By Anna Brüner
"I do not know your name — but I know that a lot of people failed you that terrible January night and in the months that followed."
You’ve heard it before in middle school anti-bullying assemblies. You’ve read it in public ads on the subway. Maybe your Sunday school teacher even uttered the words in a watered down lecture on stranger danger. “If you see something, say something.” It is part passive plea, part ingrained civic duty. It is thrown around with other do-gooder mantras like “just say no” and “don’t be a litter bug.” It dapples the landscape of pre-recorded messages that drone over airport speakers, “Don’t be a bystander. Report suspicious activity. If you see something, say something.”
There’s a post that was floating around my Facebook newsfeed for a few weeks. Three women were out to dinner when one of them witnessed a young man a few tables over slip something into a girl’s drink while the girl stepped away. When the young man got up to go to the bathroom, the three women approached the girl and told her what they saw. “But he’s one of my closest friends,” the girl told them, later adding that her car was parked at the man’s house and that she had come here with him. The women proceeded to inform members of the waitstaff who informed the restaurant’s manager, who was able to catch the man slipping something into the girl’s wine on the security cameras and immediately called the police. An attempted rape successfully prevented. The internet rejoiced.
“I haven’t seen you since the office party! Can I introduce you to my boyfriend?” a friend of mine said at a house party to a woman they have never met before who was being harassed by an aggressive, sober man. She went along with the act, grateful and relieved, and my friend called her a cab while they went outside to meet the imaginary boyfriend. On Master Of None, Dev (Aziz Ansari) and Denise (Lena Waithe) film a man masturbating on a crowded subway car before calling him out on the act, inciting other passengers to speak up and tell the conductor before calling the police, moments after having a conversation about how people see these kinds of acts all the time and usually do nothing. In real life, two students on bicycles stopped Brock Turner when they saw him attempting to rape a fellow Stanford student.
In his open letter to the Stanford survivor, Vice President Joe Biden wrote of “a culture that promotes passivity. That encourages young men and women on campuses to simply turn a blind eye.”
But it isn’t just college campuses. It’s high school dances and tree lined side streets in good neighborhoods. It’s public parking lots not long after dark. It’s your favorite bar or your best friend’s Christmas party or the church you’ve attended since you were three. It’s beaches and parks and bike trails. It’s alleyways that serve as the quickest way home.
A couple of weeks ago, a woman was stabbed and had her throat slit on the Chicago red line after saying “no” to a man who asked her to have his babies. Nobody did anything. Some people even took photos of her as she bled out on the floor. It happened on a train I take every day, at a stop not far from where I once walked alone to my partner’s apartment when we first started dating. But it could have happened anywhere. On another train, in another neighborhood, in another city.
“To see an assault about to take place and do nothing to intervene,” wrote Vice President Biden in his letter, “makes you part of the problem.”
I was in an abusive relationship for nearly two years. Several months in, we went on a double date with a good friend of mine and his girlfriend. We never went out with anybody. It lasted only an hour, just a quick dinner. The next day I woke up to a series of texts from my friend.
“You need to leave him.”
“You need to get out of there.”
“This is not okay.”
I didn’t leave then. I should’ve, but I also “should’ve” left long before that moment. But even though I didn’t listen to my friend in that moment, I did start to notice just how dangerous my relationship was. I stopped making excuses for my partner and started to see the framework of my abuse. I wasn’t able to do that the first time he made me feel bad about myself as a person. I wasn’t able to do that the first time he hit me, or the first time he raped me. But I was able to begin to do it the moment a friend brought attention to it. It wasn’t all just “in my head” anymore, I wasn’t being “crazy” or “manipulative” or “overreacting,” as my partner had brainwashed me to believe. This was real, and it was real because someone else, someone I trusted dearly saw something and said something. It would take a few more of my friends seeing and saying something to finally push me to leave for good, but God knows how long I would’ve stayed had no one spoke up about what they saw being done to me.
There are dozens of reasons why people choose to do nothing. They don’t know the whole situation. They want to avoid conflict. They don’t want to make others feel uncomfortable. It isn’t their problem. It’s safer to do nothing. Whatever the reason, it’s always easier to do nothing. To say nothing. To pretend you don’t see it.
It would have been easy for two boys on bicycles to just keep going, to not stop, to pretend they didn’t see Brock Turner in the bushes holding a struggling girl to the ground. Maybe she would’ve still pressed charges. Maybe evidence would’ve still been brought against him in court. But maybe not. Maybe none of us would have ever known Brock Turner’s name. Joe Biden would have never written his letter.
I am begging you to not be a part of the problem. I am begging you to not be the one at the party who suspected something was wrong, the person they interview the morning or the week after. I am begging you to not play into a culture of passive, silent witnesses. There is too much violence, too much harassment and assault. There are too many lives who have been affected, permanently changed, and lost because of people who did nothing. Most have us have never hurt someone. Most of us have never raped someone. But most of us have turned a blind eye away from the uncomfortable moments where we could have acted.
I know it’s not easy. I know it will be scary. I assure you, however, the worst possible thing that could happen is not that you embarrass yourself, or embarrass another person, or make a scene. The worst possible thing that could happen is that you do nothing, you allow it to play out, and it happens again and again, behind closed doors in private places where people can't see anything.