Vroom vroom vroom. Pause. Vroom vroom vroom!
I scanned the row of vehicles slowly cruising along the West Seattle waterfront, looking for the impatient driver of a motorcycle. “Where is that jerk?” I asked my walking partner.
Then I saw the motorcycle pull up to the window of an SUV and start banging on the driver’s window. Shit, I thought. Road rage. And since the SUV driver couldn’t move forward, I stepped into the street and stood in front of the two vehicles, not between or touching anything, but close enough to hear the interaction and gauge the level of danger.
Mr. Motorcycle demanded SUV guy roll down his window; and as soon as that happened, he started railing about how the SUV had backed into him. SUV guy tried to explain, tried to apologize. It didn’t help much. A woman ran up to me, insisting she’d seen the SUV back into the motorcycle.
I waved the woman back to the sidewalk and got Mr. Motorcycle’s attention. “Are you hurt?”
“What?” He paused his tirade. “He backed into me.”
“I understand.” I assured him, keeping my tone sincere. “But are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine.” He gestured to his front end. “How’s my bike?”
I bent and looked closely. “It looks okay from here.”
He took note of the line of cars stopped behind them, the oncoming line crawling carefully around him. “We should get out of the road.” He looked the SUV driver in the eye. “Follow me over there.” He pointed to an open area to the side, ahead.
SUV Guy tracked the gesture and nodded his agreement.
I stepped back onto the sidewalk with a wave, and picked up the conversation with my friend.
Was it necessary to step up? Would the situation have de-escalated on its own, without the presence or intervention of anyone else? I can’t know the answer to the second; so technically I don’t know the answer to the first. What I do know is that signs of confrontation or distress draw me like a magnet, compelling me to assess the situation and the safety of the parties. Decades after training as an anti-violence community volunteer, that part of muscle memory remains.
I joinedSeattle’s Q-Safety Patrol in 1996, a couple years after Q-Patrol’s founders had worked with the Guardian Angels (a volunteer anti-crime group started in 1979 in New York City, now with chapters internationally) to help train and set up the organization in exchange for operating the Angels’ Seattle chapter. Having idolized the Angels as a teen, then dived into social justice activism in college and law school, the combination seemed ideal to me.
My first years in Seattle, as a young adult in the late 80’s and early nineties, were brightened by the embrace of the queer community but shadowed by the ever-present threat of discrimination, harassment, violence, and death. I moved West to grow into my dreams, to be free and happy and to get a law degree that would let me wage peace and justice against all the -isms. But there was so much wrong, on so many fronts, that it was easy to feel drained by grief and rage, even sink into despair and hopelessness. And while today’s climate of hate feels all too familiar, the queer community at that time could look virtually only to itself for support. When skinheads and frat boys came to Capitol Hill looking for sport, victims of bashings couldn’t trust the police to help. Q-Patrol arose from a need to take back our streets, our meeting places, our pre-internet home and safe space to be with family of choice.
Although there were many times Patrol teams physically intervened to stop violence, the vast majority of interactions on the street were much more low-key. Just being seen in a neighborhood (Capitol Hill most nights in Q-Patrol uniforms with a sprinkling of GA; others in the University District or Pioneer Square, with the uniform mix reversed) created a visual deterrent. Sometimes just stepping up to a pickup and writing down its plate, taking a description of the occupants, was enough to send a message. (Although profiling based on appearance was prohibited, an exception was made for skinheads, as their stated mission was to commit hate crimes.) Posting up at closing time between a gay bar and the grunge bar next to it became a ritual that patrons at both expected; and sometimes women from the straight bar requested an escort to their car or bus.
One benefit of being a joint organization with a diverse group of volunteers was being able to reach out to everyone in the community as someone we were there to serve, to connect with them regardless of any differences. Sometimes that meant sitting down and listening to a homeless teen cry, offering compassion and resource leads. Sometimes if meant checking in with local business owners, sometimes waking a person sleeping in a doorway to see if they wanted emergency shelter, detox services, or just a blanket (carried in the winter). Putting on the beret and walking with a team meant representing the organization and its ideals, setting introversion aside and engaging with strangers. It took years for me to stop saying “Hey, how’s it going,” with an up-nod to random people I passed. Muscle memory...
Even on those occasions when we ran toward the sound of screams or raised voices, showing up in organized, uniformed teams and engaging calmly in deescalation worked a great deal of the time. Nothing tamps that adrenaline down entirely when danger signals flare; but training to respond and react appropriately in real time made a world of difference. Fear of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong words, hurting someone instead of making things better — that fear had made conflict something I avoided, for years. For me, only practice builds the confidence that overcomes that hesitation to step up and speak or act.
Having spent much of my childhood brokering peace with words and humor, working to mollify others’ feelings and achieve cooperation, I found Q-Patrol’s verbal skills training both unsettling and empowering. Other people’s anger and pain makes my stomach clench, my chest tighten. Why would I want to turn their attention away from each other and onto me? But it turns out there are ways to do just that which work to ground the lightning of those emotions. And like the physical techniques we trained, we drilled on how to step up and engage without physical contact. After a few rounds of verbal drills, moving on to physical work (weapons defenses, takedowns, submission holds, strikes, blocks, footwork, etc) provided some catharsis.
But every training session culminated with scenarios. Trainees assigned roles as patrollers, victims, bystanders, or mutants. Mutants were humans disfigured by anger, rage, or hate. Trainees were given a situation and parameters for improvising. The trainees acting as patrollers had to enter the situation, assess, and react appropriately until it was resolved with all parties safe. Debriefing allowed for laughter, tears, and lessons discussed. One thing we learned, by playing mutants and by dealing with them, in a controlled environment, is that everyone is capable, under stress, of mutating from a reasonable human into someone with limited control of their emotions and the actions those drive. Another lesson, intellectually graspable but hard to hold under pressure, is that the least force called for is often the most effective for defusing a situation. And along with those, that knowing you can go to any level of force— if you must—takes much of the anxiety out of starting at the minimal option.
Conflict and confrontation will never be my happy place. When I have to sit in a closed office with an angry coworker, my stomach still knots. When some guy on the bus gets generally obnoxious, I still hope nobody will give him the attention he seeks. When two guys posture and yell at each other from a safe distance on the sidewalk downtown, I still wish they’d grow up.
But can I deal with a mutant? Can I assess a situation, mind my own safety, call in support if needed? Yes I can. Do I need to determine who is right, dictate a resolution, punish the wrongdoer? Nope. All I have to do is be willing to step up when someone may be in danger, and willing to step back when they’re safe enough to look out for themselves. My response in the moment may not be ideal; and I’m sure to analyze it later and find six things I could have done better.
Times change and training fades with disuse; and being rusty or uncertain still makes me hesitate more often than I’d like. But the drive to step up? That feeling of responsibility for others’ safety, even when their thoughtlessness, emotions like fear or anger, or substance use mutates them? Martial arts instill and nurture that. And training locks it into muscle memory.
Photos courtesy of MB Austin.