There was a street fight right in front of our house, in Minneapolis, on New Year’s Eve last year at about 2 a.m. A group of eight young men, probably 16-18 yrs old, yelling and screaming and punching. They were either drunk or high or both and very loud. Kristen, my wife, thought it was dogs barking. It was scary. I was trembling as I opened the curtain to peek. I wasn’t sure what to do but I knew I wanted them to stop right away. Our ten year old had just gone to bed 20 minutes earlier, the latest he’s ever stayed up, and I thought their loud, angry voices might wake and frighten him. They were right outside his window.
I kept thinking: what can I do that will get their attention and help them stop this? I have training in facilitating conflict and here is a really good one. This was more angry testosterone than I had personally witnessed since my years in high school. I was shaking as I called 911. It rang about 20 times. No one answered. Not good, I thought. I put on our lights. Eventually, I opened the front door; I was about 20 feet away and watched two of them go to the ground punching each other. I went out on the stoop, in my pajamas, and yelled in the deepest voice I have: “Hey, take it elsewhere, we have people sleeping here.” They mostly ignored me. I yelled again. One of them looked at me and yelled, “F— you!” I went inside, called 911 again and after many rings got an answer. With a little more courage I went outside again, knowing the police would be informed. So I shouted again, not real proud of my intervention. To my amazement they paused, picked up the two young men who were on the ground and left.
The police did come and they ran, but returned later and kept at it for more than an hour. Now I was mad at them, tired and scared for my family’s safety. They made some more noise but did not return to our front yard. It took me hours to get to sleep.
The next morning I was still upset about the sleep they helped me lose. I found a cell phone on the sidewalk. I imagined a confrontation with the young man and his parents. I thought of scolding him and making him suffer for what happened, for I was angry at him and his group for keeping me up and frightening my family. So I found “dad” on his phone and called. He said he was divorced and that his son was hanging out with a “bad crowd” and that I should call the mom. So I called mom and she was not home. I left a pleasant-but-tough voice mail. She never called back. Later, when I was gone, the young man called our home and asked my wife to put his phone in our mailbox. She gave him a little piece of her mind on what happened and did as he requested. He denied even being there and picked the phone up without being seen. My dream of a confrontation was dashed with one call.
I was still upset. So I did some reflecting and emailed a friend to get some perspective. I was very concerned for this man and the rough crowd he was hanging out with. But I knew at this point there was nothing I could do for him. A quick and strong shift happened as I asked: is there a part of that young man or of that group that wants to come to the surface of my life? They could have stopped at any of the twenty homes on our block, or any of the 200,000 homes in Minneapolis. They came to mine. Maybe they had something for me.
I imagined: what part of me does that young man, or the whole group represent? They were willing to fight like crazy for something. They were perhaps angry that someone had been hurt or offended and were willing to go to the ground and hammer out their troubles, the only way they could think of at 2 a.m. And they were not deterred by me.
Though I don’t like how violent and rude they were, I realized that I loved their fire! Their commitment to working out their troubles, though loud and unsavory, was amazing. Perhaps I need more of what they have but with different style: to have the intensity of a street fighter but handled with gentleness and care. Maybe I also need some of their capacity to be able to disregard the voices that say to me: not here, take your stuff somewhere else.
After this reflection my feelings about the disturbance changed radically. I was no longer mad at them or afraid of them. I was grateful for the gift they gave to me–their willingness to “work it out”, their fire, of course without the violence.
It is unfortunate I did not get the chance to meet the young man, for a variety of reasons. He and the others clearly need some help from adults who have learned other ways to work out their conflicts. I wanted to ask him about the source of his fire to work things out. I wanted to ask where he thought he was headed if he continued to work things out in the fashion they used the night before. It might have been an interesting encounter. I worry about and pray for his well being and the condition of his friends. Perhaps they could use some of my ability to work things out less violently.
ps. by the way I have very limited training in working with street scenes and they are incredibly challenging. I do not recommend attempting to intervene unless you have substantial experience and training.