The crowd pulsed, a hundred people behind my arms, 20-30 of them trying to push forward with sticks and other weapons. Opposite us another 15-20 men advanced on the mob, some of them wielding weapons of their own. Belt blows from the front rained down on my arms and shoulders, and someone’s elbow or fist caught me in the side of the head.
How did we get here?
I had been eating dinner in the dark with my wife and foster daughter when I heard a roar outside. “That’s not a normal fight.” I went out and saw a crowd filling the alleyway, half of the men unknown to me. For now it was a yelling match, but I saw signs which indicated that real violence might be possible. I went downstairs and got ready to intervene.
I soon found that the unfamiliar men were from a nearby neighborhood and had come to back up someone in a fight. I couldn’t understand the yelling enough to figure out what it was about, but the women living next door to me had instigated it. If things proceeded as usual, there was a good chance there would be yelling and not much more.
Some teenagers I was friendly with made their way in my direction. Electricity had been out, so I was wearing my headlamp for light and it attracted their attention. One wanted to try it on, and got a kick out of shining the light in everyone’s face. Minutes later he slipped something into my hand. Brass knuckles, or at least a cheap steel version. I’m dumbstruck that these kids had come to the argument like they were ready for a gang war. He shared that the weapon didn’t belong to him, but to another teen.
In the dark I casually slipped them into my back pocket and said they got lost. The original owner argued for them back, and I told him I’d give them back later. My friend laughs and calls the kid a “beast”. The teen appeared to be satisfied with my promise to return them. I decide I’m gonna hold onto them until I know the moment of violence is passed.
The argument wasn’t getting resolved, but people were pushing the instigators to back off and the energy was dying. The outside boys that formed one faction moved further and further away until they were almost around the corner. I decided to get back to dinner, and discreetly slipped the brass knuckles into the kid’s hand and went back upstairs to eat.
Ten minutes later, a roar came again.
I rush down and see that people are at each other. I work through the mob to try to get to the flash point in the middle. Some people trying to hold back the most aggressive instigators, but other fighters are streaming around them. I get into the gap and begin to pull/push people back until we create a gap between the mobs.
If my language was better I might have understood what happened next, but someone said or did something that escalated the tension. The crowd surged and I thought they would push past me for a second, but I was just barely able to hold them back. A hand pushed on my chest and I realized that two other guys, shorter than me but bulky and strong, were also holding the crowd back. I shouted, “Hey, I’m trying to help you!”, and they realized that we were three. In that narrow alley, the three of us with our arms out formed a wall. The major instigators in the mob behind us failed to break through out of some combination of lack of strength, lack of coordination, or lack of commitment to the fight. The mob in front didn’t have the same kind of coordinated wall, but there were two people who were individually trying to keep the most aggressive men back.
Suddenly there was another rush and the two groups met. We managed to hold the wall, but now were being pushed from both the front and the back. The guys in the mob in front of me had pulled off their belts and randomly-aimed blows struck my arms and shoulders. Someone behind me from my “own” group hit me in the side of the head with either a fist or an elbow. But we held, and I yelled at them to back off, and somehow something made the mobs pull back again.
We still had to maintain the wall but I felt a bit of latitude because they weren’t pushing as hard anymore. I accused over the general din, “You hit me! You hit me! Why did you hit me? What did I do?” The sight of a random foreigner, clearly not fighting anyone himself, confronting them in their own language seemed to disarm them. Several boys apologized, and most began to back off further and form sort of a straggling presence down the alley rather than a grouped mob.
I took the chance to turn and look at my own group, and saw that several still had sticks raised in threat. One woman who had seemed to be at the center of the issue picked up a brick; I moved through the crowd towards her and she put the brick down. I went to her anyway and reached for the stick that she held in her other hand. At first she tried to pull it back from me, then she let me have it. I dropped the stick in the gutter.
Looking back again towards the mob on the other side, I saw one of them back off to just around the corner, lift up his shirt, and tuck something back into his pants. I didn’t see what it was at all – it literally could have been anything. But I have some feeling for what it looks like when a man tucks a gun into his pants. I kept my eyes on him but he hurried away in a different direction from everyone else and disappeared. The presence of a gun there would be hard for me to believe – I wouldn’t put more of a 20-30% chance that that’s what I really saw. Yet without voicing a word about it, an hour later when things had wound down I began hearing vague talk from neighbors about “the gun” that someone else had seen.
Back to the present, both mobs had backed off to the point that there was now 50-60 feet separating them, with the door to my house directly in the middle. Besides myself only three or four other people walked in this gap between the groups. I don’t know what separated someone who thought they should stay behind the lines from those of us who were willing to walk in the middle, but it was obvious I could go where I pleased.
I wandered over to “my” side, and the tension had dropped enough that people started talking about my role in it. “You were holding everyone back!”, some of them said, and one teenager began to mime the way in which I’d extended my arms to hold back the crowd.
“You got hit, didn’t you?” several asked, which excited a lot of people, and the extent to which I’d been hit began to dominate the conversation.
One or two of them felt my chest and said, “Your heart is beating hard, isn’t it? Stranger’s heart is beating so hard!” Meanwhile the tensions decreased and people from both sides began to peel away. A moment or two before two police officers came around the corner, the opposing mob disappeared entirely.
The police behavior was ugly. They were intimidating (one officer was at least 4 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than me, a shockingly large person in these parts), but they intimidated in the manner of tough teenagers, not mature adults. They yelled at and berated the family who had started the thing as if they were speaking to naughty children. About the only good thing they did was order the family to stay inside their home and not come out into the alley again for one hour. Overall, they reminded me more of how a young gang leader might handle a dispute than an officer of the law.
The remnants of “our” crowd that were still there responded to the police by getting in complaints about this person or that person from the other side who had done violence. Then I hear, “They hit the White foreigner too!”
Great. I’d been wondering if I should disappear too when the police showed up. I didn’t want their attention.
The officers were shocked when they heard that. I had stood next to them as they berated the family, but perhaps in the dark they hadn’t recognized I was a foreigner. Or maybe they had seen me but assumed I didn’t live there, or that I hadn’t been involved. They asked the crowd questions and several of the crowd reiterated how I had been hit. They turned towards me from 20-30 feet away and asked if I had been injured.
I shouted out, “No, no, I wasn’t injured, it was nothing. No, it was nothing,” and made as clear as possible that I was not going to get involved in their complaint.
The officers continued to interrogate the crowd incredulously. They seemed shocked that I lived there, asked what I was doing, got the explanation that I was teaching reading. Thankfully, they got enough answers from the crowd that they didn’t come back to me. They left, and I left.
Back up in my home, my landlord’s family scolded me. First they told me not to go outside when such fights happened. I explained that I and two other men had stopped the entire fight, and I would not fail to get involved in such a situation because something really bad could have happened. They shifted tones and said that that was okay, but that I needed to disappear once the police came. This was their real concern. We talked about the police for another ten minutes. I explained that they had nothing to worry about, that I had my official registration papers that they had helped me to obtain, that I had signed in with the local police two years earlier, that my visa and registration and lease and everything was all in order. They still made very clear that they didn’t want any involvement with the police, in any way, ever.
This is a common sentiment in the slum. Almost everyone I know has told me nothing but bad things about the police. They avoid them at all costs.
I agreed with the family that the police behavior I had seen was not good, and that I would disappear next time and not stick around if the police were around. That seemed to satisfy them, and they’re okay with me getting involved to stop the next fight.
The next day my involvement in the riot was the talk of the community. Rumors that I had been injured seemed to have spread, and I was asked about my “injuries” by 7-8 people the next day.
One of the most touching interactions was from an old, half-senile man who asked me to sit next to him and then lamented what had happened. “How could they have hurt someone like you, a nice man who has come here just to teach the children and is doing such good things?”
The second most touching interaction was from a teenager who had been present, who rushed up to me the next day and shouted in an emotion I’d have to call glee, “I listened to you, didn’t I? I respected you, didn’t I? I did what you asked!”