I heard her before I saw her.
I had decided to commit the bulk of my day to house cleaning and had the windows open to let the air in as I worked. In the early afternoon, at just about 2 pm, she made her presence known with incredible howls that shredded the air and burst in through my windows. The cats’ ears — all 4 of them — were pressed back against their heads in full WTF mode. I froze at the first bout and reassured myself that it had to be someone yelling like a fool out the window of a passing car.
When the wailing continued and didn’t seem to be moving away as it should with a car in motion, I grabbed my phone and barely got my shoes on to get outside. Based purely on the tone and raw emotion of the sounds, I braced myself for a bloody accident scene: though I had not heard any screech of tires or brakes, nor any sound of impact, I imagined a car accident with grave injuries or even a death in the street. The only time I’d ever heard anguish released into the air like that was when observing parents grieving over their children. I mentally prepared for blood, tears, and heartbreak as I hastened out the hall — noting that the sounds weren’t coming from in the building — and headed out to the front of the building.
When I got outside, there was no blood, no stopped car, or other hints that something had occurred in traffic. Instead, a woman lay crumpled in a fetal position on the sidewalk, lifting just her head to scream. A tall man, a neighbor I don’t know, was bent over her, quietly and gently asking what he could do to help. I hovered nearby, gesturing with my phone and asking if I should call anyone. He stepped closer to me, and we conferred: CHIERS, the only mobile public safety service we knew of, didn’t seem appropriate, since they were for transporting drunk and disorderly people to a holding cell. There were no other resources I could think of on a Sunday afternoon. We resigned ourselves to the only option we could think of: city services.
I reluctantly dialed 911. The neighbor moved on to his errand at the convenience store across the street, and I noticed a couple of other neighbors who had emerged from the building to see what was going on. As I was on the phone with the operator, the woman screamed on so that he could hear her in the background; I wonder now if that made him think it was a public disturbance rather than a person in shock and pain. It was hard for me to discern what she was saying as I tried to answer the questions for the operator. She seemed to be screaming that someone had all her belongings in his car, and had taken all her things, leaving her behind.
The operator asked if I needed police – I said no, I needed medical. It was clear that the woman had been injured and needed help. It was only when the operator asked me to look very carefully and describe her clothing, that my breath caught in my throat.
“Oh. She’s not actually wearing any pants…..I guess that’s a windbreaker tied around her waist. Yes. A black windbreaker.”
I was horrified. All she had on was a t-shirt and a jacket made to look like a skirt. It was so clear that she had been sexually assaulted, and there wasn’t any resource available to get her medical care, much less any option to complete a rape kit and a criminal complaint. Clearly, she had no intent of filing a criminal complaint for whatever assault had been committed upon her. Her need for care was too all-consuming.
Another neighbor told me later what she was saying while I was on the phone. She had bellowed how she had been attacked by more than one man, and was sick of it happening to her every night. My first impression was that she was in pain – and that was still true – but her outburst was driven by fury, not by pain or grief.
Meanwhile, the woman registered that I was talking to 911 and began to threaten me, while maneuvering herself to try and get up on her feet. I told the operator I had to distance myself and left my contact information, then hung up. At that point she got up and walked towards me, but then continued on past me and walked around the corner on the sidewalk. She was in a mix of shock and rage, some of which was becoming directed at me because I was summoning the authorities for help.
Another couple of neighbors came out, and as we all tried to keep an eye on her in her state of shock as we waited for help to arrive, she focused on me again: “I’m gonna knock you OUT!” She threatened me again and got up in my face with her fist tightly clenched and fully clocked back, while I was backed up against a parked car. I just steeled up and didn’t flinch, trying to figure out how I could communicate that I wanted to help.
(Two ludicrous thoughts flashed through my mind as adrenaline started to take over: 1: there was no way I could hit this woman back or fight even if she did make contact, this woman who was clearly acting in shock from subjected to horrendous violence, and 2: why the hell did I get into this situation with a very expensive phone in my hand and no good pockets or friends who could hold it…).
With the help of neighbors (who, unlike me, did not enrage her), the woman eventually turned away from me and crossed the street to where several other people had gathered (they, too, had the look of people camping outside). They seemed to know her and she slowed to talk to them. I had time to run into my house and grab some old capris that were on hand. I asked the tall neighbor to give them to her, since he seemed to have a calming effect on her.
The cops arrived about 40 minutes after my call; one was female, accompanied by another male officer in another car. They paused to talk to us and were pointed in the direction where she was last seen walking long before they arrived. We saw the cruisers driving back and forth, so it seemed safe to say that she eluded them.
My sleep will be haunted for a while yet, and rightfully so. In this year that the camps have sprung up in nearly every single neighborhood, I’ve noticed more seemingly single women with pit bulls or other canine companions. This offers some comfort to me because of the odds of domestic violence in relationships which form on the streets; if women are opting these days to find a pitbull rather than partner up with another camper, they might have the protection and companionship they need to get through their ordeal. The non profit community seems to have grown with these developments, with volunteer veterinarian services and shelters which accommodate companion animals. But there has to be more.
No amount of economic disparity or harsh luck ever grants permission for anyone to be attacked. This form of violence is rampant on the streets, and I can’t simply live as a silent neighbor to these people and continue to observe any longer. I’m hoping to form a call to action and network with other anti-rape activists to take back the night so that ALL our neighbors in this town who are just trying to survive until they get a new address can at least feel our presence, our concern, and our solidarity until their situation does improve.
These women are ignored and assumed to be sex workers by much of the general public. I have no doubt that these assaults occur unchecked regularly, and that survivors of assault are unable to seek medical or other aftercare. Residents in my neighborhood have often complained of menacing or harassing individuals on the streets where tent cities have emerged. These ominous or criminal elements are quite comfortable slipping into in a population that is constantly neglected, ignored, or criminalized in the public eye. Those sorts of societal prejudices held against unhoused populations make such homeless camps safe harbor for violence, especially misogyny.
This is a call to action and network with other anti-rape activists to take back the night so that ALL our neighbors in this town who are just trying to survive until they get a new address can at least feel our presence, our concern, and our solidarity until their situation does improve.
I can only hope that this encounter grant me the strength to find other neighbors and groups who care enough to do something about sexual assault against women who are living outside in our town, our neighborhoods. We need to take back the night — for ourselves and the girls and women who have no doors to lock securely.
Next chapter: How.