Monday, November 6, 2017

How Could I Not Intervene?

Margarita Saona
I am a bit shaken. No physical harm was done, but a lot of verbal abuse and I am not sure if I made matters worse by intervening...but I don't see how could I not...

I was walking to the grocery store and thinking how cool it was to see all these kids coming home from school on such a beautiful afternoon. I thought, "This is a nice neighborhood. These kids can walk home feeling safe." But as soon as I thought that, only half a block further, I saw an older woman standing by a car yelling at a teenage girl. The girl was standing against the fence of a building listening to her phone. The lady was getting into her car, but kept yelling at the girl. 

I was going to just keep walking when I did a double take and asked the girl if she was okay. She nodded imperceptibly but looked clearly afraid. I asked her if she was waiting for somebody and she said yes, her sister. I asked her if she wanted me to wait with her and she nodded emphatically. In the meantime the angry woman kept yelling at her all this vile stuff that started with saying "It says no trespassing! Can't you read!" The tirade included things like "You animals!" She basically accused the girl of being a prostitute. 

The girl looked to me like a young teen, maybe fourteen. She was African American or African (there are many African immigrants in my neighborhood). The angry woman was white. I am Latina, light skinned, with a clearly foreign accent. A couple of times I said calmly "We are not trespassing. We are on the sidewalk." She yelled at me to mind my own business and asked if I was the girl's mother, to which I replied that I was her friend. Finally, a school bus arrived, a girl stepped out of it and scurried away with the girl I had been keeping company. They did not look back. I stuck my head in the bus and told the driver what had happened and asked him to watch out for the girls the next day. As I walked away the lady yelled to me again to mind my own business. By now it was clear to me that this lady was mentally disturbed. I also talked to the crossing guard. This happened just a little bit further away from the area she would be watching as kids crossed the streets. She promised to be on the lookout. 

The angry woman had gotten in and out of her car several times during the incident and I have to say that there was a moment when I thought "What if she has a gun in the car????" Luckily nothing else happened, but I keep thinking of those girls and wonder if this interaction had happened before or if it would happen again. I wonder if I might have made the woman angrier by making her feel disrespected. (But of course, she was violently disrespectful to the girl). 

When I came back from the store I noticed that the woman was still in the car. Then I saw that the car had a "No trespassing sign." She was not referring to the building! She was referring to the car! It also had several plastic bags all over. I realized that I had read part of the story wrong. I thought the woman lived in the building on which fence the girl was leaning. My impression now is that the woman is probably homeless and lives in her car. I remembered that when my husband's grandmother had dementia one of her delusions was that there were kids doing drugs by her window. I feel all heartbroken: on the one hand I realize that this old woman must have a hard life and that she was not acting rationally. On the other hand, the kid was being terribly harassed and, I still believe, terrorized. In self-defense I have often heard that the mentally ill are more often victims than aggressors. But fear can also lead to violence. And things like dementia can also bring up deep anger and prejudices. I'm sad and still a bit afraid thinking the girl might need to wait there again tomorrow.

Days later: The event haunts me. I drive often down the street where it happened and I am always on the lookout for both the woman’s car and the girl and I wonder if they are okay….

Margarita Saona
Second Degree Black Belt
Thousand Waves Martial Arts and Self-Defense Center
Author of Corazon de hojalata: Tin Heart
Professor and Head of the Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies
University of Illinois Chicago

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