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My violent assault, the bystanders who did nothing, and what it means to bear witness

This week’s attack against an elderly Asian American woman and testimony in the Chauvin trial highlight the intricacies of when we are willing to act on behalf of others.

A young woman standing with her back to the camera, looking through frosted glass. Getty Images/EyeEm

It was almost Christmas, during the heart of the 2008 recession, when my firm announced it would dissolve at year’s end. Leaving the office, I wanted to weep. I made my way down the steps at Wall Street station, taking care to avoid patches of fresh ice. As I fished around for my subway card, a teenager appeared in frame and tore the laptop bag off my shoulder. Spinning around, I caught the strap and began a tug of war. As we struggled, two large figures loomed behind me and, suddenly, a slew of arms and legs were battering my body, forcing my face into concrete as men’s heavy snow boots kicked my skull in.

“Help me!” I screamed to an unresponsive audience. Just after evening rush hour, the station was full. I caught someone’s eye — then another — still another. Each person turned away from me.

My body was bent in a tight ball on the subway floor. The more continuous the assault, the more I wondered what was lacking in me — what kept me from being considered a complete being, worthy of protection, or even acknowledgment, from the dozens of bystanders around me? Why didn’t they act?

Violence can be a dissociative experience: Temporarily untethered from my sense of reality, I abandoned myself to the fantasy that I had stepped onstage into a simulation of play-acted violence. Only then could I make sense of the crowd who gathered to watch my battery with such unflinching acceptance.

Brandon Elliot, suspected of brutally beating an elderly Asian American woman on Monday near New York’s Times Square, was arrested on hate crime and assault charges Wednesday. Disturbing viral surveillance video shows the woman, 65-year-old Vilma Kari, passing the open doors of an apartment building. Her assailant appears suddenly in frame, kicking her in the chest. Her body lurches back and she collapses onto the concrete. “F—- you, you don’t belong here,” he allegedly shouts, as he stomps repeatedly on her head.

Kari’s tiny figure looks like a rag doll from a child’s toy chest, soft and pliant, absorbing the brutality of the assault. More haunting than her seemingly lifeless body are the three looming figures in the foreground, spectators to her attack. In the lobby of the apartment building, they appear riveted but unmoved in the face of the violence. No one aids her. When the assailant saunters off, one spectator at last moves toward the woman — but only to close the open door and turn away. Seeing this, I flashed back to my own encounter, over a decade ago, and wondered if Kari’s bystander met her gaze or averted his eyes.

The video has sparked widespread indignation, especially given the bystanders’ inaction. “How can anyone stand by during an assault and do nothing to help?” many viewers wonder.

We would all like to believe we wouldn’t hesitate to help a stranger in an emergency. In reality, we are far less heroic than we imagine ourselves to be, especially when others are present at the scene. In the 1960s, social psychologists conducted extensive research on what they termed the “bystander effect”: Only 62 percent of participants were shown to intervene in an emergency when they were part of a larger group. Since then, researchers have delved deeply into the situational factors that are thought to facilitate bystander apathy, but little research has been conducted regarding the impact of dispositional factors. Specifically, can sympathy impact bystander responsiveness? And when a sympathetic witness is able to overcome their reflexive impulse to freeze, will they, in the aftermath of a tragic outcome, perceive their intervention as inadequate rather than recognize it as morally good?

On day two of Derek Chauvin’s long-awaited murder trial this week, witnesses expressed a lingering sense of guilt at their powerlessness to prevent George Floyd’s death. Witness Genevieve Hansen, a trained emergency medical technician and firefighter, testified that upon encountering the chaotic scene outside Cup Foods, she identified herself as a first responder and demanded the arresting officers take Floyd’s pulse. Becoming emotional on the stand, she told the court that she was pained by her inability to render medical aid to Floyd as he gasped for air.

Darnella Frazier, a teen who witnessed and filmed Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer, kneeling on Floyd’s neck, was similarly anguished. She testified that bearing witness to Floyd’s death changed her life forever. In those surreal minutes watching Floyd’s life wrested from his body, Frazier discovered inside herself a newfound voice: a way to “be loud” in the face of injustice. Still, she said there have been many nights where she has lain awake, thinking of Floyd, sorrowful that she did not do more to save his life.

All of these acts of violence are fueled by very different cultural factors and motives — but each asks us to examine the same searing question: What obligations do we have to one another? For years, I turned over the details of my assault again and again in my mind, recollecting the faces of bystanders, explaining the crowd’s inaction in a layman’s version of the bystander effect — as collective impotence, collective cowardice. I know cowardice: It has often barred me from acting in the heroic ways I expected myself to act. For me, the cure for fear is not public shame, but a reckoning with the impact of my inaction: Inaction, to a victim, is negation.

In the wake of surging violence, and during a pandemic, we may find ourselves lonelier than we have ever been — not merely distanced from one another but invalidated by each other. In turning away, in failing to intervene when we are needed, we fail to acknowledge our essential humanity, and subject victims to the insecurity of being incomplete, unworthy, and invisible.

Our safety depends on each other. In the face of violence and injustice, will we merely stand by, or will we bear sympathetic witness? Some of us may be morally self-assured, imbued with heroic purpose. More of us may be reticent to act, insecure in our power, but find ourselves moved to be loud, to stop dehumanization, to stop objectification, to preserve a person’s essential worthiness, and in doing so, preserve our own. Let none of us be bystanders in a lobby, who stand up only to close the door.

Kim Le is a Los Angeles-based writer and an associate at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.