When to intervene?


Jane Jacobs famously claimed that the “eyes on the street” of a populous and mixed-used neighborhood could prevent crime.

Today I was walking in my neighborhood when I saw, down the street, a hip-looking young couple who were having some kind of an argument. I was no more than ten feet away when the guy slapped the girl. In broad daylight, in front of several strangers.

I bring this up not so much as a Moroccan issue, but as a conundrum that comes up a lot when you live in close quarters with millions of people: when do you interfere? What are the codes of the street if no one enforces them?

Last weekend I was walking near the beach with a friend when we witnessed a similar scene: an angry young guy lashed out at the girl he was with before apparently challenging another guy to a fight. At one point he tore off his shirt, then picked up a rock, and generally postured in front of the other guy and dozens of passers-by. A cop was directing traffic across the street and at no point came over to address the situation. About ten other people gathered around closely, holding both guys back.

I wondered aloud to my friend, also a gaouria, “What do you do in this situation?”

I wonder what my role might be, and not just as a foreigner who’s often confused as to how to act in public. Though I am, in fact, often confused as to how to act in public.

To do nothing is to assume no responsibility and on some level to accept that the street is some kind of Wild West. But to scold complete strangers feels presumptuous, and can even feel—or actually be—dangerous.

In Chicago the way I act, what I can “get away with” saying, is dictated by demographics: my race, gender, age, and class. Sure, there’s a point at which doing nothing is unacceptable. If I see violence of any kind I will act, even if it is with a furtive 911-Emergency call which starts with: “No, I don’t want to give my name and address.” The way I’ve grown up, I’m torn between a strong need to know that sometimes people can “do the right thing” and a very real fear of the consequences—of an intervention or, as it’s pejoratively called, snitching.

So what did I do? Last weekend at the beach I watched while others stepped in. I gladly stepped back because there were plenty of people around, because I wasn’t home. To be honest it didn’t even cross my mind to intervene because it didn’t feel like it was my place, and the risks of jumping in appeared to far outweigh the possible benefit of diffusing a tense situation.

Today, though, I was walking in my own neighborhood, and in a moderately busy residential street I was the closest to the action. So what did I do? I glared. And uttered an indignant, “Oh!” (to the tune of, “hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”) Then I glared some more when the guy yelled at me to “dégage!” I kept walking, and twenty seconds later they were gone.

My heart was pounding.

8 Comments

Filed under urban life, Urban Morocco

8 responses to “When to intervene?

  1. Sam Day

    When to intervene? There is no hard and fast rule, just some guidelines. It depends, first, on the degree of danger to the person stepping in and then, second, on the degree of danger to the person involved. Emotion is a part of it, but it must be joined by reason, so that the risks, aka, the odds, can be gaged with some minimal accuracy. Finally, it depends further upon the degree of courage a person possesses. In this connection societal expectations play a significant role: e.g. a man is more quickly (and accurately) marked as a coward; expectations of a child or a senior citizen will differ, typically, from those of adults, according to societal context.

    • Kathleen

      Yes, you only intervene–and you only ever consider intervening–when you have a sense that you can get away with it. I guess my main question is rather, how do you balance responsibility with risk of violence, embarassment, failure, etc. It’s disturbing to witness something that you feel powerless to stop, and to extrapolate, from your fear or acting, that people don’t always “do the right thing.” This is something that countless psych experiments confirm: people are basically only as good as their environment. So what kind of environment can we cultivate?

  2. casaboy

    interesting subject and interesting blog !!
    you can’t intervene and you shouldn’t cause you are ‘gouria’ foreigner. you are gonna put yourself in rough spot right there. as much as you mean well you should keep walking and let the locals handle their business.
    my 2 cents.

    • Kathleen

      Hi Casaboy, thanks for your comment, and I appreciate your honesty. I’m wondering if you can elaborate more on the “rough spot” you talked about, because I’m genuinely curious. Do you think that the situation would be actually dangerous, or just that an outsider would be overstepping their bounds if they intervened? And where is the boundary? After all, everyone who lives in a city plays some part in the street life, and in Casablanca “locals” can mean all sorts of people just as many who are passing through are Moroccan.
      Of course it also depends on the neighborhood…

      • casaboy

        well, I don’t wanna be the one who air our dirty laundry for the whole world to see, but I believe in order to move forward you must look at those social issues straight on and not sweep them under the rug.
        by the rough spot, I mean IF the police were to intervene, the couple who were fighting can easily claim that they are engaged then you interfering in a family affair. that’s a big no no in our society. what if they were married, that’s even worse. second you being a foreigner first and women second and american on top of it you are telling the moroccan family how to live their life . as you might already notice. people around the world are getting wary of the west especially America trying to ‘export’ their democracy and their way of life to them. that’s put you on a tough spot. one more thing , don’t forget that it’s Men’s world out there and a lot of them trying to keep things the old school way. have you heard the judges in morocco not applying the new reformed modawana. that’s alone tells you everything. so yes it’s dangerous situation for you especially for the reasons mentioned above.
        by locals I mean ‘ the casaouis’ the native of casa who were actually born, raised and schooled there their whole life. they can handle it the moroccan way . the best you can do is to alert people around of the situation and you move on.
        Thank you kathleen for your blog. it brings back the wonderful memories. that’s my quartier Mers sultan where I grow up especially were everything were clean and beautiful before rural immigration .
        Have a nice day and be careful

      • Kathleen

        Wow, thanks for explaining, Casaboy! I really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this. Take care!

      • Kathleen

        And I get what you mean by the airing out of dirty laundry thing…so thanks for commenting in spite of that.

  3. Sam Day

    You can look at a given incident in one of two ways: as an activist, or as a sociologist. The first judges, the second seeks to understand. A perfect activist would intervene constantly, meddling in every detail; a perfect sociologist would study all while standing rigorouly apart. Of course, in the real world, the trick is to strike a balance between this irreconcilable duality.
    In the scheme of things, a man who smacks his wife or girlfriend around is not an earth-shaking event; indeed, in many societies this conduct may be sanctioned by law, and the criminal, legally speaking, is the person who would intervene (not to mention that he or she may have to spend all or a portion of his or afterlife burning in hell!) The event is, however, interesting as a symptom of something larger–the legal system, the evolution or devolution of the culture, the response to the increasing defiance of woman, some combination thereof, or something else altogether. Here, the sociologist observes, collects data, and offers his or her analysis.
    As the activist can wildly underestimate or wildly overestimate the danger, so can the sociologist mistake the superficial for the profound, or vice versa. All things in a society happen for a reason, but not necessarily for a good reason. Not all societal evolutions are desirable nor laudable, nor is there a particular reason why they should be. Change comes for reasons of shifting power, frequently; there is no reason, a priori, why a change with this nature of an impetus should enhance us from a moral standpoint.
    Violence against women, and oppression of women, is common to many countries and cultures; it seems logical to presume that a phenomenon so widely prevalent should have origins which are common to many of these different cultures, and which are aggravated or ameliorated by the particular culture. As the sociologist puts a trend in societal context, so much she put the society itself in context, something like a marxist, with a fundamental understanding common to all societies.
    So violence against woman is common to Chicago and to Casablanca: no surprise here. What is interesting about your experience is that you are in a position to compare the particular origins and attitudes towards this problem. Much–cowardise, ignorance, etc.–will be similar, but much–religion, class–may be different. Your analysis of a particular trend will necessarily be revealing of your understanding or misunderstanding of the culture as a whole.
    Whould a woman be better off living in Morocco or in the USA? A simple question, but beyond the obvious qualifications obviously necessary, the simple question implies that there is a simple answer…and this seems a reasonable assumption, for to think otherwise is to suggest that societies are not merely complex, but infinately complex, and this is clearly not the case.
    Your posts are most enjoyable. Don’t worry about finding the answers; things can be and often are both simple and complex depending on the angle one looks at them. The questions are much more important anyway…

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