At midnight last night, I heard running then screams right outside the window of my partner's house in San Francisco. We ran outside. Right on the sidewalk, a guy tackled a woman and brought her down to the pavement, hard. She was screaming "Get off me!" and "Just give me my phone!" I remember standing over them in my pajamas, coldly saying, "You need to get off her right now. Let her go." Both my partner and I moved to stand between them. The guy was alternately pleading with her to listen to him, calling her by name. (I'll call her Roxana here, though that wasn't her name.) He was yelling and trying to grab her. I got my phone and handed it to Roxana, and got her to come into the doorway. She wouldn't quite come into the house.
I wish I'd told her I was calling a cab and would pay the fare. I wish I'd persuaded her to come sit in the kitchen and have some tea. I wish!
She was shaking too hard to dial her friend's number, so I dialed it for her. Her friend was waiting for her on Mission, six blocks away down a hill. The attacker was threatening her by threatening us.
"Roxana, do you want me to shoot this n*****? It's gonna be your fault." (Pointing at my partner.) "I'll shoot him, I'm gonna shoot his ass. Is that what you want? You want me to shoot you, n*****?"
He told us he'd shoot us, and that he'd be back tomorrow to break our windows. Then he told Roxana and us that she was just drunk. That scared her on a whole other level. She seemed to realize it might discredit her. "No… YOU'RE drunk… not me…" she said in protest. Neither of them seemed drunk. They didn't smell drunk. Her attacker yelled at her a lot for listening to us.
"You're gonna play it like this? Seriously? In front of THEM? I'll kill those n*****s." He shamed her for his own public attack.
Roxana was determined to go to her friend down the hill on Mission Street. We begged her not to go. Come in, come in. You'll be safe here. You can sit in the kitchen with us. I realized she was going to go home, and he would go with her, and she was going to get beat for all this, extra beat on because we tried to intervene, and she let us.
I told the guy that I was following them, and if he touched her again, I would call the cops. I thought of cameras -- but it was dark. He ran right up to her and got her in a headlock. She fought like a tiger and got away. He grabbed her and stopped her every few feet, down the hill in the dark, in the middle of the street.
So I became a cop caller. That might sound strange to you. Maybe 90% of you reading would have called the cops at the first scream. Somehow, I could not. I thought she might listen and come in with us, while if we called the police, they would both be long gone. I have some measure of distrust for the police, as well, from past experience. Would they come? Would they care or dismiss it as a domestic dispute? Would calling them only put her at more risk -- once they got home? It was a dramatic escalation. Talking with them was working at first. You just want to say … man, really you don't want to go to jail! Please!
While I was in this guy's face, putting my body between him and Roxana, I was afraid but full of a very strange clarity that I couldn't do anything else. It was a delicately balanced situation. He was almost listening to us. He wasn't actually beating on anyone -- though he was punching one fist into his other hand. He could attack me, but he hadn't yet. I might get punched in the nose. He could easily throw me to the ground and seriously hurt me. While he was threatening to shoot my partner, I pictured that happening, and knew that he was too, and knew that neither of us were going to back down. It was abstractly interesting to realize that I was scared but did not suffer from physical cowardice. It was like I was on some other plane where, yes, something bad could happen, but the bad that might happen if I walked inside was just as bad -- he could kill her right there. The risk of violence to us didn't outweigh the right thing for us to do.
I thought, even in the moment, what if my 10 year old son were here? First of all, I am afraid he would leap into any danger and start attacking anyone he thought was a bad guy. He's the most peaceful, quiet person, but that's what would happen. I thought, well, I'd send him to knock on people's doors, and he'd do that.
I wish I'd had time to talk to the attacker. All night and today, I've had imaginary conversations with him in my head of the things I might have said to him to persuade him that beating this woman and not listening to her was not a good thing. Might there have been some way to get through to him? I didn't have any hope for that. I tried only to stand up to him, and to persuade her that we would go all out to help her. That it wasn't her fault.
As I talked with the 911 dispatcher, in the middle of the intersection, leaning on my cane, part of me wanted to cry and panic. But the dispassionate part that was analyzing the situation overrode that easily. Oh look, I want to cry. That's interesting. I think I'll move on now and do what needs doing. Noted. I wonder if other people feel that way in a crisis situation. The 911 operator tried to talk me into going back into the house. I refused, because I wanted to keep Roxana in sight. While I could see her and she was screaming, at least I knew she was alive. If she went down under a tackle again, my partner was right there and would try and save her. I'd see it, and would limp all out to catch up and help until the cops got there.
The cops came. I pointed them down the block and explained they'd gone down the steep flight of stairs that lead down the hill to the part of the street that leads to Mission. I went inside and rested a minute, looked around for my other crutch, then realized it was in my car. I limped out and went the 2 blocks to where some police were gathered, questioning my partner. At the bottom of the dark staircase, another group of police were talking with Roxana and her attacker. I sat down, explained what I'd seen. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the stairs, Roxana denied anything had happened. She refused to press charges.
The police said that because she wasn't physically damaged anywhere they could see, they couldn't press charges unless we'd witness it. We both filled out witness statements for the police report. They then asked if we wanted to press charges ourselves for the threats to shoot us. Did we "take those threats seriously?" We looked at each other. Nnnnnno. Not really. On most levels I felt it was just bluster. But I was terribly afraid, and didn't know if he had a gun. So, I did take it seriously. The charge would be a felony charge, while his attack on Roxana was a misdemeanor! We did not press charges for the shooting threat.
The police were extremely nice and efficient. They had arrived so fast -- 2 cars in two different locations surrounding us -- and remained totally calm. "Most people wouldn't go out and do that, or wouldn't even call us. Thanks for doing it, and so fast."
"What happens now?"
"He'll go to jail over night, then go up before the judge for bail in the morning. You might get called to testify. She won't testify, so the case will get dropped."
I asked if they thought it would help her take it seriously, or, would help if, in the future, she had a problem. "Oh, yes, absolutely. She's going to end up in the hospital someday, and this will be on his record and it'll help bust him." That was almost reassuring except for how certain we all were that she was going to end up in the hospital at some point. I could see these policemen, nicer than so many I have dealt with, bearing this huge burden of sadness, speaking of her with respect and sympathy for her plight, and her choices.
I am left with a day of having to continuously dismiss the fears from my mind. I had the phone by me. I don't think the guy would remember where we were during the fight. But I certainly imagined -- well, what if. Basically, I went to sleep last night at 2am wondering if a brick was going to come through the windows and then felt like that all day today.
At around 5:00 today, as I was working from my laptop from bed, there was a knock on the door. "It's San Francisco Women Against Rape . . . hello!" The world really couldn't have sent a nicer angel to comfort me on this stressful day. Will I donate to help end rape and domestic violence? HELL YES. I invited in Angela, the canvassing angel, whipped out my credit card, and signed up to support SF-WAR.
"I've called your hotline before while I was upset and they were very helpful. Thank you. " I told her the story of Roxana and her attacker last night. She said if I needed to call the hotline to talk about it, I could, because that kind of thing could trigger thinking about past situations, and it was good to ask for support.
I wish I'd said, Roxana, come in, please come in, we don't know each other but I'll give you the money in my wallet for a cab so you can go to people you trust. I'll treat you like a sister. I'll take care of you; don't go with this man into hell. Let him go on without you. It was terrible. There was nothing I could do. Maybe I have ruined their lives now by bringing them into the criminal administration system and the prison industrial complex. I wish I'd said, Roxana, this is domestic violence, there are places that can help you. Here are those places.
I want to call Roxana's friend and ask how she is. Her number is on my phone. I want to tell her, please don't be ashamed of what happened and that we saw it. I saw how hard you fought. You were determined to tell him to get away from you. You have got to be proud of that fight.
Tonight, after talking with Angelica from SF-WAR, I resolved that tomorrow, I'll walk around the neighborhood a little and knock on doors. Did they hear what happened at midnight? I will explain what happened, and what we did, next door. If they hear something like that happening again, might they please come out, or call the police? Maybe that'll help the feeling of bitterness and alienation I have today. Where were our neighbors? What did they think was happening? Why didn't they come out?
Have you walked away from abuse and violence? Have you stepped in between, for a moment, between an attacker and their victim, and known it was only a moment's protection - but done it anyway? Did it take you time to learn how to cope with a crisis right "in the moment?" Did you call the cops? And what was the followup? How did things go down?
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