In the Blog

Two firsts

January 3rd, 2008     by Catherine Hayday     Comments

I’ve lived in Toronto essentially all my life. Downtown Toronto for most of my adult life. I’ve had to deal with various incidents over the years, but never, ever, have I felt really and truly unsafe. Until a couple of nights ago. That was first number one.

On New Year’s morning my husband and I were coming home from our friend’s party. Taking advantage of the free TTC ride to cross the city – back from the Danforth to the west end. Even before we headed out for the evening though, I’d expressed hesitation about what coming home on the Rocket was going to be like that night. “As though the whole line is the Vomit Comit” I said.

But I always feel better when the husband cajoles me onto public transit over, say, a warm and speedy cab. So this time I thought I would be urban and eco/public-friendly and good and we all (husband, I, and another couple) managed to get on a train at about 3:15am.

There was, as predicted, a good amount of vomit. We got onto a subway car total passengers about 6 or 7 (including us). At the far end of the car was one clearly drunk, likely homeless, man with a bicycle. The other couple was riding with us as far as Yonge, and it wasn’t for a few stations before the drunk man began being loud, playing a harmonica, yelling and lurching around a little.

But that’s not unexpected on the TTC. It happens all the time, often during the day actually. Drunk, lurchy, loud people are 9 times out of 10, only that. They don’t especially bother you, or accost you. So we weren’t taking much notice of him.

Our friends got out at Yonge. At this point on the car there was us, an older well-dressed couple, and maybe three other people.

At either Bay or St George a group of young men rushes onto the car. I’m sympathetic – there’s probably about eight of them, and two of them are still running down the stairs and the other guys are trying to hold the subway for them. They all make it on.

They start being loud. Whatever. New Years. Annoying, but not a big deal.

One of them sits down next to the girl opposite me. I’m not really paying attention and sort of wonder if she got on with them – he’s draped his arm around her shoulders. I catch part of what she’s saying – that she has someone and she’s good thanks. She’s quite composed. Then I realize that she’s not with them at all and he’s just marked her to harass. It all takes about 15 seconds, and I’m ashamed that I didn’t realize sooner. Her boyfriend comes over and she points him out and between the two of them, they deal with the situation as the guy (slowly) gives up the seat, smiling creepily, and eventually moving on.

Then the whole group of young men start clustering and hooting and clumping at one end of the subway car. The nearly empty end. The end with the drunk homeless man.

They become increasingly loud and aggressive. It becomes obvious that at least some of the boys are harassing this man. Yelling at him to get off the train. Pushing his bike to the ground. Shouting at him that he’s drunk. Telling him to get a house. A job. Jeers to “Get him!”. All the horrible and obvious things you’d expect and still may be shocked to hear thugs saying.

The train stops at the next station and the harassment continues, but getting louder, as they’re trying to threaten him off the train. One of them I notice is actually shielding the man somewhat. He pushed another guy away and kept him from actually grabbing the man (I don’t know if they had been successfully grabbing or pulling at him before that). This one keeps protecting him until some of the boys throw his bike off the train, at which point the partial protector sort of turns away, shrugs his shoulders and joins in shouting.

I don’t know what to do. There are 8 or more of these guys. They’re young, and not huge, but not small. Definitely all very aggressive and looking for a fight - with anyone. What do you do?

What I want to do is get in the middle of it. What I want is to get them off the train. I want to make it stop.

But I sit there, not getting involved, because I can’t think of a smart way to do that. Not without a real risk of further escalating the situation, and putting myself quite literally in harm’s way. In the meantime the other end of the car keeps getting louder, more threatening, more pushing (though between who exactly it was hard to tell).

Then a woman traveling alone, with far better presence of mind than me, pushed the emergency alarm. Which I had completely forgotten existed and was an option.

When the alarm sounded you could feel a small anticipatory breath of relief go through the rest of the car. But the sound of the alarm did not seem to noticeably change the tone of the aggressing thugs. If at all, only slightly.

It is New Years on the subway, on a 3oclockish train. Every Friday night the club district is crawling with police – three or four patrol cars a block. On our way to our friend’s I spent a good part of the ride staring at an ad for “Special Constables”: uniformed TTC staff riding the cars, ensuring your safety.

So what do you think happens when you push the emergency alarm?

One TTC employee shows up. One. Not a special constable, not even a team. In the early morning of New Years, one guy who looks like he either just came down from the token booth or is working maintenance, comes to see what the problem is.

He assesses the situation terribly, and though I don’t blame him for being alone and intimidated, he determines (incorrectly and in about 5 seconds) that the homeless man pushed the alarm, and tells him to get off the train and go. The TTC employee leaves. The train continues on its way.

Besides that there was only one TTC staffer sent out, that there was very obviously a quasi-gang of thugs on the car (who continued to be just as overt and aggressive the whole time the TTC employee was there), and that the man with the bicycle hadn’t pushed the alarm, the man with the bicycle was being physically harassed and he would have been entirely justified had he done so. And he is now kicked off the train several stops from where he was going.

I don’t frighten easily. I deal with drunk guys, lecherous guys, mentally unstable guys who take a swing at you for no reason as you walk down the street. I ride transit with groups of loud and aggressive guys all the time. But I have never been so scared as I was on that subway car. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why.

For one, being on a subway can suddenly feel very confining. You are trapped in a finite amount of space (the size of a subway car) and if the doors aren’t already open at a station, you’re not getting out of whatever’s going on simply by walking away. Two, there are people who get aggressive, who get loud, then there are people who are trying to be menacing. Who are clearly practiced at making people feel scared and unsafe, and who get off on it. Three, I was very tired. Being thrust into a frightening situation at 3:30 in the morning is a very unpleasant experience. Four, and maybe most importantly, the pathetic response to the emergency alarm left you with a very palpable feeling that no help was coming. All of a sudden the safety of infrastructure falls away and you realize the TTC is operating with a skeleton crew and insufficient security.

After the homeless man is left behind on the platform, the thugs get a bit louder. They don’t have a target anymore, and they’ve had a small victory. Two of them go over to the couple sitting diagonally from us and start aggressively asking for cigarettes, which soon devolves into asking for anything. It’s clearly posturing, trying to intimidate the young man and make him appear weak, and frighten the woman by extension of the same. But the young man handles himself well and they eventually move on. The group continued to be loud (very loud, screaming loud), eventually deciding to move between cars. Though notably they mostly stayed at one end of the car.

So again. What do you do? My hands were shaking because I could not think of anything I could do. All logic said that the right thing to do was not to engage. That the more all of us could stay non-confrontational, the safer it was all around. Not to say, in the least, that I wouldn’t have been much more comfortable with a confrontation. My hands might have been shaking, but all I wanted was an opportunity or excuse to physically make these guys go away, or at least assert my (and all our) space. A verbal confrontation would have made me feel less useless as well. But the people around me were handling themselves well, and no one needed helping.

That is, no one with the exception of the man with the bicycle, who I couldn’t and didn’t help. When that happened there were 8 of these bastards, and definitely less of us (counting the older couple). It seemed very obvious that anyone who got in the middle of their exchange, could only have ended up being the target themselves. In a nearly abandoned subway car, with abandoned subway platforms. And for the first time, I had to deal with what it is like to watch something horrible happening and know that I wouldn’t do anything about it. That’s first number two.

That sits very badly with me. My gut wishes I had stood between them anyways. Or that I had taken a chance that it would have made a difference (at least to them) that I’m a woman. That I would have thought of the thing to say which would have defused the situation and everyone would have been fine. But in that particular case, anything I could think of to do would have, without question, meant putting myself and possibly others in danger.

What happened to the man with the bike was awful, but he was not actually physically injured. Is that where my line is? Do I get in the way if I think you’re going to be hurt? Do I wait until that starts to happen? Preventative action can be dangerous – it might do as intended and prevent, or it might change the situation completely, and not necessarily for the better. I feel quite certain that in this case if I had inserted myself all I would have done was increase the odds that it would turn violent. I trust my instincts, and everything about this situation said volatile, ugly and dangerous, that there was a real chance it would escalate and escalate quickly.

I advocate very strongly being comfortable with and being able to fight back when you are in trouble. But I am also quick to say that does not always literally mean pushing a situation into a physical confrontation. I believe in doing the smart thing. Whatever the course of action is that gets you and anyone else involved out of the situation safely. Which, in situations like this where someone wants a fight and/or where you are clearly outnumbered, may mean doing very little at all. Even if that comes unnaturally to me.

For an unrelated reason, the train stayed stopped at the station before ours for a very long time. My husband and I briefly discussed getting off the train and just walking. And I wanted to go. The doors were open, it was still going on, threats now being shouted between the cars, pounding on windows and doors. We could just as easily walk home from here as from where we were going.

But then my husband thought of and did one of those things that make him a smart and good person in a way that I am often not. He said we should stay. Because it was safer for everyone if we did. If we get up and leave, we leave people behind. We start a ‘who’s going and who’s left behind’. If we stay, if we quietly hold ground, we add numbers that actually make a difference. More so than my vigilante desire to force a confrontation. We stay, and we make sure that we’re there to actually help people we can, intervene if anything else happens – if anyone gets harassed who can’t handle themselves. As he said, the thugs clustered at one end of the train for a reason. There’s an unspoken barrier that is keeping things from getting even worse.

Inexplicably the whole group of them decided to get off at the stop we were delayed at. We finally got going, and rode one more stop where we left the TTC and walked home. Really knowing for the first time what it is like to find yourself suddenly in an un-handleable situation, and what means to really and truly be afraid for your safety.

Tags: activist report, in my opinion..., miscellaneous

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