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What Should You Do When You Witness Abuse Happening In Public?

By Alexandria Roswick

We’ve all wanted to be the hero but there are some serious risks that come with intervention.

Have you ever been out getting a coffee and overheard someone shamelessly reviling their partner at the table next to you? Or have you been in line at the grocery store and seen a parent berating their crying child? Maybe you’ve been at a friend’s house for dinner and he suddenly begins to scream at his wife for dropping a plate.

Most of us have witnessed emotional or physical abuse in public. It’s jarring. It’s uncomfortable. And it could escalate and become even more dangerous for any party involved.

How do we react in these situations?

In my experience, I’ve found that most people don’t say or do anything. Once in a while, you see people try to diffuse the situation calmly or excuse themselves altogether.

But most of the time, people pretend it’s not happening. I’ve definitely been there. Although I don’t completely agree with this passivity, I’m deeply conflicted because I’m not sure if it’s ever safe to intervene.

Don’t get me wrong, these perpetrators are truly the worst that planet earth has to offer. If it were up to me, I would not only give these demons a piece of my mind, but I’d happily eject them into space. However, when it comes down to it, I always stop myself from acting on this fantasy.

As I said, these issues are complicated. It’s completely normal to cower away from an abuser who is going off on someone. That being said, it’s also common to feel the urge to confront them. Unfortunately, many don’t realize that doing so can actually cause more stress and hostility toward the victim.

The realities and risks of intervention

Partners or children of abusers are usually aware of the public perception of their loved one’s off-putting behavior. They understandably feel shame when an outsider holds a mirror up to someone they’re attached to.

The way that abuse is designed is to create the illusion of this unbreakable “us against the world” connection between the two people that only favors the abuser. This “ride or die” mentality causes the victim to become completely codependent on this person.

So, if you call out the abuser in public, it may make the victim cling tighter to them in defense. Even though you’re literally trying to defend them, they might view it as an attack. You may be surprised to see the victim come back at you for speaking against their partner or parent.

It’s important not to victim-blame in this situation. Understand that it is perplexing as to why victims could react this way, but it usually boils down to self-preservation. They not only feel protective of their abuser due to the unhealthy dynamic, but they also know that if they don’t stand by them, they will surely pay for it later with emotional or physical violence.

The biggest risk of confrontation is that, in most instances, it gives the abuser an excuse to blame and retaliate against the victim later on. Another risk is that drawing attention to yourself may make you the abuser’s new target, whether it’s verbal or physical harassment. Abusive people, although pathetic and insecure, are severely dangerous.

Do not underestimate the precariousness of matters involving these predators. They are capable of causing unthinkable damage.

Even if nothing physical occurs, there are serious social implications tied up in these confrontations, especially for those who live in small towns. Not all, but many abusers are well-liked in their communities. People don’t like to think they could be duped so easily, but the truth is, there are probably several of these monsters in a given area. They could work at the local high school or doctor’s office. They could be anyone.

This certainly makes it more complicated for someone to go up against them without facing the fear of retaliation or loss of access to certain networks and opportunities. Compared to what the victim faces, this may seem like small potatoes. But it’s worth mentioning because it’s a massive obstacle in the way of prevention. We are less likely to blow the whistle if we feel it could negatively affect us.

Plus, when the community sides with the abuser in any quarrel, it sends a cruel message to the victim. It reinforces the fact that they would not be believed if they were to ever speak out.

One might suggest calling the police on them in a public altercation. My main concern here is that the presence of a police officer will thoroughly bruise the abuser’s ego and make them indignant. Although they deserve to feel shame, they will potentially take it all out on the victim afterward.

Also, let’s be honest, police officers are often not very helpful in these situations. There’s basically nothing the police can do to save victims from abusive relationships until the abuser resorts to physical harm. Even then, they are limited.

When it comes to emotional abuse, police are utterly useless. In many cases, they make matters worse by victim-doubting — which only strengthens the illusion of hysteria created by the abuser’s manipulative tactics.

So, unless you or the victim is being immediately threatened, please weigh the risks of this option before dialing 9-1-1.

Despite knowing all of this, as a survivor, when I witness a person get away with relentless abuse, it makes my blood boil! So much so, that I’m abruptly tempted to verbally attack them in the same way that they are to their victim.

This behavior is the most loathsome display of cowardice. When I see a person unloading on an innocent in public, It’s really hard for me to fight the urge to stand up to the bully. Seriously, it becomes an instant need for me to take them down a few notches by giving them a taste of their own vitriolic medicine.

Of course, it must be recognized that my firey response is based on a personal trigger. I’ve been in abusive relationships. I’ve been in the victim’s shoes — humiliated and made to feel small by the exact same type of repulsive troglodyte. I’ve also known many other people who have been beaten down by these monsters.

But I must hold myself back. Because this isn’t about me and my pride. That abuser isn’t my abuser, and that victim is not my past self.

The reality is that anything the abuser “suffers” (i.e. social confrontation or the dreaded accountability) will be suffered tenfold by the victim when they are behind closed doors.

Of course, the only person to blame for abuse is the abuser, but knowing what I know, it's not that simple. I can’t help feeling like if I were to step in, a victim would likely be punished for my actions.

So I’m wondering if there is any way to handle these situations that could possibly hold the abuser accountable while communicating to the victim that they deserve better treatment — all without putting anyone in possible danger?

Sounds impossible, I know.

Abuse is far too common for us to ignore, but I’m not sure if there’s any action that can be taken without risk. We need to bring these conversations to the forefront if we want to prevent violence.

I think about this hypothetical concerningly often and I ask almost everybody for ideas. I recently asked my Instagram followers, and nobody could come up with anything.

So what about you, Say It Loud readers? What do you suppose we do? How do we stop abuse as it’s happening? What can we do to make it known that certain behavior is not tolerated? How can we keep our communities safe?

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