I Witnessed a Crime And Did Nothing to Stop It
It was 3am.
I was driving home from a bonfire with a couple of friends. One friend had been drinking, and so I offered her a ride. She took me up on it. We left around 2:30. She was talkative, and I love her company, so we drove around a little. I circled onto her block around 2:45, then started heading home.
As I approached my own street, I noticed an awkward glow, like a streetlight, except there weren’t any streetlights at the top of my street. I got closer, then turned right onto my block. I was just yards away from my house.
And then I saw it.
Two cars, parked in front of the corner house, their headlights blaring. They were stationed against each other in opposite directions with the car noses touching, like they were exchanging a jumper cable or reviving a battery. I held my foot down on my brake softly.
The next part felt like it happened in slow motion.
I drove past them, observing. There was a man in the driver’s seat of one of the cars, and he stared at me as I passed by, his head on a swivel as his eyes followed me down the road. I looked back, suspicious of the situation. I could hear the hum of bass music coming from one of the cars.
I had finally reached my house, but it didn’t seem smart to get out of the car. It didn’t even seem smart to park. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, thinking maybe one of them was just borrowing the other’s battery, or maybe they were waiting outside of the house for something? I shook my head. No, I thought. The people in that house have kids. They wouldn’t be up this late. The more I thought about it, the more fishy it seemed. Still, I told myself, I didn’t know the full story.
Nonetheless, I was frightened. I certainly felt like I was in danger. There had been a rise in crime on my block in the last month. Carjackings, robberies, burglaries, leafing through items in garages. Most of these crimes happened in broad daylight. The perpetrators were usually armed with either a gun or a knife. To top it all off, none of them had been caught yet. And these incidents were starting to happen more and more frequently. The fact that it was in the middle of the day, when people could be around, made me realize that these criminals were brazen. It was dangerous for me to be out alone like this. I was terrified that I would become the next victim. I didn’t even feel safe at 4pm, let alone 3am, alone, with my family asleep in the house, all the streetlights dim and the neighborhood quiet.
Shit, I thought. What do I do now?
The smartest thing I could think to do was turn and drive around for a couple of minutes before approaching my block again. If I did this, they probably wouldn’t realize where I lived. They would have no idea which home was mine, nor would they be able to describe my car or my face, because the night was dark and foggy.
I flicked my lights off as I turned, hoping they wouldn’t see which direction I was heading.
When I finally barreled back down my own street, the two cars were gone. I was baffled.
I parked warily, then looked out of my windows and in all of my mirrors before proceeding to get out of the car. I shut the door as quietly as I could, ran across the sidewalk, bounded up the porch stairs as fast as I could, and speed-dialed the key code for the lock on my front door. When I finally stepped inside, realizing I was safe and sound, I swiftly shut and locked the door behind me and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
You’re OK, I told myself as I went to bed that night. Everything’s fine. You got home safe, that’s all that matters.
The next day, I had to nanny. Coincidentally, the family I nannied for lived in the corner house on my block.
When I got there, the girls were watching TV. I plopped down next to them on the couch and tried to make small talk. “How are you guys this morning?” I asked.
The youngest girl perked up. Her eyes widened. “Guess what?!” she exclaimed.
Her stories were always interesting, and I excitedly obliged. “What?!” I asked.
“Our neighbor’s car got stolen last night,” she said. “Can you believe it?”
“Whoa,” I said, surprised. Then I thought about it. I paused for a moment, realizing that the scene I had passed last night was her neighbor’s car being stolen.
“Oh my gosh,” I finally told her. “I was there. I was coming home from a friend’s house really late and I saw it happening!”
Her dad overheard us, and when he came in, I told both of them the whole long, drawn-out story. We all felt for the family who had had their car stolen. Apparently, it was their only vehicle. I felt terrible for not saying something sooner. But how could I have known? I tried to imagine the encounter again. I didn’t know whose car it was. I didn’t know what they were doing. All I knew was that it was suspicious, and I felt threatened, and I was unsure of their intent but too afraid to do anything.
Thankfully, the family found the car in a junkyard in one of my city’s smaller suburbs later that week. Their spare tire was missing, but otherwise the car was intact, and they were able to get it back to their house again. I was glad, but still shaken. I couldn’t get the scene out of my head.
After that event last summer, I spent a lot of time thinking. Why didn’t I do anything? Could I have prevented the outcome if I just spoke up?
But, in the back of my head, I think I knew the real answer.
I made the right decision. I couldn’t do anything. Because I’m a woman, and it was nighttime, and I am young, and people would see me as nothing more than prey.
As women, we’re trained to do certain things in life. We’re trained to ignore the guys that catcall us in the street, even if they’re chasing after us. We’re trained not to talk to strangers on the bus, to never hitchhike or accept a ride from a strange guy who offers it to you. We’re trained to keep to ourselves. Stare at our shoes. Keep a thing of pepper spray on our keychain. Lock the car doors as soon as we get inside. Peer into the backseat to make sure no one is hiding there. Look behind us frequently when walking. And countless other things.
We live in a world where violence against women is a constant, imminent threat. Some people don’t understand just how difficult it is to navigate this world alone as a woman. Especially at night. Or in badly-lit areas. Or on streets with no traffic. Or anytime, because we are never ready for the worst, even if we are expectant that it might happen.
Every time I think about that night, I feel grateful. Grateful that I did what I did, that I listened to my gut. My mind rifles through the possibilities. What would’ve happened if things had gone differently? Sure, maybe I would have been fine, just rattled, and gotten home unscathed. But I can’t make assumptions. That night had been a close call, a brush with a possible grim fate. Life experience has taught me that I can never be too sure. What if they wanted to keep me quiet? What if they wanted to steal my car, too? What if they had decided to sexually assault me? These seem like drastic ideas, but they’re really not. Ask most women; these scenarios flash through our heads on the daily. We’re never not on alert, especially if we’re alone.
I don’t mean to imply that women are helpless. We certainly aren’t. There are tons of women who would not hesitate to defend themselves — I am one of them. But we are still constantly vigilant, always thinking on our feet, usually imagining all of the possible outcomes when we cross a situation that makes our gut churn.
It’s disappointing — well, crushing— that our world is like this. And quite honestly, it is preventable. In fact, if we put our resources in the right places and worked at fixing the misplaced and biased priorities of the justice system, we’d probably be making much more progress at this point. Let’s not forget that this is a race and class issue as well as a sexism issue, too. The many types of oppression and social issues plaguing our society intersect with one another. Black people are still serving more time for petty drug crimes than white people are for any crime, let alone sexual assaults and rapes (think Brock Turner from the Stanford rape case). I should’ve added earlier that most of these criminals doing the carjackings were white males. So are the cops in my city. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the justice system has chosen to, yet again, uphold a double standard and let women and BIPOC pay the price. The system is broken, shattered. This needs to change.
I’d love to be able to end this article on a good note, to inspire with wise words, to galvanize people. But in some cases, I am left at a loss, and this is one of those cases.
All I can say is that I’m glad that I am safe. My heart goes out to women whose fates were not so fortunate. I am always thinking of them.
It’s time for real change in this world. If I ever have a daughter, I wish that I will not have to raise her in such an environment, teaching her the same warped lessons that I was always taught to keep myself safe from harm. I wish that marginalized groups could always be heard and valued, that those intersectional problems could finally be addressed by the people in power and effectively solved. But here we are.
Still, there is hope. It is not very convincing. But it is there, even if faint, even if seemingly far in the distance.
I will always keep doing everything I can to reach it.