When I was younger (I think in high school), I read a famous newspaper article entitled, “Thirty-Seven Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” The headline pretty much says it all; thirty-seven bystanders and neighbors heard or witnessed the murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese and deliberated about calling the police until it was too late. It’s a poignant story that has stayed with me because of how inhuman the people in that story seemed to be and I, like any young person, told myself I would behave differently in a similar situation.
I have a song called Seized. It’s a narrative song that tells the story of a person, late at night in a lonely London square, witnessing a drunk or drugged woman being escorted against her will by three men. The narrator is paralyzed with fear and shock that such a thing is even happening and does virtually nothing to stop it, moves on with his life and then flies home to another country.
One of the first things they teach you in an introductory lesson to reading poetry is to never assume that a first-person narrator is speaking as the author him/herself. Many writers will pass on that narrative responsibility to a fictional character and it is a very wise storytelling technique to do so. Every now and again, however, a poem or lyric is, in fact, autobiographical. The lyrics in the song, Seized, are one of those exceptions.
I was on vacation with a girl-who-HAPPENS-to-be-my-friend-NOT-my-girlfriend to spend a couple of weeks abroad in London as a kind of graduation present after earning my B.A.. One night, after enjoying a small festival along the Thames filled with dozens of talented buskers ranging from The Beatles reenactors to Gypsy Punks to Jugglers, and then later failing to find a hip night-club near our hotel in Croydon, myself and my traveling companion found ourselves witnesses to an uncomfortable scene.
The whole scene could not have lasted more than a couple of minutes but I’ve given it a great deal of thought. Despite that, I find myself, now, trying to avoid the memory by finding convenient distractions around me.
An empty square in the city is an uncanny place. At just about any time during the day there is an aliveness and a hustle; a filled-with-people-ness, that feels so intrinsically character to the location that to walk through it alone is to feel, yourself, like some societal pariah. When something goes wrong and there are no modest masses or authorities to call to, you suddenly cease to sympathize with all your libertarian, police-hating friends and regret that you can’t pass on responsibility to someone with a gun and a marked car or a distant administrator of justice, peeping through a camera’s lens. And don’t let them argue that if you had a gun you’d have felt empowered. You still would not had you been outnumbered. Any daring acts of heroism against the odds would still have to occur after that fear of death was overcome, and in that environment the fear of grave retaliation would be heightened still… But I am avoiding the action.
I heard a voice sneak beyond the Turkish men surrounding a tall, long black-haired woman. For a moment she stopped and they broke formation, perhaps startled by her change of heart. “I think I need to head home,” she said. The men, all in brown button-ups, their hair uniformly spiked with grease, scuttled around her once more and chanted their suggestive and condescending reassurances.
“Don’t worry, baby. We’re going to have fun together.”
She began to head the other direction but seemed to struggle with simply maintaining her balance when two of the men slipped under her shoulders and diverted her back towards the direction they’d been heading. She struggled against them shortly, dragging her feet for a few seconds before surrendering herself to the current. Before they turned away and headed back towards the street, her green eyes looked at the two of us and she whimpered meekly, possibly because she knew in her heart already that we two tourists wouldn’t know what to do or because she’d simply not the energy to raise a more appropriate scene, “No, no, no….” My companion and I looked at each other for a moment after the group disappeared around a corner, and then we wordlessly continued on our way. The next day, I wrote a love letter to my girlfriend and had eggs for breakfast in the hotel lobby.
I think on this sometimes, and I try not to wonder what did or didn’t happen after that, but its impossible not to. I’m forced to ask myself, “Did they scuttle past a helpful police officer and raise a scene or did they make it back to the men’s building?” I don’t like imagining what may or may not have happened then. I could pretend they stayed up late and watched Netflix together or something, but I’m not young and stupid enough for that. I can only assume that if they did make it back, at the very least, something degrading and humiliating happened to that woman, and at worst something violent and even more horrible did.
Writing songs about your self is an admittedly self-absorbed act, but I don’t believe it’s usually an egotistical boast as much as it is a way to express a timid and frail ego. Standing by and watching, and then later trying to forget (with iterate success and failure), that woman was a tremendous blow to my ego. I’ve told myself that I was scared and outnumbered by men who appeared like they could beat me in a fight, and I did honestly fear that they may have been armed with a concealed weapon (very probably a latently racist thought, but they already appeared to be perpetrating rape) to try to expunge my feelings of guilt, but it’s never worked for long. Some say chivalry is dead, and I learned that night that I am no knight. While “Macho” culture has its own horrible pitfalls and misogynist mutations, as a “Man” I know I was supposed to try and stop them, or at the very least distract them so that she might have had a better chance to escape. The least I could have done was shout, “she should be allowed to express her autonomy, guys!” But I didn’t do that. I was in an unfamiliar place faced with an unfamiliar crisis and I was afraid for myself and my companion so I “played it safe” at that woman’s expense.
At some point along the way, I had become just like those people who stood by and did nothing while Kitty Genovese was killed.
A couple of months ago I made it a habit where I donate half of whatever money I raise through Bandcamp.com sales to charity.* I’m making a promise right now that I’m going to continue this trend until at least the end of the year. After the month of May, my donations will go to RAINN, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of what is and ending non-consensual sexual violence.
You can learn more about RAINN at http://www.rainn.org/get-information.
*In case you’re wondering why I’m only donating Bandcamp.com sales and not other online retailers like iTunes and whatever, it’s because that stuff is so much harder to keep track of because I sometimes won’t receive or even be made aware of sales made there until literally three months afterwards and I can’t get my hands on any of the money made there until I reach a certain cap. With Bandcamp.com, I get an automated email almost immediately when someone buys my music and it gets deposited into my Paypal account just as quickly. Click the “Music & Merchandise” tab on the menu to visit my Bandcamp page, or Click Here.