Violent encounters with random strangers

Violent encounters with random strangers

Rebecca (& Heather?) of and yours truly in the comments.


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expand_more Brandon WilliamsCraig
Brandon WilliamsCraig+image Brandon WilliamsCraig, Ph.D. is co-founder and CEO of the Bay Area nonprofit Association Building Community, ...



Violent encounters with random strangers…

This morning on the way to work, I came across a situation and was left thinking of what responses were possible.


An obviously drunk man of about 30 carrying an open tall can of beer in his hand came up to a younger (maybe 16-18 year old) boy and started belligerently berating him on the subway in between stops. He threatened the boy that he would find and later kill him. That revenge is sweet. All sorts of angry banter. The boy sat quietly, looking down at his phone, earphones in, mostly trying to ignore him.

The man then swaggered down the subway car, stopping at least 3 times to yell at other passengers, his voice growing with each passing taunt and his aggression level clearly rising.


The boy looked up at me and the numerous other passengers in the vicinity as the man turned his back and just shrugged his shoulder and shook his head and mouthed– I don’t know him at all.


At first when I saw the confrontation– I had an assumption that the two males knew each other– and had perhaps had some previous violent background (such as gang affiliations), but as the man continuously walked up and down the subway car continuing his anger on other unsuspecting passengers, I realized that this was not the case.


I thought about the possible responses to this I could have taken and weighed each option over in my mind.


The man’s growing anger was clearly making the passengers extremely uncomfortable. The boy seemed seriously concerned, as did the other objects of his anger. Would it escalate? Would it come to the man becoming physically violent? The car sat in silence, people nervously exchanging glances outside of the man’s gaze—and others burying their noses deeper into newspapers, books or electronic devices.


The man had a beer in his hand– so he obviously got past any “security” on the TTC; did he have a knife or other weapon in his pocket? Would he be willing to use it should the situation escalate?


Would any other passengers speak or stand up against his abuses?

Would the man get off at the next stop?

Would anyone alert TTC authorities?

If I said something, what would I say? What would/could I do to de-escalate the situation?


In the end, I did nothing and I felt disappointed with myself at this response. I exchanged glances with other worried passengers, and watched as the belligerent man got off at the next stop.


Situations like this happen and often times fear holds us back from action. Fear held me back from action this morning. I was afraid that my doing something would escalate rather than de-escalate. I thought about trying to calm the man down, but ultimately thought against it, worrying that his response would turn violent against me. Sometimes there is no reasoning with people because they are emotional beyond reason. I don’t know this man and what he’s capable of.


What would you do/say? How would you respond?  How can we step in to de-escalate violent confrontations with strangers in our lives?  Is avoidance the best policy?

7 Comments to “Violent encounters with random strangers…”   
  1. IMHO, there may not have been any better options open to you and the other passengers on the subway. Obviously this guy was unknown to everyone. No one knew the mans background. It sounds possible that he may have some sort of mental illness that was only exacerbated by the alcohol.

    I used to bartend in a … shall we say, not-so-nice neighborhood. It was also just down the road from a VA hospital that tended to specialize in treating vets with mental illness, so we definitely had a few instances where patients would be released, perhaps too early, come to the bar and drink and sometimes become belligerent. The only tactic I ever learned was to try to make the person think you are a friend, a comrade, you understand their troubles, and let them talk out their anger. Of course, this tactic was hit or miss, and most times, I relied on previous relationships and interactions with these folks to calm them down. We also had a security guy, who we had to use quite often, and he wore a bullet-proof vest under his shirt for a reason.

    So sometimes, silence and ignoring the person is the best action, and probably the safest for EVERYONE involved, the belligerent man included. Don’t beat yourself up over the “what if’s” too much.

  2. Gbawu F. Woiwor
    May 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Under the circumstances, it depends on the particular person wishing to undertake the move. If the individual is female and not versed in martial arts, quietude as seen in this episode can resolve the matter. But where there are males with martial arts skills, they should firstly grab the bottle away from the lunatic and possibly strike him with it instead of allowing him to kill the teenager. The incident, especially in a subway provides no room for any police officer to intervene. This is very critical as inaction on the larger part of those present could turn out to be a hostage situation with serious repercussions for all. I think that while we may mostly be against open hostility to all individuals, it is not always the best to keep quiet or inactive in the face of obvious danger to oneself and others. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Tough question, Rebecca. I was in a similar situation a few years ago (a loud and aggressive man on a crowded bus verbally abusing passengers) and I found myself equally impotent, unwilling and unable to intervene. The experience remained with me for a few more days but I never came up with viable response strategies. Perhaps doing nothing is the best response: these people are clearly looking for attention and responding to that call legitimizes their behavior. As long as they do not physically assault anybody, they’ll be left to realize their foolishness. On the other hand, ignorance might lead to escalation as they might believe that ignorance asks for more aggression.

    I am looking forward to other experiences and some more useful suggestions here. Thanks for the post.

  4. You and all the passengers should have been proud of yourselves, unless there was someway to comfort that troubled man’s internal pain.

    Most peace is not made by someone declaring peace.
    Note a similar subway situation when Snackman casually walked between two people fighting while munching on potato chips,
    ‘Snackman’ Casually Break Up A Fight


    I was once on a BART train on my way from San Francisco back to Berkeley when two young men began a shouting/shoving match right over the seat of a tiny older woman dressed head-to-toe in the all-black of the archetypal Eastern European Grandmother. I'd have ignored them like everyone else, as best I could, if she hadn't looked so panicked and horrified. Not knowing what to do precisely, but sure I didn't want her to get squashed, I stood up and stepped just out of arm's length. I began nodding to each in turn, as though I were listening to them carefully and watching with great interest. One turned and said "What are YOU looking at?" To which I replied that I didn't know, which was true, and kept giving them my full attention. The speaker yelled an expletive at me and broke away to storm into an adjacent car. I looked at the other guy, who shrugged and went back to what apparently had been his seat. Could I have been attacked? I suppose so, but not without witnesses and potential legal consequences. If that had been my grandmother sitting there, now with a look of profound gratitude on her face, I would have wanted somebody to do something.

    When you ask the questions above (What would you do/say? How would you respond?  How can we step in to de-escalate violent confrontations with strangers in our lives?  Is avoidance the best policy?), the one that remains unaddressed by my story is the question of avoidance being best, which seems to me only possible to answer in retrospect. In advance, all we can do is prepare ourselves to be ready to make the decision to engage or not. For me, that preparation has involved practicing what I now call Martial Nonviolence. As we see frequently on PCDN (Peace and Collaborative Development Network), peace has more to do with "conflict done well" than avoided, which is why I use that phrase on my invitations to students and colleagues to learn martial arts (my choice is aikido) to begin dealing with the fear associated with physical conflict, and improvisation to bring imaginative options into verbal conflict, and some process art (group process design and facilitation) to bring that imagination into groups. In short, peace requires practice. If we don't practice some specific basics, then we can't expect to have tools at hand when the opportunity to call for peace or for justice presents itself.

  6. apeaceofconflict
    May 9, 2012 at 5:28 am

    @Erica — yes, this was my thinking in some ways. That as long as the situation remained verbal, it was probably in everyone’s best interest to just stay silent. But at the same time, I thought perhaps this might escalate in front of me to the point of hurting people physically and then what are my response options.

    @ Gbawu F. Woiwor I thank you for your suggestions– but I don’t think I will ever approach a situation like that with martial arts. I am searching my brain to look for the most non-violent approaches if at all possible. Can we calm the belligerent person down in any way and model a different behaviour? Staying silent in this instance, was perhaps the least-violent approach in this case– as luckily it didn’t escalate into anything further. If it had escalated, I’m not sure what I would or could reasonably do.

    @ Jaroslav Petrik It’s a tough question, but I believe that the power of modelling new types of behaviour can change how we interact with each other in future actions, like they do in the Theatre of the Oppressed. The problem is, you could try to verbally de-escalate the situation and that sets the whole thing off even worse.

    @Anonymous I do like the simplicity of the snack-man maneuver. Physically separating, or creating separation between the two parties can be quite effective. Thanks for sharing that! I apologize, but I have removed the last part of your comment because I don’t want this post to become about Middle Eastern politics.

  7. apeaceofconflict
    May 9, 2012 at 5:37 am

    @ Brandon Williamscraig Thank you for sharing!! I have more to say– but I have to run!


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