Send in the Feds?

A Ride on the L Suggests a Better Alternative for Chicago

It was a Tuesday early evening, and I was heading home on the L after a meeting with a colleague downtown. I was standing towards the back of the car with no seats left. The doors opened, a woman who looked to be in her early 50’s entered walking backwards with a cane, speaking loudly: “Don’t you come on this train. You better not enter this train.”

A young man came forward, tall and slim yelling back to her, “You don’t even know me. How can you talk to me this way? I’m from New York, you can’t talk to me like that.” He defiantly entered the car and we all watched with growing concern, wondering who they were and how this would end.

As the train left the station, the woman continued aggressively, shaking her cane, daring him to move towards her. He was yelling back at her, the two of them a few feet apart. Finally, he snapped and lunged after her, placing his hands around her throat.

Several passengers jumped from their seats yelling “No!” and quickly separated them. The young man was pushed to the back towards where I was standing. He was struggling still, lunging after her, trying to get out of the grasp of two men, and then, from his left, another man appeared, a bit older than him, and he spoke directly to the young man calmly but firmly: “Level head, man. Level head.”

The young man quieted and looked right at him. “Use your head brother. Walk away.” I could see them both clearly now and I thought I saw tears in the young man’s eyes.

“I don’t know how to get out of here,” he said, and the other man led him by the arm to the connecting door marked Emergency Exit Only. He opened the car door and the young man walked through. The woman got off at the next stop and we all watched to see if the young man would follow but he didn’t. Transit authorities appeared and after several minutes the train moved on.

I spent the remainder of my commute — and the several weeks since — reflecting on this incident. Clearly, we were all very lucky that this did not end more violently. The tension between this young man and the woman, apparently strangers, revealed their own simmering resentments misdirected at one another. The bravery of the several passengers who risked their own safety to stop the violence lingered on the train well after the incident was over. And perhaps most memorably, the other man, who coolly redirected this young man with great skill and apparent ease. Perhaps he had a military background, as as he seemed less shaken by the incident than the rest of us; a valuable resource for our struggling cities as the nonprofit Leave No Veteran Behind has shown. Or maybe he had seen this in his community many times before and was trained as an “interrupter” by the program Cure Violence.

As we reflect on the violence plaguing Chicago, it is important to know that there are people — and programs — that can make a difference. In spite of the many years I have been working with Chicago communities, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the power of individuals to impact a community of strangers so clearly and so poignantly. And I know I will never forget how that young man was urged to keep a level head and led to the emergency exit that he didn’t even know was there.

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