With the terrorist attacks in London, and the recent knife attack by a white supremacist in Portland, Oregon, it’s time to talk about intervening in violent encounters.
Most of us are good people and motivated to help others. We see a man who takes on a knife-wielding terrorist with his fists lauded as a hero. At the same time, we learn of two people killed, and one seriously injured intervening in Oregon.
You may know me as a life-coach and author, but I’ve had nearly four decades of self-defense training. I’ve taught self-defense to U.S. military personnel, Federal, State and local law enforcement. I’ve taught everywhere from Harvard Medical School to a shelter for pregnant teenagers. I’ve been around a little bit.
And I often have friends who ask me, “what should I have done?” questions after violent or near-violent encounters. So let’s talk about intervening.
An Intervention Story
It was around 10 p.m. as I made my way to grab a slice of pizza in Cleveland Circle near Boston College. I was in my early 20s and had more than a decade of martial arts training. As I was about to pass by a popular bar, seven men spilled out of the door noisily.
Five of the young men, apparently together, punched and kicked the other two to the ground. They tore the grounded men’s clothes, ripped off their shoes and started hitting them with it. In seconds, there was blood everywhere, and I saw the men who were still standing start to kick the two men on the ground in the head.
At this moment, I went cold. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, kicking a person with a shod foot is considered deadly force. There’s a good reason for that. I know the look in the men’s eyes from growing up in a violently alcoholic household – they weren’t going to stop. Two thoughts went through my head, “they’re going to kill those guys,” and, “I have to do something.”
I knew that, no matter what my training, I could wind up the third person on the ground or arrested if the cops showed up. I yelled, “call 911 right now!” to a store owner who had come out to see what the noise was.
I kept my distance from the fight but yelled to the young men like I was their friend, “Hey guys, the cops are right around the corner, you gotta get out of here!”
They stopped, and one looked at me and slurred, “This guy hit my friend.”
I nodded, “Oh, I know, but you should get out of here before the cops show up.”
He looked at me for a drunken moment, realized I had just given him good advice, and ran off with his friends. I stayed near the two men until the ambulance showed up (it got there before the cops).
It was a proud moment in my life to use my brains and my mouth to get people out of trouble. It could have gone seriously south if I stepped in physically.
The Danger of Intervening or NOT Intervening
You might die, and you might make things worse if you intervene. Those are real risks if you observe some encounter and try to stop it physically.
And I don’t care how much UFC you watch or which Crossfit box you train at – real-world violence is dangerous. It’s messy, chaotic, and absolutely nothing like what you’ve seen on TV or in the movies. Oh yeah, and if you threaten someone or put your hands on them, the law is eventually going to be involved. And you might think you’re right as rain, and you still might get locked up.
Even if you think you have a situation summed up, an assailant might have a hidden weapon and friends you haven’t seen yet. An amateur with a kitchen knife is most likely to make short work of most trained but unarmed people.
But what if you don’t intervene?
There are certain situations where you feel morally compelled to do something. For me, it was seeing a couple of guys about to be kicked to death. It might be child, elder, or spousal abuse—situations you feel like you must stop.
How to Intervene and Stay Safe
So here are some tips for violence intervention that may help you stay safe yourself. Every situation is completely different, so you have to keep your wits. Every locality has its laws about using force for self-defense or defense of others, so always act lawfully.
1. Keep your awareness up.
In an adrenalized situation, we tend to go into tunnel vision. This is OK if you’ve decided to run away, but if you need to act you need to keep your awareness up. Keep your head up, slow your breathing down, scan for additional threats. Know where your nearest exit is if you need to get away quickly.
2. Keep distance and cover.
Stay back if you can and put something between you and a potential assailant. This can be anything in the environment, or anything your carrying. Even a jacket or newspaper held in front of you may lessen the impact of a knife or a blunt object.
If you can intervene verbally, do so. A good strategy in certain situations might be to hold up your cell phone and yell, “I’m live-streaming this to Facebook.” Depending on the situation, something like that might dissuade an attack.
3. Arm yourself.
I’m not necessarily saying to carry a weapon, but look for things in your environment you might throw or use to strike. Sometimes just a distraction is enough. I know a guy who grabbed a handful of dog poop off a sidewalk and chased an attacker away with it.
4. Be prepared to escape.
I teach my classes that self-defense is about one thing only – escape. Get away. Go from a place of less to more safety. I’m a big proponent of run-fu. You may have to fight for an exit, but that’s what training is for.
5. Get help intelligently.
Calling 911 is a good thing, but the average response time to a high priority emergency call in most places in the US is minutes. If there is a physical altercation, most of the time the first responders show up after the fact.
Most of the time, bystanders will freeze up unless they are in danger. I’ve seen this happen in medical emergencies and during acts of violence. If you want to recruit help, you need to make eye contact and point, and give a very forceful and simple instruction – “Get help,” or “Help me now!”
6. Get yourself some training.
An ounce of prevention – am I right?
There are a lot of weird ideas out there including that getting self-defense training is somehow worse than having no training. Horse manure. The argument tends to go that people with some training are overconfident and tend to get into more trouble. I have trained thousands of people over many years and know of not one single case where this has happened.
I have had students contact me to tell them the awareness they got from training helped them avoid a crime or violent act.
I’ve had a lot of people seek training after a violent encounter. Of course, it’s better to have some training before you need it.