1) PREAMBLE. I just want to say, at the outset, that people give L.A. a lot of shit for being a car-centered town. “Why don’t you get a functional metro system?” ask all the Parisians who visit. But it’s very, very seldom that you’ll be quietly sitting in your car on the 405 and one of your passengers will randomly start beating the shit out of another one of your passengers. (Unless you have kids, of course.)
2) NARRATIVE. I was coming home from work on the D.C. Metro this evening. I got on the train and sat down, and as soon as I sat down I knew it was going to be an unpleasant ride. There was a group of young black men (I’m guessing high-school age, but older, like 17) and at least one young woman who were making noise and getting pretty rowdy. That’s not the kind of thing that has happened much on my commute so far, which is usually pretty quiet. But, of course, nobody feels empowered to be the train police, and you don’t really want to draw the attention of boisterous youths, so we all sit there and read our books and try to ignore them.
At the Woodley Park station, they all get up and start to leave. But on his way out, one very tall boy stops in front of a middle-aged man who’s obliviously checking his phone. This is maybe three feet in front of me. And for no discernible reason at all, he begins punching the man in the face. Just whaling on him — not super effectively, I think, but with a lot of enthusiasm. And I sit and watch this for what was probably only a second, but felt like a very long time — felt like a frozen moment, an eternity outside of time for me to contemplate this act of violence. And I did contemplate it, and failed entirely to understand it.
Then people started shouting at him to stop, and that broke the dam for me, and I leapt up, my book and my bag tumbling to the floor, and I shouted at him, too: “Hey, get off him!” And I took a step forward, although I didn’t really have a plan. Maybe I would have done something. I like to think I would have done something. I don’t know. But this little dude — like Tom Cruise little — in a purple shirt flew at the boy and grabbed him and dragged him off the train.
This is where things get confusing. Purple Shirt and Tall Boy were rolling around on the platform, and Tall Boy’s friends had by this time realized there was a fight, and they decided to come to their friend’s rescue. But they seemed like maybe they didn’t really know how that was done. They kind of rushed at the two tangled guys, pushing and hitting without much real aim. So I ran out and grabbed Purple Shirt by the arm and pulled him back into the train. (This sounds more planned and assured than it was; my brain had still only gotten to the idea that two guys were fighting, and maybe I should try to stop it.) Then there was a weird moment where nobody knew what was going to happen next, but we were inside the train and they were on the platform. And then, after forever, the doors shut. Thank God.
But then people started shouting, there was confusion, someone (one of ours!) was still out on the platform, oh shit, people shouting into the call box for the operator to open the door. The door slid open and a short middle-aged dude with a white ponytail ran out onto the platform and dragged a young guy with a bloodied lip back onto the train. There was another long, horrible wait. I stood in the doorway. A woman (who was, I think, completely overwhelmed) pushed the call button and asked the operator, in the stiff kind of voice you normally use for slightly awkward business calls, “Um, can you close the door please?” Pony-tail lunged at the mike and shouted “Close the door now!!!” The boys paced up and down on the platform. One of them shouted, in a disgruntled and disappointed tone, “Y’all are some bitches!” and, inexplicably, threw a pair of aviator sunglasses at me. They hit me in the chest and fell to the floor. The door closed, and the train lurched away.
3) RACE. I feel like this played a part, in ways I’m still trying to work out. The thing that is quite clear is that all of the “attackers” here, the boys, were black, and all the “defenders,” the other passengers who stepped in, were white.
Some things leap out at me. The initial aggressor, Tall Boy, was black, and his victim was white. Does that matter? Would he have done it even if the middle-aged man looking at his phone (and not for a fight) was black? Would he have done it if he, Tall Boy, was white? People who are skeptical might want to read A Clockwork Orange again. Young men are often terrible, especially in groups.
Whites are disproportionately likely to be victimized by black offenders, in the sense that black-on-white attacks happen in somewhat greater numbers than you would expect from population proportions. (See here, at Table 14.) Of course, it could be that, on average, urban blacks are poor and urban whites are rich, and that’s the whole explanation. The poor attack the rich, not the other way around. (With caveats, of course, for those who rob you with a fountain pen.)
But Tall Boy didn’t seem to want to steal anything. He wanted to hurt someone. Did he want to hurt a white person? I can’t answer that. All I can say is that interracial violence is a little like global warming. You can never know, for sure, that any particular hurricane or drought is caused by global warming — it’s impossible to say “Aha! But for global warming, this unusual event would not have occurred!” But we can be quite certain, looking at the system as a whole, that there will be more freakish weather events with global warming than without it. Similarly, it’s probably rare that an event of interracial violence can be traced directly to racial animosity. But a system that stokes racial animosity, and that has deliberately concentrated black people in poor, dangerous neighborhoods, may have more events of interracial violence than a system that does not do that. Do with that analogy what you will.
And there’s another angle, here. It’s not too clear to me that Tall Boy’s friends saw how the fight started. What they may have seen was their boy in a confusing melee with several young white men (I’ll count myself as young for this discussion, and also count myself as in the melee). If you hadn’t seen the lead-up — if you didn’t know your friend was at fault — what would you have done? Maybe they are somewhere right now brooding on this as an interracial brawl of a quite different flavor.
4) SEX. The crucial question, I think, is why didn’t I get up at any of the previous several stops, go to a different car, and call the operator, while the boys were just being loud and rowdy, and before there was any actual violence? The answer, I think, is that men can’t do that. I can’t, anyway. You can’t get up and leave. That would be admitting weakness. Men can’t really admit weakness in situations of even potential danger. Maybe especially in situations of potential danger.
Men are more likely to be victimized by strangers than by acquaintances, by a margin of three to two. (See here, at Table 13.) This means it’s important to most men to put on the appearance, in public, of someone who is completely unconcerned by the presence of dangerous people. (That includes rowdy boys on a subway.) To show fear, in the male mind, is just to invite the dangerous people to have a closer look at you.
That’s stupid, of course. You’re likely to get far better results, in terms of avoiding potential violence, by removing yourself from the situation wherever possible — especially when the perceived threat is someone you would never, ever see again in your life, so you don’t need to worry about the game theory problem of looking weak in repeated interactions.
So, yes, it was stupid. Welcome to being a man.
5) ON RANDOM VIOLENCE AND THE “GOOD GUY WITH A GUN” THEORY. I think this would have been a great time to have had a gun. What I mean is, it would have been a great time for me to have had a gun. Not Tall Boy and his friends. It would have been terrible if they had had a gun. That could have been awful.
This is the problem with guns, of course. You only want to have them yourself. Other people having them is always so dicey.
Anyway, as has been discussed to death in this space, the problem with the idea of guns, concealed carry, teacher carry, etc. as a solution to random gun violence is that the person who commits the random act always has the advantage. He knows that violence is coming; he’s braced himself for it. So he can use a weapon quite effectively, if he has one. His victims and the people around them, however, may or may not be carrying but, by definition, are not steeled for a sudden eruption of violence. For most of us, it’s a kind of stunning thing. Not frightening, or appalling, though it may be those things as well. I just mean… I was literally stunned. Stuck. My brain couldn’t get out of the disbelief loop until people around me started shouting.
Of course, Purple Shirt sprang into action okay — for which I think we were all pretty grateful. But let’s say for the sake of argument that Purple Shirt had been carrying a weapon. Would a guy who was that eager to jump into a fight be the kind of fellow who could use his weapon to defray the situation? Or would he be the kind of guy who might start blasting? The outcome of this random bit of violence, all told, was a few busted lips. Would it have been better for society if an armed Purple Shirt had taken Tall Boy out with a couple of rounds to the chest? Maybe, if Tall Boy was on a track to become a murderer. Or maybe not, if he was just a dumb boy with the late adolescent’s poor impulse control, who would have settled down in another year or two to become a normal human being. I don’t know how to begin to calculate that.
6) LIVING IN THE CITY IS TERRIBLE; LIVING IN THE CITY IS WONDERFUL. It’s tempting for me to feel that this event is another nail in the coffin of my love for urban life, and another reason for me to move to a ranch in Montana.
On the other hand, this incident also kind of showed what’s best about the city — there are always people around to help enforce social norms. Once one person can show courage, others will join in and help. I didn’t feel great about my part in this — I don’t think I was heroic and brave, in the way that Purple Shirt was heroic and brave. But I was, in a little way, part of something good: a community of strangers standing up to people who were acting in an anti-social way.
I think the upside of living far out in the country must be that there are fewer of these kinds of incidents. I think the downside must be that, when random violence happens, it’s less likely that there will be anyone around to help — and not just help in a physical sense, but also in the sense of re-asserting the social covenant and denying violent people the power to re-write the rules.
UPDATE: Made the news! WashPo has the story. The sources they have claim that the boys were grabbing at someone’s bag. I did not see that, but if it’s true, maybe this was just a clumsy, failed robbery, and my musings about Tall Boy’s motivations don’t mean much.