It was summer 2004, during my first trip overseas. Two friends1 and I were taking a shortcut through a park.
Some distance away we saw a man knock a woman to the ground. The man then proceeded to kick the woman, hard, as she cried out.
The three of us were pretty “activist”, so we ran into the midst of the small crowd that was forming and disrupted the violence. I helped the bawling lady to a nearby bench as my friends got in front of the man. One of my friends, who had already been there a couple months and was much more culturally competent than myself, confronted the man in question.
The man, my friends, and the crowd were talking over each other, but I thought I heard something that sounded like “You don’t understand, it is not what you think.” At that point I got a better look at the sobbing woman next to me on the bench and noticed….stubble.
“Oh, that’s a surprise,” flashed though my mind. “I guess…we protected a hijra?”
The person whose beating we had just intervened in was a eunuch or “hijra”, the third gender in south Asia. Hijras are biologically male persons who are taken in by the hijra community and assume the appearance of women, often including castration. There can be tensions between hijras and other residents.
The man who had delivered the blows claimed that the hijra had exposed himself to the man’s wife. Was it true? In the intervening years I’ve seen such things happen myself, so it is certainly possible. We didn’t know anything.
My friend tried to explain to the man that even if the hijra had done something offensive, kicking and beating a person as they lay on the ground wasn’t the solution. Several heads in the crowd nodded and voiced their agreement. Others said that we didn’t understand and that the beating was justified. We left when it was clear that no more violence was coming.
In some incidents of violence the situation is unambiguous. Others are like this. Who was the instigator? If the person being beaten had instigated the situation, how do we react to that? Were both are at fault? Regardless of who was at fault, doesn’t escalating violence only make things worse, and thus shouldn’t you intervene to short-circuit that process? I feel our intervention was the right thing to do, even if we didn’t know the whole sequence of events, but others disagreed.
This was not the last time that I stepped into a situation without knowing all what was going on. There have been times that I worried I may have done more harm than good. But if I waited until I understood….how far might the beating go before I am ready to intervene?
Once I happened upon a physical altercation between a boy of about 11 and a middle-aged woman. I paused before intervening, thinking the boy might be be her son or at least a relative and it could be inappropriate for me to get involved. Within seconds the woman dealt a blow to the boy that knocked him unconscious. As I helped to revive him and sought medical assistance, I found that they were strangers to each other.
Another time I saw a man wrestling another man to the ground at night. I got in-between them and tried to get them to deal with each other rationally. But the moment my interference caused the aggressor to release his grip, the man who was being wrestled down ripped off his own shirt, jumped on his motorcycle, and sped away. It turned out that he was drunk, and his friend was trying to keep him from driving in that state.
Those moments stick in my mind as the two greatest errors I have made when intervening, one where I was too slow to take action and the other where I was too quick to assume. But I have made other errors as well. I’ve learned that acting on my first instincts won’t always be accurate, but “waiting until I have all the information” can leave me guilt-ridden if things go bad before I’m ready. I haven’t found the perfect balance.
Still, there is a great advantage to making mistakes while intervening nonviolently. The degree of damage we could have done was naturally limited. We didn’t hurt anyone, and we didn’t escalate the violence such that more damage was likely. When I choose nonviolence, then no matter what mistake I might make, I am not contributing to the damage myself and any negative consequences that come about still have to be made via the decisions of others.
And if all goes well, I will have not only stopped a violent situation, but given participants and observers a road map for loving each other better going forward.
 I fact-check my stories whenever I can, sometimes via my own old notes and, when possible, by verifying the event with other people. I emailed my friend who was the main protagonist in this account, and he didn’t remember it at all. He suggests his advanced age (lol) was the problem, I think it more likely that he had been in the midst of a much longer trip than me and it got buried in the other mind-blowing experiences we had been having. Also, my shock at seeing the stubble on the woman I was physically helping probably burned it into my memory a bit better, while he just confronted a man about his behavior and then moved on. I’m quite sure the incident happened, but as the other participant didn’t confirm it (and I didn’t write up my nonviolent interventions until years after the event), I thought it best to include this disclaimer.