The other day, Citizen Operating Systems sent me this video clip that’s been in the news. A woman walking down a street noticed a man following her, paused, and turned on to a new street. The man not only followed her, but tackled her from behind almost immediately after she turned, then sexually assaulted her before fleeing. The attack happened in the evening hours, but while the sun was still up, in a commercial/industrial section of the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
The woman who was attacked did a lot of things right, and we can learn from her!
She noticed that she was being followed, for one. As we all know, that’s difficult to do in ordinary life, especially when there are so many legitimate reasons someone may be close to us or going the same places as us. It’s not realistic to claim that we will always see someone following us around and know their intent, nor is it realistic to claim that we will never let anybody close enough to be a danger to us. For one, the bubble that would keep us out of reach of someone who wants to do us harm is a lot bigger than we can get away with in normal settings. An arm’s length is not enough, nor is the 6 feet of social distancing, let alone the shoulder-to-shoulder of crowds we may return to as pandemic restrictions recede. Unless we simply don’t go out where other people are – no shopping, no restaurants, no concerts, no coffee shops, no parties, no gatherings – we will always have them close enough to hurt us. That’s simply the nature of normal human existence, unavoidable unless we are complete hermits.
For another, we don’t have eyes in the backs of our heads. It’s true that not burying our faces in our phones and not having earbuds in all the time will help us pay attention to the world around us. Controlling those types of distractions means that we are more likely to see or hear someone who doesn’t belong, acting in a way that seems unusual. But we might have someone with us who requires attention and we won’t always have a good baseline for being able to tell who or what stands out. Besides, by their very nature, bad guys don’t always come with warning signs. They often do, but the tropes of a shady person hanging out in a dark alleyway or of a nice guy who nobody suspected was a serial rapist-killer exist for a reason. Sometimes, they’re really good at blending in until the very last moment. Even if the woman here heard her attacker running up, those few seconds were reasonably not enough to process the sound and commit to a specific response. Combined with the fact that in order to be part of society, we allow people close to us, even strange people, we are always in danger of having a potential attacker close enough to harm us.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to spot one, as this woman did. Even better, she was able to create a situation that could tell her a little bit about the suspicious person following her. Whether it’s pausing to pretend to text somebody, turning into a store or onto a new street, or perhaps shining a bright flashlight towards the stranger, we have options for giving an innocent person an opportunity to pass by or back off. As here, these strategies aren’t foolproof. A person may have a legitimate reason for also pausing or turning into the same restaurant. They may become cranky because you blipped a big handful of lumens at them with your flashlight (though unlikely violent, unless they were already predisposed to be violent with you). Or they may do what the attacker did here, and react as you expect and want to see, only to double back later on. It’s still worth trying, though, because these types of nonverbal communication can be very low-key ways of avoiding negative interactions while being unlikely to escalate them beyond what the other person was already willing to do before you acted. And if the other person reacts violently, then you can articulate that you gave them a chance to not engage with you, and that has value too.
Unfortunately, the bad guy here was a sneaky bad guy and even after passing her by, and even after she turned on to a new street, he came running up to jump on her from behind. There simply aren’t a lot of things you can do to defend yourself in that moment, especially when the attacker is larger and stronger. When you are suddenly face down on a sidewalk with someone trying to hold you down, weapons aren’t the answer, at least not yet. Reports say that the woman did fight back and even managed to hit the attacker in the head. Odds are pretty good that her struggling is what made him stop and run away even though it’s difficult to see exactly what she did. We can learn from that and fight back too, and there are effective tactics that can up your odds of success. I particularly like the default survival position as taught by Cecil Burch of Immediate Action Combatives, focusing on turning to face the attacker, getting the elbows glued to your ribcage and forearms between you and the bad guy, and “unflattening” by removing your body’s points of contact with the ground until you’re standing up. (A more detailed explanation directly from Cecil is here.) It’s not as satisfying as beating up the attacker, but it focuses your energy on getting as safe as possible from further harm. Regardless, the key is to not become passive as soon as an attacker gets their hands on you, and that’s where the woman in this video did a great job.
Bad people doing bad things exist in our world. It’s pointless to pretend that’s not the case. We can try to avoid them, but it’s tough to function in our everyday lives in ways that allow us to ensure that we are never at risk, not to mention not fun at all. We can try to flush them out and hope that this makes them move on to a tougher target, but we may be outsmarted by a motivated attacker. Regardless, at the end of the day, we still have one thing we can always do: fight back. Fighting can stop or shorten the attack, or make it less severe, and it can inform the bad guy that they’ve made a bad choice when selecting a potential victim. When we do that? Good guys win.