Sitting on a raised basement, our living room is positioned a half story above street level. This provides us with a tree lined view of the urban bike paths, street and busy tram lines just high enough to be seen by passersby, and just low enough that the branches don’t obscure our view. The first few months of living here I was acutely aware of the people outside, suffering from the strange sensation of being on display. But with the passage of time, that perception has changed. Much like a person living next to a playground no longer notices the playful screams and laughter of children at recess time, now I hardly notice the people outside. Unless the patterns change.
One Monday afternoon as I stood in the living room, my eyes were suddenly pulled outside. No longer was there the languid movement of people going about their business, but a sudden cluster of dark-haired teenagers along the tram line. They pressed in against the metal guard rail as they surrounded two young girls gesticulating wildly toward one another. Soon a cat fight broke out. For a good three seconds, the situation felt humorous, in that uncomfortable, sitcom sort of way as the girls started pushing one another and pulling hair. But as the crowd of 20 or so teenagers got sucked into the burst of violent energy the fight quickly escalated. Fists flew, other students got involved and within 10 seconds one girl lost her balance, falling to the hard cement. Other kids began kicking.
I quickly unlocked the glass door, stepped out on the balcony and shouted in a deep guttural voice “Stop now! Or I’ll call the police!” I clapped my hands loudly to emphasize the seriousness of my words. The teenagers fled like rats from a cat, running off in multiple directions. Several quickly turned to see me and my husband, who was now beside me, and just as quckly turned away, as if afraid we were memorizing the contours of their round young faces for a police report.
It wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed a crowd-induced fight. Nor was it the first time I’d found myself suddenly yelling into a crowd. My first trip to Italy over a decade ago provided for just such an occasion.
My traveling partner and I arrived late one July evening in the Rome Train Station to discover that the strike that had delayed us several hours in Napoli was also in full swing in this station. Blurry eyed with heavy packs on our backs, we didn’t look forward to the prospect of finding a hotel past midnight in peak tourist season. But then a stocky middle-aged Italian woman approached us.
“Need a hotel tonight?” We’d become quite used to such forward solicitations from the Italians, but knew to keep our guard up in Rome. Or at least I did.
“Yeah. How much?” my travel mate said. Seriously? Wouldn’t it be safer to find something on our own? I thought. In a less seedy part of town? While I was doing my best to convey these thoughts through a series of eyebrow contortions, he made a deal and we started following her out of the train station. But just then, my eye caught a break in the pattern.
A fight broke out not 20 feet from where we stood. A group of lanky young Italians started attacking a dodgy looking man in his thirties. A metal luggage cart was lifted in the air and came crashing down on his head. I’d learned a few words in Italian and suddenly I found myself shouting:
“Polizia! Polizia!” The police came quickly and broke up the fight. I wondered if it was too late, as an impressive pool of blood was already forming beneath the motionless man, staining the marble floor of the train station. The woman who we continued to follow out of the station told us that it would have been fine if this man had been killed as he was a known drug dealer. Great, I’m headed back to a hotel with a woman who knows the squalid underbelly of this ancient city and condones vigilante style murder.
If Wikipedia were seeking a photo of seedy, this hotel would not disappoint. When I complained that the shared bathroom and shower was too dirty to even consider using, the woman called her mother to come mop it up. Mom, hunched and thick, must have been in her late 70s. I wondered if the Italians had an elder abuse hotline, or if this was the way things worked in this part of town. The beds were so awful that we slept on the floor on our sleeping pads. But we survived.
Speaking of survival in the true meaning of the word, I wonder if that man in Rome so many years ago survived and why I was the only person to take action. It was, after all, a hot summer night in peak tourist season with plenty of other people around. Of course I like to think that I helped save this stranger, rather than witnessing his murder.
I’ve heard stories from close friends who have also had these situations; there is someone in their midst, a tragedy unfolding and they are the only ones to respond. I’m not suggesting some sort of moral superiority. I didn’t choose social work or another selfless career. I haven’t received any citizen awards for outstanding public service.
It’s more that I wonder what is it that makes one person break out of her awe-struck gaze at a situation unfolding and take action, and another stay fearfully or apathetically locked in place? Remember, for the first few seconds of witnessing the cat fight by the tram line, I participated as a spectator. But I broke out of that role and took action.
I can think of a few reasons I find my voice in these situations: I grew up with older brothers around and had to hold my own, providing my lungs with lots of training; I was raised with strong Christian ethics to do the right thing; my formative years were spent in a small country town where girls never got hit when they spoke up (at least not in public) and I’ve had the great good fortune of avoiding violent situations. So perhaps someone with a rougher background might say the reason I speak up is that I don’t know any better.
And on the flip side, why do violent actions often stem out of groups? One answer I found is “deindividuation.” Deinidividuation, according to a SouthSource article, is when you lose your sense of self-awareness when in a group. Suddenly, you feel anonymous and no longer individually responsible for your actions, as “everybody’s doing it” and you are just an anonymous member of this anonymous group–thus the potential for acting more boldly, or violently. But if you are in a large group that is witnessing something violent, wouldn’t you boldly protest? I’m not sure if it works in the reverse as well.
The next time I’m in a large group, I will try to keep the concept of deindividuation in mind. But in terms of staying true to who I am, I have to wonder; Now that I’m an official urban dweller with a daily view to the tram lines outside my window, will time wear down my good Samaritan reflexes, if I can call it that, or is this a characteristic that will stay with me to the end? I pray it will be the latter.