The man kicked the fence angrily, his face grimacing with the effort, and the arm that held the baby coming back towards the street. I wondered what the fence had done to deserve his rage until I saw him begin to strike it, over and over, and I knew. Something was hidden by the fence -- something soft, something human.
I called out to my coworkers. Our truck pulled up further and we could see a woman, her full weight bending in the fence around her, her assailant ready to strike again. We didn't want to believe what we were seeing. His leg came up and he pushed it hard into her stomach. She doubled over and slid down the fence toward the ground.
"Help her! Do something!"
The words came out of my mouth, but my body was frozen. L.i. urged our driver forward further, rolled down her window and immediately began to try diffuse the situation in Samoan, simultaneously asking the woman on the sidewalk if she was all right. He looked right at us, still holding the baby, then turned with a look toward the woman and punched again. This time there was blood and she was down on the ground. B. jumped out of the driver's seat and ran to her. L.i. was out of the truck trying to reason him, doing anything to stall him and get him to hand over the baby. She fired a string of Samoan at him ... who knows what she said. Insults? Reprimands? Pleadings? I had sat in shock watching the commotion until my body finally caught up with my brain and my hands scrambled furiously inside my bag for my cell phone. I dialed the police.
"We're sorry, but the number you're trying to reach is busy now. We're sorry, but the ..."
I hung up and silently cursed the robotic voice and lack of a dispatching system.
I stood near L.i. half-frozen, unable to say or understand anything in Samoan. My fingers were still fumbling with the keypad. A few people started walking toward us from across the street and E. was cradling the woman's head, keeping it off the concrete. The man grabbed a rock and started back toward the woman. L.i. came toward him. A taxi pulled up and the man, dropped the rock and began climbing in. He hesitated. L.i. was staring at him.
I finally got another voice on the other end of the line.
"L.i. I've got the police, talk to them," I said pushing the phone toward her, sure that her Samoan would get us further and faster than my English.
She looked at me confused, told me to talk to them and continued to stare at the man climbing in the taxi with the baby.
"Hello? Yes. We've just witnessed an assault."
Are you kidding me?
A crowd was starting to gather and the man and the baby disappeared inside the taxi which quickly drove off. I memorized the license plate number and couldn't believe that the taxi driver, who could clearly see the woman lying bleeding on the street, hadn't held him back.
"Let's get her to the hospital," L.i. said.
B. and some other men hosited the half-conscious woman into the track while E. and I gathered her scattered belongings off the pavement. We climbed in the bed of the truck. E's eyes were wide with panic. My mind raced through every bit of domestic violence research I'd completed in Samoa. I was anxious to get to the hospital. But partway there, we turned around and L.i. reluctantly agreed to take the woman to her family's house instead.
E. and I walked in a daze back to the office after L.i. and B. went to track down the assailant's employer. She had been staring for a reason. She recognized him from a local bakery. She and the police would be waiting for him when he got back to work. It didn't take long before he was booked in jail, the baby safely with grandparents. Committing public assault with four employees from the Attorney General's Office as eye-witnesses is a sure way to get caught.
In the meantime, E. and I couldn't get the image of his fist sinking into her head out of our own. Months of work with domestic violence victims, and weeks of research on specific protocal for domestic violence reporting, did little to help cushion the experience. I felt helpless. What good was trying to stop violence against women if it didn't help me stop violence against women? I had just sat there. By the time my fingers had found the number for a limited police force, the punch had already been thrown.
My first reaction was to call home. It calmed my nerves to hear a comforting voice on the other end of the line. But it was awful to realize that while coming home might offer me some personal comfort, it wouldn't help. It wouldn't offer an escape from the violence. Millions of American women are being battered in their own homes the same way a Samoan woman was beat in the street today. So I'll keep working. Even if I can't actually stop anything. At least she knows we tried.