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Anf's picture
When you witness a fight

My friend and I were out cycling this evening when we heard lots of shouting and shrieking coming from ahead of us on the road we were riding along. Having closed the distance, it became apparent that the noise was coming from a group of teenagers two of whom, both girls, were physically fighting.

I had no idea what to do. Not a clue. I couldn't just turn a blind eye. Chances are it would only be pride and ego that gets hurt but occasionally it's worse than that. But at the same time, I didn't want to explain what I as a mid 40s man was doing in the centre of a bunch of teenage girls. So I shouted at them from the other side of the road.

Naturally, I became the target of verbal abuse. I don't care about that. In fact it turned out to be a positive thing because while they were shouting abuse at me, their internal fight seemed to have fizled out. The crowd seemed to disburse and as I continued riding on, I heard no more battle sounds.

But I do wonder, what should I have done? What I did actually seemed to work well on this occasion but simply shouting at people won't always diffuse a situation.

Based on the abusive response of these teenagers, it's clear they fully knew that unless I was a psychopath, I was utterly powerless against them. For me to physically intervene could easily be construed as assault, which is why I shouted from the other side of the road. I reckon these were not the worst of youth. I reckon they were probably good kids suffering hormonal rages rather than mindless thugs. I reckon that's the only reason my shouting at them worked to diffuse the situation. What would be the right thing if they were genuine idiots?

Nimrod Nir
Nimrod Nir's picture

Anf wrote:
But I do wonder, what should I have done?

Assuming you were alone and not in danger, I guess calling the police was your safest course of action. 



Anf's picture

Nimrod Nir wrote:
Assuming you were alone and not in danger, I guess calling the police was your safest course of action.

I'm afraid calling the police in this kind of situation would be an exercise in futility. If someone really was getting hurt then by the time the police arrived it would be too late really. If it had been that vicious, I probably would phone 999, then tell the operator what was happening, approximate numbers, location, and that I was going to intervene physically with the aim of preventing injury.

deltabluesman's picture

I'd suggest calling the police and then staying out of it.  If you see someone about to be killed or permanently injured, you might try to jump in, but even then you have to expect the rest of the group to turn on you.  I wouldn't want to be in court explaining why I waded into a group of teenage girls and started cracking skulls.  Besides, it sounds like shouting at them worked well enough to break up the fight. 

I'll indulge in a quick story.  About eight years ago, I did a very brief (and humorous) stint as a bouncer at a bar.  One night, I'm sitting outside the door on a stool checking IDs.  I hear loud shouting behind me.  I look over and see an older man slap a college-age woman in the face (hard).  So I get off my stool and run over and wrap this guy up from behind so he will stop hitting her. 

Imagine my surprise when this woman goes berserk and starts swinging for the fences.  Imagine my surprise when I realize she's with a group of two other women, and they're ready to throw down too.  Punching, kicking, screaming, you name it.  Pure chaos.  It was like three drunken valkyries had just descended from valhalla to do battle.  And of course, they didn't care whether they hit me or hit him, so long as they were flailing in his general direction.  The thing is, as soon as you get even a small group of people going like that, it's hard to see anything at all.  Not to mention, it's hard enough to control one person . . . it's pretty much impossible to control a group (unless you start striking). 

To make a long story short, I ended up pinning the guy against a car and using my body to shield him.  Everything was pretty much a blur.  I think I got hit by a purse.  As soon as they back off and quit, I let him off the car and pulled him back onto the sidewalk.  All of a sudden one of the women runs up to him and kicks him hard in the groin or belly.  He drops and the fight is over.  The crazy thing is, as soon as the fight is over, I look down and see that he has a knife on his belt.  I never even noticed it or felt it during the fight.  

It's a funny story, but it was enough to make me wary of breaking up fights.  Especially when there are groups.  Yes, there are ways to "properly" break up fights (which I learned afterwards), but none of them are great and almost all of them work best when you have a team.  As soon as you get close to that group, you are really asking for trouble.  Plus, just like you say, if you walk up to a group of teenage girls and anything goes wrong, it's going to look terrible to an outside observer.

I've rambled long enough.  The only last thing I'll say is that I do recommend calling the cops whenever there's a serious fight going on.  Especially here.  That way you can get your side of the story into the police record.  You'll be the proactive one.  Imagine what could happen if they accuse you (falsely) of trying to do something to them? 

Just my two cents. 

Marc's picture

Your goal was to stop people from harming one another.

You shouted at the group. They turned around and shouted back at you which diffused the situation. The fight stopped.

You reached your goal with what you did. Plus you returned home safely.

I'd say your intervention was exemplary. It worked perfectly for the situation you encountered.  

Anf's picture

Marc wrote:
Your goal was to stop people from harming one another ...

... I'd say your intervention was exemplary. It worked perfectly for the situation you encountered.

Thanks. You're right of course. But I still wonder what would be the right response in general terms. Incidentally, my response wasn't entirely reactionary. I was able to assess the situation as I approached, and although my chosen intervention was a gamble, I considered it low risk for all concerned in this case. I did fully anticipate that I'd get verbal abuse in response, I got it, I challenged them on it (I actually asked, do I need to come over there), got some anticipated half hearted bravado in response, and continued on my way content that their fight had stopped. But if these had been genuinely horrible youths, my intervention wouldn't have worked. In that scenario I'm not sure what a good intervention would be that would prevent people getting hurt.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

I was once in a property where a gang of youths (7 or 8 males aged around 14 to 18) were sitting on a high wall throwing stones at cars as they drove past. I had gone to the bathroom and noticed them through an upstairs window. I watched and saw a car stop and then the youths threatened the driver. I told the owner of the property what I had observed and they suggested calling the police. They also told me that they feared retaliatory damage to their property, so it was important that the youths not know the call had come from there i.e. “Stay in here Iain!”. I called the police and advised them to drive up the adjacent street because the wall was high and if they came up the one I was on, the youths would simply drop to the other side of the wall (where it was not so high) and get away. The police said they would be there soon.

In the meantime, I set up a camera in the upstairs room, so I would have a record of the youths and their actions to provide to the police. It later transpired that it was too dark, and the faces were too hard to make out, but it did capture them throwing stones and a car stopping. The car was driven by a middle-aged woman and she got out of the car assuming she had hit something or gone over something. She was looking down the side of the car when the youths started shouting sexual insults. As soon as she saw them, she quickly got on the car and drive off. The youths found this hilarious. At that point, I snapped.

Despite the pleas from the owner of the property, I went outside and told the youths they were being filmed, that the police were on their way, and that they’d better leave (not the exact words I used). They then started to issue threats to me and the property. At that point, the police car drove up the road I’d told them not to and, as expected, the youths dropped over the other side of the wall. I ran across the road and clambered over the wall to see shadows darting in all directions. It was very dark. I ran in the direction of one of the shadows but lost sight of them. It was then I heard “In here! In here!” from one of the bushes. It seems one of the youths had mistaken me for one of his friends and wanted me to join him in his great hiding spot. I jumped in to the bush and pinned him face down while kneeling on his back. I then shouted for the police as I could see torch lights in the distance. They came over the lead the youth away. Both officers were “portly” and would never have got over the wall (they had to use a gate further up the road). If I’d not caught this youth, then the police would never have captured any of them.

Later that night the police came to talk to me. The youth I captured apparently named every single one of his accomplices and the police took the video away. The property I was in never was damaged.

This would seem to have been a good result. My actions stopped the activity and resulted in the police having names and video of the event. However, being honest, I think giving chase was dumb. It was a mistake and one I’d not repeat today.

I could have leapt over that wall to find all of them waiting with knives out. As it was they ran, but the youth I captured was shouting for help and the police were a distance away. They could have attacked me to save their friend (the fact they didn't may have contributed to his willingness to give all names to the police). Again, I could have been facing an armed group. Luck played a big part in it all working out OK. I was a younger man at the time and did not have a family. It was unwise to literally leap into the unknown like that as I could have been putting myself in danger. I potentially put myself at risk when no one else was at risk.

The incident with the middle-aged woman infuriated me, but it was over by the time I got outside. She was safely on her way. If it had been ongoing, then I would intervene. However, because it was not, in retrospect, the smartest course of action would be to remain inside, waiting for the police, ready to intervene if help was needed in the meantime.

The police messed up. They were informed that it was a bad idea to drive up the road. Had they sent officers capable of giving chase, up the adjacent street, they could have caught the youths. I corrected their error, but these days I’d put my personal safety first. I have people who depend upon me. 

There have been other cases where I have intervened in situations. In all of them I feel I definitely prevented other people from being physically harmed (i.e. in one of them a person was attempting to push a lit cigarette into the other’s eye). I’d like to think others would do the same if someone I cared about was in the same situation. People were in danger and my actions helped. I therefore feel I acted correctly and would do the same today.

As for the above incident, I feel it was a mistake to chase the gang when no one was in immediate danger at that time. Although it could be argued I did my civic duty by giving chase, I’d not do that today. The potential risk to myself, and by extension my family, is not worth it.

In general terms, and speaking only for myself, I would physically intervene if someone was in danger and I was capable of providing meaningful assistance. If a person was not in danger then I’d not intervene physically, but would do whatever else was appropriate. It would be the same if a person was in danger, but my physical actions were not likely to succeed (i.e. hopelessly outnumbered). I would do what I could (call police, ambulance, etc), but I help no one by getting stabbed myself. I guess it’s like First Aid in that the golden rule is not to put yourself in imminent danger because in doing so you don’t help the other person and you simply create another casualty.

These are never easy decisions because there are so many competing considerations. That’s why it’s good to think about these things so we have an idea of what our preferred course of action would be depending on all the factors i.e. physical risk to others, physical risk to oneself, legal risk to oneself, consequence of actions on loved ones, likely result of actions, personal morals, options available (intervene verbally, intervene physically, gather evidence, call emergency services, summon help nearby, give first aid, etc.), and so on. Lots to think about … and it’s better to do it now than when an event is unfolding.

All the best,


PASmith's picture

Iain Abenethy wrote:
At that point, I snapped.

I think that hints at a very salient point. Sometimes we don't get to choose how we react as we are all human and all have biases and our own failings/virtues that can fuel our actions. I'd be very reluctant to step in and stop a fight between 2 well matched people so long as no one was getting absolutely hammered. Whereas I'd be more willing to step in for a smaller person, a woman or child getting targetted. But I dislike crime and bullies so much there's a fair chance personal feelings and anger might make me act in a sub-optimal manner from a self defence point of view.

In the spirit of Iain's story...a few years back, one bonfire night, we heard breaking glass while in our garden and when we went (my wife and I) to investigate our elderly neighbour came out of her door in distress and said someone had broken a back window but escaped over a fence when she went to see. I can remember feeling utterly indignant and angry that someone was out (we assumed) breaking into places under cover of darkness and all the firework noise. The fact it was a vulnerable older woman added to it. I sprinted off in the direction he'd escaped determined to catch him. As Iain said...I'd snapped.

I reached the end of the street to see another neighbour and his wife grappling with the guy as he'd escaped through their garden and over their garage. Just as I reached them to help out he managed to escape and try and run for it. I double leg tackled him as he tried to get past me. I distinctly remember my glasses skittering off across the drive as we clashed. It was only as I picked him up bodily that I realised he was a 14ish year old kid that weighed about 7 stone sopping wet. Just a kid being stupid and damaging stuff as a prank really.

I kept hold of him (my wife went looking for my glasses in the dark!) and the police were called. It was then his mates came back (he'd been the tail end charlie that happened to get caught) and I had to keep hold of him for about 10 minutes while using a one handed "fence" to keep his increasingly aggressive and threatening mates at bay. Some choice anglo-saxon was exchanged. The police came eventually and they were all carted off to the station and forced to come back the net day to fix the window. Really it was just kids being stupid but because I thought a crime was being committed I just jumped in with both feet.

Long story short in the heat of the moment we can all act in different ways and while it's elucidating to think about it and try to work out good choices and options from a self protection perspective sometimes we can act with our feelings rather than our rational intellect. And I don't think we should use 20/20 hindsight to criticise ourselves too much.