Public transport social capital not dead

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.

20 thoughts on “Public transport social capital not dead

  1. You have to be so careful. Look at what happened a few years ago when a young father on his way to work intervened in what appeared to be a domestic: he was shot dead for his troubles.

    Also, the law these days isn’t supportive of people intervening. That’s another consideration – if you are going to intervene, you take on the risk of being on the wrong side of the law yourself!

    But good on the people who stood up to the thug.


  2. Yes, though the two defenders had a reasonable belief that a violent act was about to be committed, it’s quite possible that one of them touched the thug before he touched them.

    Anyway, I made a point of going up to them and praising them for their actions.


  3. It is so difficult – I had the misfortune to be on a train one evening in December with three inebriated males. They were young, caucasian, wearing stubby shorts and blue bonds singlets, with big muscles and tatts and unkempt hair. They were drinking cans of bourbon and coke, and without physically acting on anything they began abusing the East Asian and Indian passengers, talking loudly about how they wanted to “kill all the ni**ers”.

    I felt terrible for the passengers they were verbally abusing, but what could I do? Police on trains are not sympathetic to passengers who try to engage with this behaviour, as I have been told previously by police on trains that if I engage with these kind of louts and they become violent, then it is my own fault and I should not expect any protection from the police. So I kept my mouth shut, and the dozen or so people of Indian and Chinese background on the train continued to be abused.

    I believe in free speech – but loud antisocial behaviour of that kind should be vigorously prosecuted under drunk and disorderly provisions, and serial offenders should be banned from using public transport.


  4. The 96 tram is particularly bad. It stinks of stale alcohol and piss even when there are no obvious bums on board. I blame all the public housing and boarding houses en route. Pete Saunders has the right idea when he talks of people ‘declaring dependence’ on the government in exchange for losing certain rights and privileges. These people are not equipped to live out in the community. They need to be given basic accommodations to live in and simple tasks to do without access to drugs and alcohol. Alternatively, if they choose to live in the community, they should be held to civic standards of behaviour. That should mean violent anti-social behaviour gets punished with jail time. I would like to see the offender you described face at least 3 months behind bars. Everyone has the right to travel on public transport without fear or intimidation, particularly the elderly.


  5. “Police on trains are not sympathetic to passengers who try to engage with this behaviour, as I have been told previously by police on trains that if I engage with these kind of louts and they become violent, then it is my own fault and I should not expect any protection from the police.”

    I think you must have misunderstood the police. They might have said “be careful about provoking noisy people” but no police are going to chastise you defending someone who is being attacked.


  6. From my experience, there is only one rule when it comes to loud obnoxious people on public transport: ignore them, never make eye contact and never, ever rebuke them. If all they are doing is saying stuff then no one is going to get hurt and that’s the way it should stay. Cowardly and craven? Of course. But it’s better than a knife in the liver. If someone is being physically attacked then that is another matter. There is a moral obligation to aid them, IMO. The problem is, for 99.9% of people who go to assist, what will happen is that they will get the snot kicked out of them as well as the victim. Andrew’s case was a very special case of two on one.


  7. The loud obnoxious types I see on the tram are usually clearly psychotic. Not necessarily violent but clearly disturbed. Everyone ignores them. No one sits near them. Anyone they sit near gets sympathetic glances.

    Lots of people I know say the reason they don’t like public transport is that its full of the public.


  8. This is a heartening story, and hopefully one that gives the rest of us more confidence to step in when these pigs start terrorizing people on public transport. This story, along with “Tim’s” published in The Age, should be more widely broadcast. Having said that, M is quite correct. There are lots of real psychos out there. Schizophrenics commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime in our cities. I would not envy anybody being confronted by a violent non-medicated schizophrenic on a train, nor for that matter a gang of Ice freaks.


  9. Indeed, the only time I have been physically threatened on public transport was by someone who was clearly psychotic.


  10. It would be great if these two stories prompted people to start sharing their experiences like these so we could get a better picture of just how many of these a**holes are really scary knife-wielding thugs or psychos, compared to how many are just cowardly a**holes. At the moment, I think most probably presume by default the public transport terrorists are a**holes of the former type.


  11. I’ve been with a gang of ice freaks on a late night train where there were as many of them as there were passengers in the carriage. One foolhardy soul said something to them after they committed a mindless act of vandalism. I thought the pack leader, who was as big as a professional wrestler, highly agitated and not at all open to reason, was going to kill him. It was the scariest thing I’ve seen on public transport anywhere, and I’ve ridden the New York subway at night through the worst parts of that city before it was cleaned up.


  12. I don’t know about Melbourne, but in Sydney there is an epidemic of Ice abuse and therefore Ice Freaks. I wonder if there is any connection in the apparent recent rise in attacks on Indian nationals (though curiously not their Desi cousins – Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, and so on) and the recent explosion in Ice abuse?


  13. Journal of the American Medical Association: 2009;301(19):2016-2023.
    The association between schizophrenia and violent crime is minimal unless the patient is also diagnosed as having substance abuse comorbidity.
    Compared with unrelated general population controls, the risk of violent crime in individuals with schizophrenia and substance abuse comorbidity was increased 4-fold.
    Perhaps spare a thought for why there is comorebid substance abuse.


  14. I caught a train from the Sydney Festival last Tuesday, and at Strathfield station (where I changed trains) there was a violent abusive man who was hurling abuse and then hurling what I think was a garbage bin at who I’m guessing was his boss (I was walking up the ramp so I could only just see what was happening). This thug then went to an adjacent train platform and was madly swearing his head off. Within five minutes this guy was surrounded by six or seven cops and was in the process of being arrested as I boarded my train. Also I could see he was searched and the cops found something on him. Hats off to the police in regards to this incident.


  15. Thanks Matt B for that journal report.

    I used to volunteer as an educator on mental illness in schools and one of the key facts we taught was that a person with mental illness (be it schizophrenia or other illnesses) was no more likely to commit violence against others than the general population – they are, however, something like 7 times more likely to self-harm.

    It is important to differentiate between people with mental illnesses like schizophrenia and those who are drug addicts or abusers (or a combination of both). It isn’t really fair to tag all violent people or criminals as ‘psycho’ or mentally ill – and it lets those people off the hook who knowingly do wrong and just don’t care.


  16. Stephanie

    It is even more unfair to generically tag people with “mental illness”. There is a substantial difference between somebody with undiagnosed/unmedicated schizophrenia, and somebody with melancholic depression. And plenty of psychos are indeed off their heads on Ice.


  17. Stephanie – Thanks – I deliberately went for statistics on the rate of violence committed by those with a specific diagnosis. It’s well documented that those with a mental health diagnosis are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, but given the thrust of comments was focused on the actions of the ‘psychotic’ I thought that feedback on likelihood of being a victim would not be persuasive. From my perspective – being reliant on public transport to the outer impoverished suburbs for most of my life, the violence I have seen, and been subjected to, has been drug rather than mental health related. Most often alcohol. The violence related to drugs (other than alcohol) is over stated given the the relative frequency of alcohol / amphetamine / heroin abuse. This is not to dismiss the impact of events triggering this post, but to suggest it is infrequent compared to alcohol related events. Shall we all drink to that?


  18. I’m sure this is true, but I would be prepared to bet a considerable sum that the guy who threatened me was having a paranoid psychotic episode. I thought he looked insane when I accidentally and momentarily made eye contact with him as I got on, and this was confirmed when shortly after he threatened violence for the negative reaction he presumably noticed when I realised that he was mad. Despite living in a high-crime area for more than a decade, it is still the only time I have been personally threatened.


  19. These two men may have taken a risk but it was surely one that was considered and in but a moment. We on the otherhand have likely read this story in safe and comfortable surrounding, much easier to be be more objective or even biased.

    I am glad these two men stepped in. I am glad they were not hurt. I am glad that it would seem they assessed the situation well. I am glad they a “community spirit” so as to stand up against the kind of anti-social behavior that makes life that much harder for those of us who are responsible, honest et al.

    Yes – we do live in complicated times but when necessary people should act and I am glad they do. Imagine France without its Revolution. Imagine the plight of Coal Miners before unions. People should stand up against those who choose to ingore or worse or abuse basic notions of goodness, dignity, freedom et al When we stop then we have all lost.


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