Violent encounters with random strangers…

This morning on the way to work, I came across a situation and was left thinking of what responses were possible.

An obviously drunk man of about 30 carrying an open tall can of beer in his hand came up to a younger (maybe 16-18 year old) boy and started belligerently berating him on the subway in between stops. He threatened the boy that he would find and later kill him. That revenge is sweet. All sorts of angry banter. The boy sat quietly, looking down at his phone, earphones in, mostly trying to ignore him.

The man then swaggered down the subway car, stopping at least 3 times to yell at other passengers, his voice growing with each passing taunt and his aggression level clearly rising.

The boy looked up at me and the numerous other passengers in the vicinity as the man turned his back and just shrugged his shoulder and shook his head and mouthed– I don’t know him at all.

At first when I saw the confrontation– I had an assumption that the two males knew each other– and had perhaps had some previous violent background (such as gang affiliations), but as the man continuously walked up and down the subway car continuing his anger on other unsuspecting passengers, I realized that this was not the case.

I thought about the possible responses to this I could have taken and weighed each option over in my mind.

The man’s growing anger was clearly making the passengers extremely uncomfortable. The boy seemed seriously concerned, as did the other objects of his anger. Would it escalate? Would it come to the man becoming physically violent? The car sat in silence, people nervously exchanging glances outside of the man’s gaze—and others burying their noses deeper into newspapers, books or electronic devices.

The man had a beer in his hand– so he obviously got past any “security” on the TTC; did he have a knife or other weapon in his pocket? Would he be willing to use it should the situation escalate?

Would any other passengers speak or stand up against his abuses?

Would the man get off at the next stop?

Would anyone alert TTC authorities?

If I said something, what would I say? What would/could I do to de-escalate the situation?

In the end, I did nothing and I felt disappointed with myself at this response. I exchanged glances with other worried passengers, and watched as the belligerent man got off at the next stop.

Situations like this happen and often times fear holds us back from action. Fear held me back from action this morning. I was afraid that my doing something would escalate rather than de-escalate. I thought about trying to calm the man down, but ultimately thought against it, worrying that his response would turn violent against me. Sometimes there is no reasoning with people because they are emotional beyond reason. I don’t know this man and what he’s capable of.

What would you do/say? How would you respond?  How can we step in to de-escalate violent confrontations with strangers in our lives?  Is avoidance the best policy?

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13 comments

  1. IMHO, there may not have been any better options open to you and the other passengers on the subway. Obviously this guy was unknown to everyone. No one knew the mans background. It sounds possible that he may have some sort of mental illness that was only exacerbated by the alcohol.

    I used to bartend in a … shall we say, not-so-nice neighborhood. It was also just down the road from a VA hospital that tended to specialize in treating vets with mental illness, so we definitely had a few instances where patients would be released, perhaps too early, come to the bar and drink and sometimes become belligerent. The only tactic I ever learned was to try to make the person think you are a friend, a comrade, you understand their troubles, and let them talk out their anger. Of course, this tactic was hit or miss, and most times, I relied on previous relationships and interactions with these folks to calm them down. We also had a security guy, who we had to use quite often, and he wore a bullet-proof vest under his shirt for a reason.

    So sometimes, silence and ignoring the person is the best action, and probably the safest for EVERYONE involved, the belligerent man included. Don’t beat yourself up over the “what if’s” too much.

  2. Under the circumstances, it depends on the particular person wishing to undertake the move. If the individual is female and not versed in martial arts, quietude as seen in this episode can resolve the matter. But where there are males with martial arts skills, they should firstly grab the bottle away from the lunatic and possibly strike him with it instead of allowing him to kill the teenager. The incident, especially in a subway provides no room for any police officer to intervene. This is very critical as inaction on the larger part of those present could turn out to be a hostage situation with serious repercussions for all. I think that while we may mostly be against open hostility to all individuals, it is not always the best to keep quiet or inactive in the face of obvious danger to oneself and others. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Tough question, Rebecca. I was in a similar situation a few years ago (a loud and aggressive man on a crowded bus verbally abusing passengers) and I found myself equally impotent, unwilling and unable to intervene. The experience remained with me for a few more days but I never came up with viable response strategies. Perhaps doing nothing is the best response: these people are clearly looking for attention and responding to that call legitimizes their behavior. As long as they do not physically assault anybody, they’ll be left to realize their foolishness. On the other hand, ignorance might lead to escalation as they might believe that ignorance asks for more aggression.

    I am looking forward to other experiences and some more useful suggestions here. Thanks for the post.

  4. I was once on a BART train on my way from San Francisco back to Berkeley when two young men began a shouting/shoving match right over the seat of a tiny older woman dressed head-to-toe in the all-black of the archetypal Eastern European Grandmother. I’d have ignored them like everyone else, as best I could, if she hadn’t looked so panicked and horrified. Not knowing what to do precisely, but sure I didn’t want her to get squashed, I stood up and stepped just out of arm’s length. I began nodding to each in turn, as though I were listening to them carefully and watching with great interest. One turned and said “What are YOU looking at?” To which I replied that I didn’t know, which was true, and kept giving them my full attention. The speaker yelled an expletive at me and broke away to storm into an adjacent car. I looked at the other guy, who shrugged and went back to what apparently had been his seat. Could I have been attacked? I suppose so, but not without witnesses and potential legal consequences. If that had been my grandmother sitting there, now with a look of profound gratitude on her face, I would have wanted somebody to do something.

    When you ask the questions above, the one that remains unaddressed by my story is the question of avoidance being best, which seems to me only possible to answer in retrospect. In advance, all we can do is prepare ourselves to be ready to make the decision to engage or not. For me, that preparation has involved practicing what I now call Martial Nonviolence. As we see frequently on PCDN, peace has more to do with “conflict done well” than avoided, which is why I use that phrase on my invitations to students and colleagues to learn martial arts (my choice is aikido) to begin dealing with fear associated with physical conflict, and improvisation to bring imaginative options into verbal conflict, and some process art (group process design and facilitation) to bring that imagination into groups. In short, peace requires practice. If we don’t practice some specific basics, then we can’t expect to have tools at hand when the opportunity to call for peace or for justice presents itself.

  5. @Erica — yes, this was my thinking in some ways. That as long as the situation remained verbal, it was probably in everyone’s best interest to just stay silent. But at the same time, I thought perhaps this might escalate in front of me to the point of hurting people physically and then what are my response options.

    @ Gbawu F. Woiwor I thank you for your suggestions– but I don’t think I will ever approach a situation like that with martial arts. I am searching my brain to look for the most non-violent approaches if at all possible. Can we calm the belligerent person down in any way and model a different behaviour? Staying silent in this instance, was perhaps the least-violent approach in this case– as luckily it didn’t escalate into anything further. If it had escalated, I’m not sure what I would or could reasonably do.

    @ Jaroslav Petrik It’s a tough question, but I believe that the power of modelling new types of behaviour can change how we interact with each other in future actions, like they do in the Theatre of the Oppressed. The problem is, you could try to verbally de-escalate the situation and that sets the whole thing off even worse.

    @Anonymous I do like the simplicity of the snack-man maneuver. Physically separating, or creating separation between the two parties can be quite effective. Thanks for sharing that! I apologize, but I have removed the last part of your comment because I don’t want this post to become about Middle Eastern politics.

  6. @ Brandon Williamscraig Thank you for sharing!! I have more to say– but I have to run!

  7. This is Richard Kane in Philly PA The anonymous comment on this blog is an except of the one I made at, internationalpeaceandconflict.org/profiles/blogs/violent-encounters-with-random-strangers
    I think the needless guilt Rebecca Sargent felt in not making a scene points to the overly narrow definition of what a peacemaker is. Someone distracting two of their children that seem about to be in a fight, or even yelling a nasty expatiate and nasty insults and running away to stop two people larger then themself from fighting. Sometimes attempted peace efforts are the opposite like people hurling insults at a foreign country so we here in America can get along better. Left out of the excerpt of my points posted by autonomous is how impressed I was about Ron Paul raining on the Republican hate debates and the US Black Muslims removing little kids from the street during tense confrontations Israel kills children made the tension between Israel and Palestinian much worse before someone started removing rock throwing six and seven year olds from the streets,

    http://readersupportednews.org/pm-section/77-77/11309-ron-paul-has-done-more-for-peace-than-people-who-dedicated-their-entire-lives-working-for-it

    When I was in grade school the class was about to make a substitute teacher cry I succeeded to make the biggest loudmouth’s girl friend to put up her nose and he shut up putting a wall of silence around me until that teacher told me to shut up and the class laughed, and when she said why do you listen to that troublemaker they laughed so hard that she gained control and I was proud. Much later at the confrontation over the Move back to nature group and the city of Philadelphia, that then inspired children, and the kids taunted a black police officer saying you belong on our side of the street then they told me I belong on the other side but when I started to cross an officer began shaking his club at me and the kids starting laughing. Again I was proud to stop a riot except after I was arrested. Later a sharp antagonist pointed out that the Black Muslims had time to get the kids off the street without my calming efforts. Any ways I have ideas of creating peace that make more sense than a old friend Cathy Chang who set herself on fire but I this point have no intention of doing something that will make people mad at me unless a doctor a some future date says I have only a few more weeks to live. The reason why we don’t know how much it hurts for insults to be hurled at Islam, is that they respect Jesus and thus don’t hurl touchy insults at Jesus in response to that which are hauled at what Islam holds sacred.

  8. I use the tool of Nonviolent Communication in this sort of situation and it’s never failed me so far.
    I can either guess what’s going on in him (“Do you want someone to hear how pissed off you are?”) or express myelf honestly (“I’m scared right now, feeling hopeless that anything I say might be taken the wrong way and make things worse. How does this land for you?”).
    It defuses all the situations I’ve found myself in and has given me courage to intervene and live up to my values. Being part of a silent majority no longer has appeal to me I’m delighted to say!

  9. This is Richard Kane in Philly PA. The anonymous comment on this blog seems to an except of the one I made at, internationalpeaceandconflict.org/profiles/blogs/violent-encounters-with-random-strangers, I wish the whole comment had appeared and my attempt yesterday to add to it I hope won’t appear making me seem redundant.
    I think the needless guilt Rebecca Sargent felt in not making a scene points to the overly narrow definition of what a peacemaker is. This of course is in a world where most feel danger when their (or someone else’s) seat belt isn’t fashioned but not when a driver is on the phone. Sometimes doing nothing is the best answer, especially if more distractions would make the road trip even more dangerous. So Rebecca Sargent should feel great that every one acted for the best, with only a nagging discomfort at the troubled passenger didn’t receive any help for his inner demons.
    A parent who distracts two of their children who are about to fight is being a peacemaker, even yelling something nasty and running when two people larger then oneself are fighting. Sometimes attempted peace efforts are the opposite like people hurling insults at a foreign country so we here in the US can feel unity, and not fight domesticity. Left out of the except of my comment posted by anonymous is how impressed I am about Ron Paul raining on the Republican hate debates and the US Black Muslims removing little kids from the street during tense confrontations. “Israel kills children” made the tension between Israel and Palestinian much worse before someone started removing rock throwing six and seven-year-olds from the streets,

    http://readersupportednews.org/pm-section/77-77/11309-ron-paul-has-done-more-for-peace-than-people-who-dedicated-their-entire-lives-working-for-it

    When I was in grade school the class was about to make a substitute teacher cry I succeeded to make the biggest loudmouth’s girl friend to put up her nose and he shut up putting a wall of silence around me until that teacher told me to shut up and the class laughed, and when the teacher said to the class, “Why do you listen to that troublemaker” they laughed so hard that she gained control and I was proud. Much later at the confrontation over the Move Back to Nature group and the city of Philadelphia, that then inspired children, and the kids taunted a black police officer saying “You belong on our side of the street” then they told me, “You belong on the other side” but when I started to cross an officer began shaking his club at me and the kids starting laughing. Again I was proud to stop a riot except after I was arrested. Later a sharp tongued antagonist pointed out that the Black Muslims had time to get the kids off the street without my calming efforts, so “You shouldn’t feel you did anything to save the world”. Until she corrected me I thought I changed history. Anyways I have similar ideas of creating world peace, but since my arrest in 1978 I haven’t acted the same way, and at this point I won’t make the slightly older children that run the world mad at me in such a way that they won’t fight with each other. I have no intention of doing something that will make people mad that mad at me unless a doctor a some future date says I have only a few more weeks to live. The reason why we don’t know how much it hurts for insults to be hurled at Islam, is that they respect Jesus and thus don’t hurl touchy insults at Jesus in response to the insults that which are hurled at what Islam holds sacred.

    What I can safely do is point to other dangers. In 2008 the date the Large Hadron Colider was started people were scared, In 2001 Mexico was upset that their sacred crop, corn, was cross-pollinated by the wind to include insecticide from genetically modified corn that US scientists were feeding to pigs. Insecticide that makes alarmed bees flee the hive. In 2011 some were upset that Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park was rumbling and might become a super volcano, Google “The year without a summer.”
    Anyway, Rebecca Sargent making this a more safe peaceful and loving world includes figuring out when to tell a driver to get off the phone and when not to say anything at all when a fellow subway passenger acts angry.

  10. This is Richard Kane in Philly PA. The anonymous comment on this blog seems to an excerpt of the one I made at,the InternationalPeaceandConflict blog. Over there, when a comment didn’t post, much later all my attempts were posted.

    Long before I saw the Snack Man causally getting between to fighters video I became amazed on how much peacemaking is not done by announcing I want to make peace,

    A similar video has a profound effect on how we see the world. In 1954, or 1956 when I was learning how to read, I read in Readers Digest, I wish I could find that issue of the Readers Digest, it was fascinating, uhh.hawaii.edu/~ronald/hmp.htm that on an island scientists videotaped a tribe of monkeys for several months and were excited to document how first one baby monkey began washing his sandy fruit in the ocean, then his playmates, an un New Age explanation is that monkey’s everywhere washed their fruit, with the exception of that one island,which just happened to be the island where scientists first videotaped monkeys day in and day out.

    After I first noticed some peacemaking is done by those who don’t announce I want peace like a parent distracting two child who are about to fight, I noticed Ron Paul debate, phillyimc.org/en/ron-paul-created-some-peace-raining-republican-blood-lust-debates-more-come and many years ago I saw Wallis Mohammad of the Philadelphia branch of the Black Muslims yelling, “Get your women and children off the street”, when discussing this later was told they do this all the time in tense situations,

    In the Israeli Palestinian conflict there no longer are stories about five and six-year-olds throwing rocks, or stories about how Israel loves to kill children. There must be some behind the scenes peace making going around on over there.

    Perhaps there could be a study where everyone would payed to be videoed but not told why and in one situation tell one member that they all will be paid depending on how well done the project would be completed and in another group that they would all receive the same pay but a huge bonus for the top and second person who accomplished the most.
    In one group say that the group that was the most harmonious would get a bonus and in another that the person who did the most to promote harmony would get a big bonus.

  11. Hi, sorry! I was away from the computer for several days– so didn’t get to these comments until today.

  12. This situation reminds me of the famous case of Kitty Genovese, the inspiration for a new French film called 38 Witnesses. Of course, in that case, someone was murdered while everybody stood by and did nothing. But their inaction was caused by the same feelings and fears you describe. They are human, of course, and thus quite understandable. But also unfortunate. I believe that in most cases, just the simple act of distraction can save our fellow human from harm or severe discomfort. At the very least, we can look for or call for help. Every instance of “looking away” dehumanizes us all.

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