Written by Pia Glenn. This post originally appeared on xoJane and is reprinted here with permission.
“Just go sit somewhere else! Why do you have to sit near me?!” A petite young lady was standing near the intersection of 3rd Street and Broadway at one of the busier corners of Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, an open-air mall that attracts tourists year-round since it’s only two blocks from a lovely stretch of Southern California beach.
“Just go away!” The petite young lady was shouting this at a very tall young man, who was mostly silent. They both appeared to be about 19 or 20, and they didn’t seem to share the familiarity of being a couple or even acquaintances. I tried to gauge exactly what was going on, especially having dealt as much with street harassment as I have, and my first thought was that she was feeling threatened, or worse. But I noticed she wasn’t saying anything specifically accusatory, like “Get off of me,” or “Don’t touch me,” — it was as though his very presence was the issue.
The young lady was approximately 5’5″ and the young man was approximately 6’6.” Still, she didn’t seem scared of him. She craned her neck all the way back to yell in his face, not retreating at all, and he was standing a fair distance outside of her personal space with his shoulders hunched over and arms outstretched to emphasize his lone statement: “I just wanted to listen to the music.”
The young lady was holding a guitar and I guessed that she was one of the many street performers who line the promenade. My next thought was to wonder about what sort of permits the street performers have, if any, and if those permits outline specific performance areas, considering that some of them dance and do acrobatics and need to clear out large spaces to perform, and, if all those ifs were true, maybe she did have a legitimate complaint of him being in “her” space.
I was reaching. Reaching for any other answer than what it seemed like to me once I gathered that he hadn’t been harassing her. My thoughts came in rapid succession. One thing I know for sure is that I can’t really know anything for sure based solely on my observation, but I also think part of my brain was resisting what my eyes were seeing: That he was a problem because he is big and black.
I haven’t mentioned their races here yet, but yes, the young lady is white. The sidewalks are still public, he didn’t appear to be threatening her, and it turns out my cognitive reach regarding specific latitude and longitude coordinates for street performers was false. If she had a problem with him, she could have scooted up the block and not shouted at him like that.
Just as I had noticed them, many other passersby did as well, with hideous consequences. It is no one’s fault or intentional design that the girl is petite, white, and blonde, and the boy is extremely tall and sturdy. And black. Regardless of what was being actually being said and who was attacking whom, the optics were not in his favor. He was very quickly swarmed by white people, mostly women, screaming at him.
“Get the f**k away from her!”
“I already called the police you piece of shit, they’re on the way!”
“LEAVE HER ALONE!”
Even the singer seemed a bit surprised by how quickly things escalated to a mob situation, and she quieted down. What happened next cemented for me that I had to step in.
The young man sat down. As the screaming group formed a semicircle around him, he just sat down on the curb and stared straight ahead. Perhaps he had given up. Perhaps he had resigned himself to being told he can’t exist freely in this world. Perhaps he was counting to ten to restrain himself from reacting in what could be construed as a justifiable fashion, but one that would be painted as unjustified or excessive because of size and race differences between him and his accosters, not to mention age and gender.
I can’t tell you exactly what was in his head at that moment, but I can tell you what it looked like to me. In his face, I saw my brothers. My actual younger brothers, as well as my figurative brothers, black men that I will never meet who frequently face scrutiny that they do not deserve. A crowd was pointing and yelling and accusing and name-calling and I had to say something. No one was sticking up for him; not even him.
I marched over and inserted myself between the wall of women and the young man. The singer backed up a bit and my presence immediately made some of the Shouters walk away. I am six feet tall. And black. I know a thing or three about being in a body that is often erroneously read as threatening or aggressive, and as many times as that has been an obstacle for me, in this moment it came in handy.
At this point, the police rolled up, which made a few more of the screamers disperse. Whether the patrol car had specifically responded, incredibly fast, to one of their calls, or whether it had just been patrolling the block, they were there and the remaining mob moved back, presumably to let the cops “handle it.” I then took the opportunity to directly ask the singer what had happened. I also apologized for stepping in because it needs to be stated that I am not the World Police.
To her credit, she was straightforward with me about him not having attacked her or anything like that, and she seemed to grasp that even though she can’t control others’ perceptions, there could now be very serious consequences for the young man. That there was no need for things to have gotten to this point. I still don’t want to think that her initial objection to him was purely racial, but I have no doubt that the crowd’s reaction was focused on that. Or that the police’s would be.
Two policemen approached, hands on guns, and looked down at the young man but didn’t address him. They addressed me. I had taken my best Authoritative Stance and I was telling them what I observed when the young lady interjected. The officers, neither of whom appeared black, by the way, didn’t seem too bothered until she jumped in with, “He wouldn’t go away!” Had she led with something more indicative of her being safe and him not being a threat, that probably would have been that. But with her being vaguely accusatory and with numerous people confirming what they read as “aggression,” the police weren’t so quick to leave.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may
not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.