay out of prison.
posted by shivohum at 10:34 AM on July 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

In my neighborhood, I frequently encounter people who are down on their luck, homeless or underhomed, both black and white. Sometimes they ask for a cigarette or a light, sometimes for change for the bus. At my workplace, I frequently serve people who are similarly lower class and have likely experienced a lifetime of poor treatment and disrespect.

The best thing to do, whether I decide to help them or not, is to treat them with the respect they deserve as a human being. Meaning I model polite behavior, smile, and respond honestly and directly to them. I am continually pleased to find that respect is met with respect.


I meet their eyes and respond in an appropriate manner "Yeah, what's up?"

"Hey man, can you spare a dollar for the bus?"

"Sorry, I don't have any cash on me. Good luck."

"Ah that's ok. Thanks."
posted by General Tonic at 11:03 AM on July 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

It sounds like the guy would have ranted at you regardless of what you said. If your strategy is generally non-confrontational then I would, however, rethink the stern "what do you want?"
I mean, I don't know what you mean exactly with "stern", but imagine, for instance, that you have a problem with your taxes, you get irate at how you are ignored, and the government agent says to you in that tone of voice "what do you want?" It sounds rude and disrespectful. It escalates. And okay, if you believe panhandlers need to be treated sternly, then go on doing that. But it's not exactly non-confrontational. So think about whether it suits your stated unwillingness to escalate.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:07 PM on July 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

He sounds mentally ill, which is sad, but also still scary. Most mentally ill people don't harm anyone. If you see him again, call the police if he again behaves in a threatening way. They may or may not be able to help him out, but there's little else you can do, and some cop may know him and be able to get him back home. In reality, if he's recently out of prison, he'll have a probation officer. Poor person behaving badly, yeah, not much help for him, or for the person he threatened, you. Poverty sucks a lot, all around.
posted by theora55 at 12:49 PM on July 18, 2014

Those who have suffered disenfranchisement from the services and goods of society have every right to be angry. They are not insane to be angry that people walk by them in their suffering and do nothing. The fact that institutionalized abandonment of those in need is condoned by many powerful people inour society does not make it any less wrong or horrific. People DO owe each other support in a time of need and the neighborhood you're in has cut off a huge portion of people from what they need, and others are walking into that situations and profitting. They will likely expect to benefit from the services of underpaid employees in the area while simultaneously expecting the police protect them from the rage they feel at being harmed and exploited and wanting to fight back. You are shaken by this because you know he speaks true, and the american value of cutting off those in need is shit.

I believe in using the most peaceful means possible to make change, but recognize that people who are down the point of starving and watching family member get sick from poor diets and exhaustion from being overworked and livingin really unhealthy conditions are ready to start fighting and may even have some element of truth behind the force of their actions.

We need to start listening when people speak the truth- because people have been speaking it peacefully for years and those in power keep "peacefully" sending those people back to starvation and calling them crazy for thinking they should be "entitled" to that which they need to flourish (and that too often the people calling them crazy HAD from the very beginning and fail to ACTIVELY attempt to share with others).

I prefer peace, but sometimes understanding the roots of violence and that we ourselves would likely commit violence under specific circumstances THAT MANY REAL PEOPLE ARE IN, we might be able to seek peaceful solutions that preserve the welfare of everyone and not just the already privileged.

Letting people abuse you doesn't help the cause, so I'm not suggesting that as a solution- use self defense if ever needed- however this could be a learning experience and open new doors in ways you can see an act on an awareness of the humanity and needs of others.
posted by xarnop at 1:49 PM on July 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm pretty sure this dude was just looking for someone to mess with, and it turned out to be you. It's happened to me, and I've had the lingering shitty feeling. It's especially bad when you aren't prepared for that sort of interaction, just having a nice day out in the world.

I am female and live in Oakland, I am on foot or bike all the time. In the long run, I have not found treating people with a minimum of respect a bad thing. I'm not always good at it, because it can require energy and sometimes I just want to be left alone. I certainly don't allow myself to be blind to the possible dangers of walking up to someone's car to give directions, or being approached when I am sitting down on a bench and can't easily run the hell away. But I do try to remember a woman in my previous neighborhood who had been rescued from an attacker by panhandling street people; she always gave homeless people money afterward. I guess this is sort of a rambly way of saying that starting from a position of respect and empathy towards other people is one of the things I use as my first line of protection in urban environments, and coming right along with that is Always Look for an Out and Don't Take Things Personally. You could have been the nicest guy in the world and maybe he would have moved on, and maybe he would have unloaded anyway. This wasn't your fault at all- but people looking to start shit will certainly take the perception of disrespect as an opening.

That man's life has probably been full of the kind of violence you just experienced, every single day. That's no kind of excuse for his behavior, but at least that is not your life. That is something to be thankful for.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:09 PM on July 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

Sorry this happened to you. I accidentally ignored a panhandler one time, when it was dark and I had headphones in. I couldn't hear him, and in the darkness he couldn't tell that I was wearing my earbuds. He yelled, "Fuck you" really loudly after I walked past. At the time, I was irritated that he was pissed at me when I was minding my own business until I realized later that he had probably asked me for change and thought I ignored him completely.

Aggressive panhandling is very common where I'm from, and I've found that requests for money are usually best handled by just addressing them directly (eg. giving them money if you're inclined, or saying "No I'm sorry, I don't have any change on me"). That's been the way I've dealt with it since my teenage years and it's been problem-free. Ignoring them is the worst, except if someone is seriously acting in-your-face and you definitely need to get away from them. Take it as a learning experience to react in a different manner than you did in this situation if you want. If you continue to ignore, be prepared that you will get some kind of negative reaction at some point.

Of course, I don't really know if the guy in your situation was really going to ask you for money. Your gut reaction was to ignore, and this probably angered him, in addition to saying "What do you want?" Sounds like he has had a rough time, maybe from circumstances beyond his control and maybe from his own decisions, and he took the opportunity to unleash his frustrations by picking on you. He likely felt belittled by your initial assessment and treatment of him, and he made sure to belittle and intimidate you in return. He doesn't know your life story, and you don't know his. Try not to be too bothered by what happened; he's got to figure out his own way in life and you do too.
posted by extramundane at 2:47 PM on July 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think you were disrespectful right from the beginning by not responding to his greeting, not making eye contact, not smiling. "What do you want?" is about as rude as you could get; would you say the same thing to a white old lady who approached you and said hello? Of course not.

I have contact with lots of folks of all colors who are in a sad financial state and sometimes they ask for money and sometimes they don't, but always I smile and act pleased to speak with them and I've never ever felt threatened by anyone on the street, including the young, baggy-pants/swaggering/tattooed men who are supposed to be scary. When I smile and talk with them, they usually end up calling me Mom or Granny or something and we part on a laugh.

You must show respect if you expect to get respect; you won't be respected because you're wearing a nice suit and have a $100 haircut. There are lots of angry people out there who have nothing to lose and they're not about to be talked down to or ignored by anyone; if you want to lose the fear of these people, engage them as human beings, with courtesy and civility.
posted by aryma at 8:37 PM on July 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

I run into homeless folk fairly frequently ( my church meets downtown inside a local business) and the majority of the time, if you treat them the way you would want to be treated, the interaction is way more pleasant.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:42 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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