The Digital Vigilante

Jeremy Vine tells a story about watching someone get beaten up on a tube train:

I chose to sit there and watch. And I’ve replayed it many many times. I’m very unhappy that I did that, and I now have sort of resolved that if I see a similar kind of situation where I see someone being attacked like that, I will intervene with unmitigated ferocity.

A few months ago I experience a “lite” version of the incident Vine described. Two young whippersnappers were refusing to pay for their journey, or get off the train, causing a rather loud argument with the ticket inspector. It was initially just a verbal affair, until the guard threatened to call the police. They made a quick exit, and shoved him as they disembarked (the cowards). I never thought about getting involved physically, or indeed joining the argument, but I do remember being irritated that my mobile phone had run out of batteries. Rather than resolving to respond with “unmitigated ferocity”, I instead resolved to be quick to film any further incidents I might happen upon.
In late June, Edinburgh’s Pilrig Park hosted the Pride Scotia event. Marquees were erected on the field a few days before. Walking through the park one evening, I spotted a group of hooligans in a pitched battle with some security guards. Remembering my earlier vow, I whipped out my Nokia and began filming the incident for the police and posterity. We can’t be having that sort of homophobia in Edinburgh, not on my patch, no way.
The responses of the young tear-aways was varied and noteworthy. Some of them immediately realised the implications of being caught doing naughtiness on low-resolution video. They covered their faces and made a prompt exit, as illustrated below:
Homophobic Hooligans on Pilrig Park
Ah, digital technology! The citizen’s non-intrusive weapon against Anti-Social Behaviour…
Meanwhile, one fool became rather irritated with my brazen filming. His anger became directed at me, throwing a bottle and a punch in my direction (as illustrated below).
Hooligan throws a juice bottle
The fact that he stayed behind to throw stuff at me proved his undoing of course, because the police arrived shortly after.
“They’re making it all up!” said the kid, when asked to account for the multiple assaults of which he stood accused.
“Well, we do actually have you on film, assaulting people…” replied the officer. The accused kept quiet after that.
Meanwhile, I was getting an earful from my girlfriend, who had not appreciated me provoking the scallywag to further violence with my rampant phone-filming. I could have been seriously hurt. She also accused me of only capturing the footage only so that I could put it into some kind of blog post afterwards. I assured her that this was not my intention, and that I could hardly stand by while bullies made threats. She pointed out that I had, effectively, filmed my own Happy-Slapping, and there was nothing brave or noble about that.
At the time, I was perfectly sure of my actions, but now the correct course is much less clear. I think the problem lies in the act of making a ‘resolution’ to act, in advance of an incident actually occurring. I pulled out my camera-phone without thinking, and my proximity to the action made things worse. Perhaps I should have found a safe vantage point, and got ready to run away if someone approached me. Jeremy Vine resolves to respond with “unmitigated ferocity”, but that might not be the most appropriate action during the next tube-based assault he witnesses. He may end up making a fight worse, and end up beign assaulted himself. Worse, he may end up doing so much damage to the assailant, that he himself becomes culpable, and others have to intervene to stop him.
Each call to violence should be judged on its own merits, at the time. No two conflicts are alike, and intervention in one instance should not endorse similar actions at some other time. If you resolve in advance to go to war, or to get into a fight on a train, then the best outcome is unlikely to emerge.

6 Replies to “The Digital Vigilante”

  1. “Each call to violence should be judged on its own merits, at the time. No two conflicts are alike, and intervention in one instance should not endorse similar actions at some other time.”
    First things first, I really enjoyed reading this and (almost) completely believe that you had no thought of what a good blog it would make when you whipped out your Nokia to film the whippersnappers.
    And I agree it’s probably impossible to lay down rules about about how you will or should react in any challenging situation. I once walked past a guy who seemed to be about to punch his female companion in the face and then felt guilty for the rest of the day.
    But I also surprised myself by intervening when everyone else was keeping their head down – last year a couple of school kids from the local high school got on the bus and started shouting, swearing, banging the side of the bus and being generally a pain in the neck. They were probably 12 or 13, not very big, and I was amazed that none of the adults on the crowded top deck did or said anything, everyone just looked straight ahead pretending it wasn’t happening. I was even more amazed that I suddenly heard myself shouting in a very school mistressy voice, “Behave yourselves, sit down and shut up.” Unbelievably they did!
    I am not sure I would do the same thing again, I think there might be some instinct that tells you when it will work. Maybe your Nokia impulse worked because it was the right impulse?
    (but do you suppose any good will come from all this Nokia promotion?)

  2. You only provoked one of the neds otherwise you cleared the area pretty well, it seems. As for your resolution to film such incidents or the resolution to respond violently perhaps the simplest thing is just to resolve to do something and not be a pussy about it.
    Unfortunately you can still get it wrong. I’ve broken up a couple of fights but in at least one case discovered that where I thought I was stopping two lads beating up the one they’d just thrown to the floor of the pub I’d actually just stopped them catching up to the bloke who’d randomly punched someone in the street. As everyone else had stood back the little shit escaped.
    Right, I’m off to practice my school mistressy voice in the park.

  3. Did you intervene purely because you perceived the attack to be homophobic or would you have intervened if it had been at say, a BNP rally ?
    Photographers, especially during wars and disasters, are often faced with this dilemma – carry on filming or drop the camera and help ?

  4. That’s an interesting question, one I hadn’t considered. Remember that my intervention was initially passive – I was just filming, not getting stuck in with my fists. My resolve was strengthened by the homophobic abuse they were throwing at the guards… but initially I whipped out my camera because they were just, like, being bad!
    And I think I probably would have filmed in the BNP circumstances too. The right reason to do so would of course have been because I supported the right of freedom of assembly. There is no sense in getting on my high-horse about homophobia otherwise.
    Whether that would be my actual motivation, or whether I was more concerned with protecting the property rights of the marquee owner… who can say? Its a heart-and-head thing, and would present more of a dilemma than the situation I was actually faced with.

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