Sunday, March 6, 2016

Breaking up a fist fight

On Friday, while waiting for the bus home, I noticed a woman sitting on the pavement, her belongings spread out around her, chattering to herself in Spanish. This is ordinary enough in the Bay Area that I paid her no mind, reading my newspaper a few feet away.

After a moment, though, her muttering became more vehement and I looked directly at her -- she was trans and some of her comments seemed directed at a Latino with his 3-year-old waiting nearby. Without warning she crawled on all fours several steps, now yammering in English, and got up in the man's face -- she seemed to be accusing him of looking at her "like I'm a man" -- and then bent down to yell at the child. At this the man quietly moved between her and his child, urging her away. She backed off and I went back to my reading, but the next thing I knew she was back at him and he punched her into the side of the bus.

I immediately stepped toward him, hand up and quietly talking -- they separated, fortunately, so I could stay between them. Another bystander approached the woman and was talking her down. The man yelled fiercely at her, ignoring me. Bystanders crowded behind him and shielded his kid and a bus driver yelled about the consequences of police coming (this was at Fruitvale BART). Without missing a beat the man redirected his yelling at me.

I stayed, watching and hearing him, feeling a thousand tiny flames erupt over my arms and upper chest, a contrasting piercing solidity of my heart pounding in the middle of it. I smelled sharp liquor in his breath. Then, as soon as it had begun, it ended: he turned away, the crowd relaxed, and our bus was boarding.

When an emergency calls there is no time for thought, performance, or self-judgment. Indeed, there is no self. I didn't assess the scene for safety, review self-defense options, or plan my words. There wasn't time. What took place was my confidence, skills, and presence as they were, however imperfect or inadequate, existing in that place and time.

In taekwondo, where kicking and striking are common, comfortable fighting distance is measured in feet and spans at least a leg-length. In hapkido and other "soft" arts, it's much closer, measured in inches, and keeping contact is essential for controlling the opponent. People learn self-defense in order to confront an "enemy." The alternative is to panic -- running away or breaking down (mentally running away) or overreacting and possibly escalating conflict. I think the practice that took place for me on Friday was this turning toward and facing violence without fear or anger. I think agency in that moment came from touching my heart with his.

What would I have done if he had tried to hit or grab me? Had he expressed transphobia? Did my presence deflate his alcohol-fueled fury? Could I have intervened sooner to calm the woman? I don't know; it did not realize that way.

It's enough for me to know there is ugliness and terrible suffering in the world. In the alcoholic man's family and in the woman's anger and neglect, there is so much healing needed. It's all I can do to be present with what is and to bring whatever I have. When there is pain, hatred, greed -- whatever your kryptonite -- advance toward it, get closer, and meet it with whatever you have. I trust that every person in that crowd could have done this. I trust that you can do this and are already doing it in some ways.

May all be safe and protected from inner and outer harm. May all be surrounded by and filled with unconditional kindness. May our hearts open.

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