In recent weeks, there have been high-profile assaults against women in Philadelphia and in Salem County, New Jersey. Something beyond the horrific assaults struck me about both of these incidents. Parts of both assaults were recorded, and in these recordings, not one person intervened. It is a difficult decision to come to the aid of a stranger, but to see an assault and become something of a voyeur is on par with condoning an assault.
To be fair, in the grainy video of the moments before an assault near Rittenhouse Square in Center City Philadelphia, how many bystanders there are in the area is unclear. It is also unclear if the victim was able to show extreme distress, but she is clearly impaired in her walking, when a man comes up to her and attempts to command her body. Anyone who has ever been to the area knows it is very lively, especially on summer evenings near closing time, when the victim was walking home from a local bar. It is hard for me to believe that not one person saw that young woman and thought she may need some help.
In the video of an assault in Salem County, where my husband lived as a child and where some of his family still resides, a 26-year-old mother was severely beaten in the face in front of her young child. In some articles, there were reports of some issues between her and some of the women she worked with at the McDonald’s near where the assault took place. It is unfortunate those words came to blows, and it is horrendous that, when the attacker clearly punches her victim unconscious, she continues to punch the victim in the face and then threatens the victim’s crying son. Yet the most terrible part of the 54 second recording, is that it was recorded, and posted online — and not one person with a phone is calling the police. They stand there like assault voyeurs, using their phones to record the crime. Not one person comes to the aid of the victim. Not one person attempts to help the 2-year-old child. They stand there and watch and do nothing.
In no way am I trying to minimize the offenders’ parts in these crimes. These assaults would not have occurred but for them. However, a bystander not intervening in a clear assault condones that assault and perpetuates further assaults. Think to one of Spider-Man’s defining moments, when his refusal to intervene in a crime results in the death of his guardian, Uncle Ben. Stan Lee created that scenario, and Spider-Man and many of his comics in fact, for a reason. To impart to people how important it is to be of assistance to your fellow man and woman. Assisting each other is something we all must learn. Our humanity is at stake.
In early 2000, I was walking home north on 6th Street late one night from a bar. It was around 2 a.m. and I was very intoxicated. My friends asked me to wait for them; I insisted I would be fine on the nearly two-mile walk back to the Gray’s Ferry house I then shared. The whole thing was very routine for me: Generally, I rode a bike or walked everywhere. As I continued walking towards Callowhill Street, I passed a man walking along a small side street. He looked at me in a way that was instantly frightening. At the time, I had some distance on him and I just kept walking.
The area around 6th and Callowhill is intensely busy and intensely solitary at the same time. It contains heavy traffic from bridges and highways, but the foot traffic is nearly non-existent. There are parking lots, some surrounded by bushes, and abandoned areas. I could hear the man I passed running behind me. After I turned to be sure I was being pursued, I began to run, and panic. People were passing in cars, but no one would stop. I remember screaming for help and looking every which way for places where I could be seen, where someone else would be, and I just kept running, but he was gaining on me.
Then suddenly, as I turned left off of 6th Street, to avoid the dark underpass just ahead, I felt someone hook my arm at my elbow. It was a woman who was walking up Callowhill Street. She said, “Come with me. It’s going to be OK.” Then she turned me around and we walked in the direction of the man running after me, who by then was just feet from us. “Leave her the f— alone!” she screamed at him. Together, arm and arm, this woman and I walked right past that man. Our combined power was no match for him.
I do not know this woman’s name. I wish I did. I would scream it from the rooftops and whisper it along with my prayers. In so many ways, she saved my life. I have been in circumstances in my life where people stood by and watched while I was assaulted, so I know the rarity of this amazing woman. Yet, if there were more women, and men, like her, the power of violent people would be reduced dramatically. Standing up to do the right thing is difficult and necessary. In a world where we are all accountable for each other, in a world where we find no pleasure in the victimization of others, we are less likely to be victim to one another.
An earlier version of this appeared on the author’s website.