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Witnessing Violence and its relationship to Justice

December 6, 2011

I was cramped inside a train once, traveling from Hyderabad to Vijayawada. A young boy came by and asked me to buy his Krack-Jack biscuits, which were displayed on a small tray slung from his neck. He was wearing the Indian Railways uniform. He could not have been more than 12.

I was hungry and I dug around my wallet for the 20 bucks. My head was down and I wasn’t really paying attention. So the slap came fast and furious, shocking me as if the man (who was also wearing an Indian Railways uniform) had slapped my face, instead of the boy standing over me. The boy who had looked tired and bored a moment ago, now looked petrified and was shaking visibly.

I didn’t do anything. Nor did I say anything. No one in the compartment did. I paid for my biscuit, didn’t ask for any change back, and grimly ate my Krack-Jack.

I don’t remember when this man showed up, much less why he had slapped the boy. I didn’t ask. What I remember is the boy taking my money, his hand barely able to hold on to it as he pushed it into his pocket. He didn’t look at me. He walked away — swallowing his fear, his pride —wanting to erase the moment, wanting to make life ordinary again. And all of us agreed (if there had been more children in that compartment, they might have gotten more upset. But we were all adults). We were willing participants in our own un-seeing, un-hearing, re-thinking.

Our social conditioning to distance and other different groups of people, helps us understand violence in marginalized communities as inevitable or even deserving. However when we witness acts of violence, it forces us to pay attention in a more instinctive, more visceral way.

We witness violence all the time. Particularly among street communities, violations of rights of street-based people are surely happening in the open — publicly witnessed more often than not. But even without any access to urban space, we witness violence all the time — in our homes, our televisions, the internet, our neighborhoods.

Because most of us routinely watch violence being performed, we tend to forget that violence is a fundamentally intimate act. An intimacy without consent, a violation of our most personal boundaries. When we witness violence, we share in this experience. And our instinctive reaction is often the same as it would be if we were attacked — hackles raised, head bent. It coddles us into concentrating on our own safety first and maintaining control over our own bodies — it keeps us quiet.

And thereby the question remains, how do we make sure that we do speak up, speak out? How do we make sure we do not fall into the same unimaginable trap that made Penn State possible? And perhaps, most importantly, how do we shame violence without shaming victims of violence? How do we de-center narratives from our own political ideologies, and return these occupied spaces back to those communities and individuals who routinely struggle with violence?

How do we honor their stories?

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