Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Chicago Crime: Stabbing at North/Clybourn CTA stop - Thoughts on Arguments


At 8:00 PM on Monday, March 26, a 33-year old man got into an argument with a 35-year old man on the North/Clybourn Red Line stop. As the conflict escalated, the 33-year old man drew a knife and cut his victim in the upper leg and across the chest. The 35-year old victim survived and was listed in good condition at the hospital. The 33-year old attacker fled the scene and was arrested shortly thereafter. You can read the full story here, although in typical Chicago media fashion, it has basically no other details beyond what I wrote above.

This attack raises two self-defense points. The first, and most obvious, is related to defending against a knife, although I actually think that this is by far the least important lesson of the incident. Once the weapon was in the picture, "self-defense" had already failed. The second point is more pressing: The need to avoid and deescalate arguments. Although I will give some words on the knife component of this incident, it is secondary to the verbal, deescalatory skills that might have prevented the attack from happening at all.

THE MARTIAL SIDE: WORST-CASE KNIFE SCENARIOS
I confess that it really isn't worth it worrying about stories like this. This incident represents no pattern of knife wielding Red Line marauders. Unlike my previous article on phone robberies, there is no knifing trend in Chicago. In fact, knife attacks generally only make up about 8% of homicides (CORRECTED: An earlier version of this article said that stabbings were 2% of homicides and was massively wrong on the percentage of total violent crimes).
And you thought that yuppies
never carried weapons.

So why even care about knives at all, whether in self-defense curricula (we do a good amount of knife work at the UChicago Self-Defense Club) or in the media? Knife attacks are scary. Although they don't happen often, when they do happen they promise a terrifying and damaging ordeal. This makes it important to think about and train with knives, even if just in anticipation of an improbable, worst-case situation.

Unfortunately, just by reading this blog alone, you are not going to gain any serious skills in physically defending against a knife. It takes a lot of training and repetition to succeed at this, and even then it isn't certain. When we train full/high-speed stress drills in class, I regularly get nicked or cut against a committed attacker with the element of surprise. In the words of a famous knight, at least it's just a flesh wound. A better/more experienced warrior might avoid the blade altogether, but I have seen even very skilled ones get slashed in practice. Of course, their simulated injuries are still a whole lot better than those sustained by less experienced students, who tend to suffer more pokes than a 2006 Facebook user.

If you are ever facing a knife without any formal training, your goals are simple and obvious: Escape, survive, and summon help. Your goals are never to disarm your attacker, punish him for attacking you, or subduing him for the greater good. Just run away!
The world's best self-defense expert
Even if you do have formal training, your objectives should still lean towards the simple and obvious. The skillset at your disposal might make some new martial tools available to you (strikes, disarms, joint locks, etc.), but those should all be in service of getting away.

If you find yourself against a knife, whether you have a 14th degree blackbelt in Ninjutsu or have never stepped foot in a gym before, here are some quick, concrete tips:
  1. Scream for help
    Actually scream! Yell, shout, and generally make a huge commotion. Don't let some constructed sense of masculinity or warriorhood get in the way of calling for assistance. The same goes for women; I know some female students who don't want to scream for help because they think it "is what a girl would do." Too bad more men don't do it. Screaming is a great tactic that summons reinforcements, clearly identifies who the victim is, and scares/distracts the attacker.
  2. Use objects as shields
    We once did a knife disarm drill while defenders wore their laptop bags, gym duffels, or backpacks. When the knifer struck, everyone used their hands and forearms like their styles had trained. No one thought to use the big, padded, hulking bags. Shields are awesome. Just watch 300 if you don't believe me. Use whatever you have on you to block the attack and even to cause damage. Don't worry about the contents of your bag; your new Chrome Book might be very shiny, but is probably not worth reconstructive abdominal surgery.
THE VERBAL SIDE: DEESCALATING ALTERCATIONS
Looking at the North and Clybourn incident, the first sign of danger was not the knife slicing toward the victim's chest. At that moment, violence was a foregone conclusion. The critical turning point of that incident was the argument itself.

Admittedly, I was not there, and the news reports give no indication as to the altercation's content. Maybe the two men knew each other. Maybe the "victim" was actually the guy who provoked the argument. Maybe the alleged aggressor was acting in perceived self-defense of an impending attack. We just don't know given our limited information. But what we do know is that we should never, ever find ourselves in a similar position.


Most people who read this blog know not to start arguments or verbal fights, let alone with strangers. That's one of those things we probably learned in a sandbox while quarreling over the octopus-shaped plastic shovel. It is always better to defuse the situation and quickly leave the scene. Now, for many social worker clients, this lesson is far less obvious. The population I work with (so-called "at risk" black teenagers in Chicago) definitely benefits from mentoring around conflict avoidance, deescalation, and resolution. My readership, however, represents a different demographic. The average UChicago undergraduate, graduate student, or professor is unlikely to pick a street argument on a CTA platform. They are even less likely to start a street-beef over an overly long stare. We are far more likely to have that argument picked against us by a stranger.

ARGUMENT SCRIPTS
"That was pretty good, but we need to be
even more awkward"
Once an argument starts, the average middle-class (or wealthier) Chicagoan tends to lose composure. It's a well-defined and recognizable script. We mumble apologies. We condescendingly dismiss. We become intensely interested in that black blob of gum on the sidewalk. If we are in a group of people, a conversation about Plato or Star Wars immediately dies and everyone stares at their feet in collective discomfort. As astute social scientists will observe, there is absolutely a racial and socioeconomic dimension to this exchange. Given the demographics, poverty, culture, and criminal factors of our city, many of these arguments (i.e. those with the uncomfortable white Chicagoan) will be across racial lines. This can add additional elements of tension. The following conversation is an almost verbatim transcript of an encounter I observed on the Red Line last week. This happened at around 5:45 PM between a group of four UChicago students and a middle-aged black man.

UChi 1: "You think you are screwed for final's week? I still haven't started my paper, and it was due 2 hours ago!"
UChis 2-4: (laughter)
Man: (turns around in his seat and faces group) "Hey guys, what's so funny here? What are we talking about?"
UChi 4: (suddenly becomes fascinated with the textile pattern on his seat)
UChi 3: (keeps smiling awkwardly in his best eel face)
UChi 2: (completely ignoring man) "Wow what is your topic anyway?"
UChi 1: (addressing man) "Uh...what's...I'm sorry?"
Man: "I asked you what we are talking about here. Didn't you hear me?"
UChi 4: (switches interest to a fleck of dust on his jacket sleeve)
UChi 3: (eel face)
UChi 2: (delivers the least subtle knee-nudge UChi 1 before diverting attention to his iPhone)
UChi 1: "Oh...nothing. We were...just nothing."
Man: "What's that? You don't want to talk to me or something?"

The scenario just became more painful from there, with more textile obsession, eel faces, iPhone browsing, increasingly uncomfortable responses from UChi 1, and increasing anger from the man. By sticking to the script, escalation was inevitable. It never came to a physical exchange, instead ending like the vast majority of public arguments: discomfort, embarrassment, and awkward stories. But it is never worth the risk, as the North and Clybourn incident suggests. Even in the case of the UChicago students, they were clearly shaken by the argument, despite its remaining verbal.

The other argument script is less common amongst the average UChicago student, but very common amongst young men (myself included, at one point). Martial artist and author Rory Miller calls it the "monkey dance", and it's a familiar ritual of masculine assertion. Here's an exaggerated but familiar exchange to illustrate the dance routine.  
 
"What am I going to do about it? Let you
borrow some of my gum, for starters."

Male 1: "What are you looking at punk?"  
Male 2: "You, asshole. What are you going to do about it?" 
Male 1: "What did you say to me!?" 
Male 2: "You heard me. I called you an asshole. What are you going to do about it?

Chest bumping comes next, followed by more blustering, more aggressive eye contact, and finally a push or a punch. In all my time at UChicago, I only saw this particular script play out three times (and one time I was to blame), but it is definitely a routine that many men will follow. Harvard professor Steven Pinker, with support of other researchers, suggests that it is an evolutionary mechanism of mate selection and territory demarcation. Whatever its origins, it is as alive today on the streets of Englewood and Wrigleyville as it was in the Pleistocene.

BREAKING THE SCRIPT
They key to deescalating most argument is to break the script. This is true of both the awkward exchange between an aggressor and a group of UChicago students out on the town, and in the case of two posturing teens. You break a script by doing something that the belligerent doesn't expect without making him feel threatened or insulted (of course, there are times where your safety is more important than the feeling of a stranger). Once you get off the script you can easily deescalate an argument and prevent the proverbial knife-pull from every happening.

In my experience, the best way to do this is to select a common denominator between you and the stranger and then use that as an entry point to address his question/demands. Sports teams, the weather, and family/friend issues are safe bets in this category. Use your common denominator as a means of both responding to the initial exchange and diverting the argument off of its script.

Whoops. Wrong Baltimore Ravens.
#uchicagoconfusion
Make sure you aren't picking a denominator that you can't honestly discuss. If you don't know anything about the Bears, don't tell the guy that you were out late with your buddies watching the game last night. Similarly, don't say things that are out of character or flat out unbelievable. If you are a UChicago student with your laptop bag and "If I wanted an A I would have gone to Harvard" t-shirt, don't tell the aggressor that you are tired from working a double shift at the plant. This will involve a bit of quick thinking, or good preparative work, but it often pays off in the end. 

Let's revisit the examples above and see how those parties could have handled it better.

UChi 1: "You think you are screwed for final's week? I still haven't started my paper, and it was due 2 hours ago!"
UChis 2-4: (laughter)
Man: (turns around in his seat and faces group) "Hey guys, what's so funny here? What are we talking about?"
UChi 1: "Man, I had this assignment that was due earlier today for a class, and I just didn't want to do it!"
Man: "What? Why didn't you just get it done?"
UChi 1: "So, I wanted to start last night, but we went out instead and saw the new Bruce Willis movie. You seen it yet?"

The rest of UChi 1's friends can still be up to their necks in discomfort as long as UChi 1 is taking point. If the man directly addressed one of the other group members ("Why is he ignoring me!?"), UChi 1 could just respond "Well, he actually did his assignment for class, so he's just really tired right now and is spacing out."

What about the two angry young men?

Male 1: "What are you looking at punk?" 
Male 2: "What's up? Oh, sorry about that bud. One of those long days of work, you know what I mean?"

The goal is to defuse the situation as early as possible by throwing off their expectations. You don't need to start a conversation about Cartesian existentialism with a stranger, but you do want to start a quick, friendly, and casual exchange. If you ever need to break off this exchange, just do it calmly: "Alright, this is my stop man. Catch you around." Indeed, your goal should always be to remove yourself from the belligerent's area as quickly as possible, lest he change his mind, get some friends, or rethink his own motivations.

To conclude, we return to the North and Clybourn incident itself. It is unclear how these techniques would have helped these parties because we lack information about the conflict's context. But if we were in that situation, these tools should be effective ones for avoiding both awkward stories and violent conclusions. Hopefully no one needs to use these suggestions, although if the worst-case scenario starts to arise, they will be useful for stopping the violence before it starts.

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