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.