I saw a BMW driver whip a man with his belt last week in Center City Philly. Some American men have no ‘pause’ button. This is a problem.
On a recent afternoon I went to the Starbucks at 12th and Walnut for a Cool Lime Refresher. I joked with the employees about how I’m too déclassé to say the words “venti” or “trente.” Large and extra large suit me just fine. I feel like a poser when I go against my lower-rent nature, and I feel like a class interloper in Starbucks. Eventually, one day, everyone will know I’m a phony and exile me to Dunkin’ Donuts.
A short while later, while smoking a cigarette outside, I saw a BMW driver take off his belt and horsewhip what looked like a homeless man. Nobody did anything.
Hey! I’m walking here!
It was during the evening rush hour, a common urban scene: A defiant, likely inebriated jaywalker was having words with a driver. I could not fully hear them, aside from the stray “f—s” that my ears are trained to hear. The jaywalker ended the terse tête-à-tête by splashing a plastic cup full of ice and liquid onto the back of the BMW, gesturing dismissively, and walking away.
I’d seen the jaywalker before in the Gayborhood. Often drunk, he’s not terribly pleasant. I’d call him salty. I’ve tepidly declined his various requests for years, but I always acknowledge him. I remember what it’s like to be inebriated and homeless.
The driver pulled over, got out of the car, and inspected his metallic steed. He saw what I saw: no apparent damage. I tried to shrug it off — literally, I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head for his benefit. But he didn’t notice me, because he had embarked on a mission to teach this jaywalker a lesson, presumably for violating the caste system and having the temerity to invade his space
As the driver removed his belt, I thought, He’s not actually going to do that! But it certainly was happening. Denial is always the first stage of grief — for the loss of a civil society, or a fellow human being’s humanity.
He walked across the street and began whipping the jaywalker like they were characters in a Charles Dickens novel.
“Whoa, that is unacceptable!” I shouted from across the street. “You are beating a homeless man. Stop that!” I felt like a preschool teacher telling a little boy to stop hitting a classmate.
The man just stood there, flinching, submitting to the beating and waiting for it to end. He didn’t seem surprised. It wasn’t a brutal lashing, which was good, I guess, but also confounding: This was a purely symbolic, anger-fueled outburst.
“You are beating another human being!” I yelled. “Just because he threw ice and water at your car does not give you license to beat him!”
Most passersby kept their heads down. Those who looked up didn’t seem startled by the beating itself, but rather that I was shouting.
The pause button
That spilled icy beverage signified something: I can reach you whenever I want, BMW driver.
I remember making those gestures myself when I was on the street, forcing people to notice that I exist before they simply stepped over me. Sometimes it’s the only way to avoid feeling invisible.
The driver snapped out of his toxic hypnosis. “Mind your business,” he retorted, which puzzled me: If a person being beaten on the street isn’t the business of the rest of us, we’re all in trouble.
“You just assaulted him,” I replied.
“Call the cops then,” the driver said, pivoting toward me, unimpressed. I understood why nobody else interjected. I had involved myself in a crazy situation, and now I was a participant. The driver was now focused on me.
“I will if you stick around,” I said. I then recited his license plate to him. I felt like a schoolyard tattletale. I wanted to grab the driver by the collar and exact extrajudicial punishment on this man who stupidly spends his resources on luxury vehicles and treats human beings like they’re livestock. I am much larger than him, and I knew that my rage would give me a leg up, at least for a time.
Then I realized I didn’t want to catch an assault charge myself, or act like a lunatic, over some misanthropic dweeb in a beemer. This thought process occurred in about a second. Because I’ve addressed, and continue to address, “my issues,” I now have access to that critical pause button. It saves me from acting out on my particular brand of crazy every single day.
What if it were worse?
The BMW driver got in the car and sped away. Clearly both men had made mistakes, but nothing that should have resulted in a public, humiliating beat-down — and certainly nothing that negated the jaywalker’s humanity.
Even if the flung ice had damaged the car in any way, the driver had two courses of action: call the cops of do nothing. (If you’re a man who objects to only those choices, you’re part of the problem.)
The jaywalker, baffled that I had interjected, never thanked me. He didn’t seem terribly bothered by the grotesquery, either.
What bothers me most wasn’t the class dynamic at play or the fact that I was the only one who vocally objected to the beating — but rather a hypothetical situation I thought of later: What if, instead of a belt, this driver had opted for a gun?
Firearms now outnumber people in America. And, as I see it, American men have lost their pause button.
It really is a male problem: Twice in the past year, a man pulled a gun on the Community College of Philadelphia campus in order to teach someone a lesson. In both of those instances, a man was feeling something — powerlessness, insecurity, emasculation, whatever — and decided to show off his swagger with a firearm.
Over 90 percent of mass shooters are male, too.
When men act out, sometimes it’s with harsh words or a puffed-out chest. Other times, it involves publicly beating a marginalized human being with a belt simply to make a point.
And, in the most tragic or frightening instances, it involves taking innocent life.
Until we address this — first, that men are emotional creatures and, second, that men behave like monsters because they don’t want to identify those emotions — we will simply wait around for the next horrific tragedy.