Some weeks ago I was robbed at the university where I teach. Someone walked into my office while I stood in the hallway and walked away with my handbag in his backpack. When I realised what had happened and confronted him, he grabbed me, pushed me into a wall and started running down the stairs.
It’s strange how we react in moments of panic. The moment he touched me things seemed to move in slow motion and I braced myself as if I knew what was going to happen. When he started running I ran after him and started screaming loudly. My din attracted a group of students who tried to catch him at the bottom of the stairwell, so he ran back up toward me. I only recall leaping on him and trying to claw him as he tried to push past me. Eventually he was dragged and caught by the students and my bag was returned. While we waited for university security to arrive (they took more than ten minutes) the young man struggled against his captors, broke free from the gathered crowd and raced away. One of my students ran after him and on seeing a policeman nearby, stopped and asked him for help. The policeman, who was smoking a cigarette, continued puffing and said, ‘I can’t go after him; I might catch the wrong guy.’ Later, when I went to lay a statement with campus security, I was told to ‘stop playing with my phone’ (I was telling my mother I was safe) and fill in my forms. They also told me it was unlikely that they would catch the thief.
I am not an angry person by nature. Those who know me well will tell you that I am quiet and rather shy. But all I remember feeling during that whole ordeal was a great amount of rage. Firstly, I couldn’t believe someone could walk right past me with my belongings and then throw me against a wall. I’ve never experienced that kind of attitude or violence. And secondly, the one time I needed help, the very people who were put in place to protect me couldn’t. Not the university, nor the police. The system failed me.
My rage was incredible. And it seemed to come out in my (usually quiet) voice. I screamed at the thief for hurting me, I yelled at campus security for coming late and in the pouring rain, I stopped a police van and shouted at the sergeant inside
I was sick of feeling like a victim. Especially as a woman. I don’t think the thief would have hurt me had I had been a man, I don’t think security campus would have given me attitude if I’d been male and just being a woman meant I was more vulnerable. I was forced to stand up for myself. It felt like all that screaming I did that day was to give voice to my frustration of this problem. When I tell people this story of the policeman’s reaction, they laugh and have worse ones to share. This is the state of our country they say, and shrug their shoulders.
When are we going to speak out about our right to be protected? It is our right to feel safe and protected. The system cannot continue to fail us. I am tired of incompetency being undeclared. I was lucky that day that there were others there to help me and that the man didn’t have a weapon.
But what about the unlucky ones?
Safety in our country cannot be held in our own hands and a few kind strangers. What kind of society is that? And worse, what kind of society acceptsthat?
(Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, Herald, September 2012)