conflict avoidance

Violent encounters with random strangers…

This morning on the way to work, I came across a situation and was left thinking of what responses were possible.

An obviously drunk man of about 30 carrying an open tall can of beer in his hand came up to a younger (maybe 16-18 year old) boy and started belligerently berating him on the subway in between stops. He threatened the boy that he would find and later kill him. That revenge is sweet. All sorts of angry banter. The boy sat quietly, looking down at his phone, earphones in, mostly trying to ignore him.

The man then swaggered down the subway car, stopping at least 3 times to yell at other passengers, his voice growing with each passing taunt and his aggression level clearly rising.

The boy looked up at me and the numerous other passengers in the vicinity as the man turned his back and just shrugged his shoulder and shook his head and mouthed– I don’t know him at all.

At first when I saw the confrontation– I had an assumption that the two males knew each other– and had perhaps had some previous violent background (such as gang affiliations), but as the man continuously walked up and down the subway car continuing his anger on other unsuspecting passengers, I realized that this was not the case.

I thought about the possible responses to this I could have taken and weighed each option over in my mind.

The man’s growing anger was clearly making the passengers extremely uncomfortable. The boy seemed seriously concerned, as did the other objects of his anger. Would it escalate? Would it come to the man becoming physically violent? The car sat in silence, people nervously exchanging glances outside of the man’s gaze—and others burying their noses deeper into newspapers, books or electronic devices.

The man had a beer in his hand– so he obviously got past any “security” on the TTC; did he have a knife or other weapon in his pocket? Would he be willing to use it should the situation escalate?

Would any other passengers speak or stand up against his abuses?

Would the man get off at the next stop?

Would anyone alert TTC authorities?

If I said something, what would I say? What would/could I do to de-escalate the situation?

In the end, I did nothing and I felt disappointed with myself at this response. I exchanged glances with other worried passengers, and watched as the belligerent man got off at the next stop.

Situations like this happen and often times fear holds us back from action. Fear held me back from action this morning. I was afraid that my doing something would escalate rather than de-escalate. I thought about trying to calm the man down, but ultimately thought against it, worrying that his response would turn violent against me. Sometimes there is no reasoning with people because they are emotional beyond reason. I don’t know this man and what he’s capable of.

What would you do/say? How would you respond?  How can we step in to de-escalate violent confrontations with strangers in our lives?  Is avoidance the best policy?