I witnessed something disconcerting last week that I fear is not as unusual as I previously assumed. In my final hour of work of my final day of the work week, I was returning to my department’s building when I heard a great deal of shouting. At first I thought nothing of it; my building is on the edge of my institution’s campus and across the street is a particularly noisy neighbor who spends too much of his time yelling at his dog. I’m not a fan of that behavior, so I looked over to see what the poor golden retriever did this time to incur his wrath, only to discover that it was not the noisy neighbor and his dog, but a man and a woman exchanging words in a shouting match that also attracted the attention of a fellow employee. He and I looked on with concern as a young woman, probably around my age in her late 20s-early 30s, was walking quickly away, a bag in hand, on the sidewalk as this man, who looked to be slightly older, but not by much, was urging her to stop walking through “this neighborhood”. Now, our adjacent neighborhood is not always the nicest part of town, but this was in broad daylight, and it’s not an area known for constant crime as much as unruly residents (i.e. the aforementioned noisy neighbor who should be kinder to his dog). It was immediately apparent that he was not truly concerned for her well-being in the neighborhood though, as much as he was attempting to coerce her back into the van.
With continued shouting, it became apparent that they were husband and wife, and after one of his harsh pleas to get back in the car, she screamed back, “I’m done!” A brief series of similar exchanges occurred, and the woman started marching off. The man cursed, and frighteningly sped after her in the van. He pulled into the driveway of the next house (which my institution owns and staffs as an office) and they continued their shouting match. My coworker asked, “What’s that all about? Should we call somebody?” I resumed my pace back to my building to get to a phone, but stopped when I heard another voice: a child calling from the backseat of the van to the woman, saying, “Mom! Please get back in the car!” It sounded like one boy, but I cannot say for sure how many children were in the van. After a few more shouts, the woman returned to the van and got in. The man sped off and they were gone.
I went into the office and called security. Due to the angle, I was unable to get a license plate number, but I did get a basic color, make, and model of the van. Security had already been alerted to the shouting, but honestly I don’t know what they could do. It’s not like they could even pursue the van with their mobile unit for long – assuming it was even near the situation at the time. Even if security called the police (as I hope they at least did), what could they do? The woman got back in on her own volition. What I witnessed was a short domestic dispute, that hardly even merited a “disturbing the peace” charge, and certainly wouldn’t be followed up in a city with bigger problems at hand. There are extremely huge, real problems like armed robbery, gang violence, sex trafficking, and murder at play. A couple of young middle to upper class white people yelling at each other over nothing substantial is not making the six o’clock news, let alone the police blotter.
However, this does not mean that it should be overlooked. The police have little time or means to follow up on such a matter, yes; my work’s security is ill-equipped to actually handle such an interaction, and it didn’t take place on our property until the end, true; my random coworker and I do not have the authority or expertise to address such a situation, and even alerting one of the higher channels as I did is not a surefire bet to getting this situation looked into further. The cruel reality is that none of us have the ability to react to this situation in a helpful manner.
Nevertheless, prevention is the best medicine.
I don’t know that family. I ascertained that it was a married couple with one or more children, and it seemed apparent that the woman was unhappy that she was being mistreated in the relationship. I honestly do not know if she is physically abused, but given his tone, I can confidently say that she is emotionally mistreated. Maybe they married too early into establishing whether they were a good match and by the time she realized he was bad for her they had already had a child. She only returned to the van after the child spoke up. The need to care for the child exceeded her need to escape a toxic relationship. Whatever the reasoning for her getting together with the man, and whatever the reasoning for staying with him, it does not matter. What matters is that a woman is in a place she does not want to be, and a man is being aggressive toward her. Unfortunately, I can do nothing about it. My random coworker can do nothing about it. Our work security can do nothing about it. The police can do nothing about it.
But someone can.
Someone knows that family. At he fewest, there is one person who knows them and the situation at hand. If that scene transpired in random neighborhood in front of me and a coworker at the end of our workday, then it has reared its ugly head at home too. Perhaps one of their neighbors has heard the shouts, and maybe even has talked to someone in the family about it. A family member or friend of the family is sure to have at the least an inkling of what goes on between that husband and wife. I do not know them. I do not know where they live. I do not know how often such shouting occurs. But someone, somewhere does.
It is easy to feel helpless when you see signs of domestic abuse. It is frustrating for me to think back on and wonder if I did enough. Is there something I could have done more? I don’t know if it’s more frustrating to think that I could have done something and didn’t, or that I couldn’t have done anything else. Either way, the real key to stopping this from happening is to address it when I see it. If I knew someone was being abused – and remember that not all abuse shows in physical scars – I would report it. I’d tell whomever I needed to in order to prevent it from continuing. I might seek counsel from my mother, or my best friends, or my mentors, but I would share the information I needed to with the proper parties, and always including in those in any situation of abuse is the police. When I know with absolute certainty, and even when I just have a really weird feeling about it, I will report abuse to the police because at the very least, a report will be filed and that inclination of abuse will be marked. If enough “maybe, I’m not positive, but it just seems like something’s happening” reports come in, the authorities can take a closer look. We cannot let the fear of staining someone’s reputation scare us away from the possibility that they may be the one ruining someone’s life. Speak up when you see or suspect abuse. Even if it is a friend or family member, an abuser has a victim, and we need to do our part to protect the victim and not the abuser.
Thanks for reading, and good luck to you all in making the world a better and safer place for everyone. If you believe you know of a domestic abuse situation, please contact the local authorities, or at least share it with the National Domestic Abuse Hotline.