It’s so fucking hard to intervene. By hard, I mean that it’s fucking terrifying. Especially when you’re someone who is sometimes targeted yourself. You may be someone who has been beaten yourself. Someone who knows that people want you dead. It’s the scariest thing in the world. You might get beaten if you intervene. You might get killed.
I have, three times in my life, stood by and watched beatings. For me, personally, living with passively watching is so much worse than having my ass kicked. I’m not haunted by my beatings. I am haunted by the times I watched.
The first time, I was 15. It was 1990. I was an exchange student, in Germany, living in a tiny (< 1000 people) village on the edge of the river that divides Germany from Poland. At the village bar one night, neo-nazis came in, and dragged a kid out into the street. We all watched while they circled him, and beat him while he screamed. Then he didn’t scream any more. I had nightmares for weeks.
The second time, I was 18. It was 1993. I was in a Seattle park, and in the distance, a man started beating his dog. It was a smallish dog. It might have been 30-35 lbs. He held it down, lying on it, yelling, and punched it repeatedly, while it squealed and cowered. I froze, terrified, and watched.
The third time, I was 21. It was 1996. I was in Seattle, and a group of young men, on the opposite side of the street, were beating an older man. He was curled up, in the fetal position, on the ground, crying. They were kicking him, and kicking him, and kicking him.
I am tempted to explain exactly why I stood by, in each instance, and didn’t intervene when these things happened in front of me. What was happening for me? But I won’t. Because at the end of the day, every time, I watched because I was scared. Each of those times was terrifying, and I learned from them. After each instance, I promised myself that I would never do that again. Since that third time, in 1996, I’ve always intervened. It doesn’t always go well. I’ve had my ass kicked too, and I won’t pretend that it’s safe for me to intervene. But it’s a hell of a lot easier to live than it is to stand by and watch.
Living with watching a beating, if you’re a decent person, is difficult. It sucks, so much, and I’m not remotely as emotionally responsive as the average person. I am however, ethical. It should change you. It surely changed me.
It’s fucking terrifying to step into a violent, or potentially violent, or even just anger-fueled situation. I don’t want to pretend that it’s not terrifying. Nobody expects us to not be scared. That’s real courage: acting in the face of terror. We just need to act anyway. Now, we all need to do what’s terrifying. And now, terror is everywhere.
Be a proper champion. We can do this. Please do this. Stand up. Get between. You don’t have to physically fight. Just sit next to the attacked person. Talk with them. If you’re white, put your white body between that brown kid and their attacker. If you’re a U.S. citizen, you can’t be deported: run interference. White bodies are the most protective force in this society. If you’re straight, say something, do something. Don’t just watch. If you’re cis, put yourself on the line. Trust me: Living with watching someone beaten in front of you is so much worse than taking a beating.
A champion is someone who fights on the behalf of someone else. I need champions, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. I’ll champion others who have less institutional power than me. Being a champion is the most honorable thing you can do. At this historical moment, we need champions. Want to make history? This is it. This is the moment. We’ve got this.