Angry men on buses — not all violence is equal
Several years ago I witnessed an altercation on the bus. When I first got on, I noticed one guy with blond hair that was combed just so and his mustache was freshly trimmed, and he was dressed in what looked like a new suit and tie. He was sitting up super-straight, as if he had an iron rod up his backside. Everything about him radiated attitude. His smile was particularly smug.
I had already seen that one of my favorite seats near the back was open, so I headed back there and turned my attention back to the news radio I was listening to on my headphones.
Except as the bus pulled away from the stop, I could see people up in the front of the bus near this guy being more agitated. A couple people leaned forward and seemed to be addressing him angrily. And then I noticed that a woman also up in the front had put her hands over the ears of the little boy (who I presumed was her son) in the seat next to her, so I pulled off my headphones to hear was was happening…
The guy in the suit was arguing with several of the people, most of whom (by the time I had pulled my headphones off), were telling him, with varying degrees of annoyance, amusement, or anger, to just leave other people alone. Then he said something about how it was a free country and he had the right to speak if he wanted.
At a subsequent stop, a young woman who had been sitting close to back walked toward the door, and as she passed the guy, she smashed her half-eaten cupcake into his face, and then ran.
He screamed, “You bitch!” jumped up, and chased her. Several of us stood up. I’m not sure if any of us would have been able to help, but it seemed like the woman might be in danger. One of the men who had been at the front of the bus, and who had gotten off ahead of the gal stepped in front of the angry man after the woman ran past him. I think he was just reacting to the fact that a small woman had run past him looking frightened, because I’m sure he hadn’t seen the cupcake incident. The thing was, the extremely angry guy was a very small man. I’m five-foot-five inches tall, and I would guess that the angry man was almost exactly the same height. The other guy was well over six feet tall. The angry man immediately stopped when confronted by the big guy, then spun around and ran back onto the bus.
He was seething, and demanded the bus driver call the police.
The bus driver closed the bus doors and pulled away from the stop. The stop happened to be the last one before we went up a long, steep hill, and the bus driver didn’t respond to the angry man’s seething until we were halfway up the hill. At that point the bus driver explained that he wasn’t going to call the police unless the angry man refused to get off at the next stop, because the only reason he had pulled out after the angry man got back on was to let the woman get away.
This triggered more argument. “She assaulted me!” At least one of the male passengers up at the front told the angry man that he had it coming. The angry man was also upset about being made late by having to get off the bus and wait for another one. An older, grandfatherly man said loudly, “You should have thought of that before you behaved like an ass.” The guy got off the bus at the next stop, which was a considerable difference from where the young woman had exited. The bus driver got on the loudspeaker and apologized. “I should have kicked him off sooner.”
One of the people sitting in the back explained that when the guy first got on, he had butted into a conversation between the mother at the front and her young son, by saying that he didn’t need to listen to his mother, because she was just a woman, and men didn’t need to listen to women. This was followed by declarations that women should be seen and not heard, and other weird misogynist statements.
I don’t know if I ever saw the young woman again, but I did see the guy a few other times on the bus subsequently. Each time he was dressed in much more casual clothes, and he tended to sit sort of sunk down in his seat and didn’t meet anyone’s gaze, just sort of sulked to himself. I assume that the first day I saw him he was heading to a job interview. But other than that, all I know is that he was an extremely angry man who absolutely deserved to have a cupcake smashed in his face at the least.
I was reminded about this because of a news story from just this weekend. A man was spotted on Sunday on that bus route I used to ride, wearing an extremely large and prominent swastika armband. The person who posted the picture (that was picked up on Buzzfeed) said he was arguing with black people on the bus. A little later, downtown, he was seen walking along the sidewalk and behaving belligerently. Several people called the police to report a man wearing a swastika yelling at random people on the sidewalk. Several of the callers used the phrase, “trying to pick a fight.”
Someone got a video of part of what happened next, and it’s been posted all over the place. But the video picks up just before the Nazi is punched, missing some of the setup. According to multiple witnesses, when another white guy angrily told the Nazi to “Get out of our city!” the Nazi yelled something about the city being overrun by apes (or maybe he just called the white guy an ape, or maybe he called a dark skinned guy standing behind the white guy an ape—witness accounts vary on this point), and then he pulled a banana from his pocket and threw it. It’s unclear who he intended to throw the banana at, but a very tall black man stepped out of the crowd after the banana was thrown, and as he came toward the Nazi, the Nazi suddenly seemed to realize that he was in trouble.
And then the black man delivered a perfect, textbook punch to the Nazi’s jaw. The Nazi dropped to the sidewalk like a sack of potatoes…
The police arrived. Many people stayed to explain to the police that the puncher (who had left the scene) had been provoked. The Nazi refused medical help, didn’t want to talk to the police, and insisted he didn’t want to press charges. He was last seen tearing the arm band off, pulling his hoody over his face head to conceal his face, and skulking away with his hands in his pockets.
The typical alt-right folks (i.e., neo-Nazis and their defenders) are screaming foul, claiming all of us on the left are cheering for violence against someone because of their opinion. The very few who will acknowledge that throwing the banana is criminal assault (in some states the banana throwing would count as battery, while the verbal provocation could fall into the category of fighting words), immediately insist that the punch can’t be considered self-defense because it was disproportionate.
Since I am known for being pedantic, I admit I take great delight in explaining that legally, those people are wrong. Self-defense, under Washington state law, at least, only has to be proportionate in the sense that deadly force is only justified if a reasonable person feared for life or limb of themselves or another person. But that’s it. Once physical assault as been committed and there is a reasonable expectation that more is likely, any non-deadly force which could reasonably be expected necessary to stop the assaulter is allowed.
Since I started this post with an unrelated story from years ago, someone is going to point out their opinion that if the angry man from my anecdote had caught up with the girl and punched her, that would classify as self-defense. Because the cupcake smash is also, technically assault. The cupcake smash is assault, yes. However, note that phrase I used (lifted, by the way, from judge’s instructions I received years ago when I was a juror on an assault case with a self-defense claim): “reasonable expectation that more is likely.” The woman was running—running as if for her life. There was no reasonable expectation that any more violence was likely from her.
Let’s get back to our banana-weilding Nazi, though. That banana is another important clue to me (along with the darn big armband). Why did he just happen to have a banana in his pocket? According to witnesses, he had been calling every dark-skinned person he saw on the sidewalk earlier “ape.” And he conveniently had a banana in his hoodie pocket. He didn’t have to stop and open a backpack to pull out a lunch bag and retrieve the banana. He had the banana ready in his coat pocket. He was wearing the big swastika armband and he was hurling the word “ape” as an insult to random people on the street. There was no neo-Nazi march or rally in downtown Seattle that day. He didn’t act as if he was on his way to a job, or to meet friends for drinks.
I think it is reasonable to conclude that he intended to go downtown, yell some insults, throw a banana at a black person, and generally be an ass. In other words, the assault was pre-meditated. Not in the sense that he knew a specific person was going to be downtown who he was going to throw that banana at—but premeditated in that he intended to taunt someone with it while he called them an ape or maybe throw it at someone. And the only reasons to do that are to piss people off or scare them. The problem is, that it never occurred to him what a pissed off stranger might do.
He’s an angry, hateful person. As numerous incidents have shown, white supremacists in particular have felt empowered and encouraged by Trump. And since he sometimes literally tells crowds of his supporters to attack protesters, how could they not? The only way to stop this kind of hate, is to treat it as the anti-social violence that it is. Calling for genocide isn’t just stating an opinion. This isn’t about a disagreement.
When someone commits a violent crime, we don’t scold the perpetrator and try to reason with them. Ideally, we arrest them, put them on trial, and then lock them up. When we get evidence that a group of people have conspired to commit a violent crime, we don’t say that’s just free speech and try to talk them out of it. We arrest them for conspiracy, and we put them on trial, and then lock them up. Trying to claim that refusing to be friends with Nazis, refusing to allow give them a platform, refusing to associate with them at all is intolerance is just as wrong and ridiculous as it would be to say that arresting a criminal is oppression.
Civil society has to have limits to freedom. My grandpa was fond of the phrase, “Your freedom to extend your fist ends just before it gets to my nose.” Those aren’t the only limits. Not all violence is direct. Some of it is enacted by policies that deny rights and services to some people. Some violence is enacted as threats and intimidation to causes people to fear for their lives. And the victims of that violence have a moral right to defend themselves.
Sometimes that means literally punching a Nazi in the face.