A couple of weeks ago Tim Watts got a lot of coverage (here’s the Club Troppo version) for criticising the lack of response – from himself, and from others – to an incident on a tram, where a beggar started threatening and racially abusing a group of young Asian people. Like everyone else on the tram, he felt intimidated. He said the ‘inadequacy of the police response has created a climate in which people are fearful of speaking out’.
While the incident I observed on the number 96 tram this morning didn’t have a racial element, it did show that not everyone responds passively to threatening incidents. After a brief spray of abuse, a young man struck an elderly man, knocking him to the tram’s floor. The offender was immediately challenged by the two men closest to him; he threatened at least one of them but briefly backed off, before becoming aggressive again. But he did not get to carry out his threats, as two other young men tackled him to the floor, and then got him off the tram, pinning him to the ground despite his struggles.
Meanwhile at least two people were on the phone to the police, who acted quickly. The first police car was there in less than 5 minutes, two more police cars arrived shortly afterwards. The thug was arrested and put in the back of a police van.
The rapid police response was probably due to the incident occuring on the edge of the high-crime CBD, where there is a large 24/7 police presence. But despite (or because of?) the presence of actual violence rather than threatened violence, there was clearly a very different public response in this case compared to the one Tim Watts described. At least three people put themselves at risk by challenging the thug, one verbally only and two verbally and physically (and at least one clearly scored a punch to the face for his efforts).
Perhaps there was a flukish element to this, with two guys judging themselves capable of dealing with the thug happening to be close by. They were not travelling together; would one have acted if the other had not been there? Even with two of them, restraining the thug wasn’t easy. Would they have intervened to protect a less vulnerable victim? It’s hard to know, but clearly there was both a strong sense of right and wrong and bravery on display here.
One other thing: the cops wanted to take down my version of what had happened, but even 10 minutes later it is so hard to be sure that you have every detail right. I told the cop that the old man was hit. She wanted to know whether it was a swipe or a punch. A swipe, I think – but, as they say, it all happened so quickly. I hope the tram security cameras were working.