Bullying is not ‘just banter’

“It’s nothing to do with you. What you getting involved for?”, he said as he squared up to me.

A couple of weeks ago, it was Anti-Bullying Week. Like mental health issues, which affect one in four of us, bullying affects many of us at some point of our lives. As parents, it is very hard to watch your child face this most cruel of ‘rites of passage’ – and thankfully we no longer accept bullying as an inevitable experience of childhood. Adrian Mitchell’s powerful poem ‘Back in the playground blues’ describes the seeming inevitability of bullying and victimisation, and the sense of impotence on all sides:

“Got a mother and a father they’re one thousand years away
The rulers of the Killing Ground are coming out to play”

Maybe this was why I found myself in a somewhat awkward situation with a number of young people who seemed bent on conflict, outside that paragon of civilisation John Lewis, in Stratford. The genteel backdrop to this exchange did nothing to dispel the very real survival of the fittest and rule of the jungle that I faced.

A couple of minutes previously, I had walked out of the shop into the mall, heading for the tube station. I was distracted by another shopper standing in front of me holding a large box containing a microwave, a burden which does not make you want to linger in the middle of a busy mall. He in turn was distracted by two schoolboys, who at first glance appeared to be mucking around wrestling. But as I looked, I realised it was not an equal fight: the first lad had the other in a head-lock and was him dragging outside.

Have you ever noticed that a place that is usually bristling with security guards seems not to have any about when you need them? Not even a copper in sight!

“Oi”, I shouted as they burst out through the doors. By this time, there was a gaggle of their peers, all with the same uniform, heading to watch the show. I headed for the same doors, backed up – I hoped – by the microwave carrier. “That’s enough”, I called – not very impressive, but I had not yet warmed to my theme and was somewhat burdened with my own shopping bags.

Suddenly, I discovered that the onlookers were surrounding me, a number saying, “It’s just banter!”  “No it’s not”, I replied, pointing at the scuffle as the first boy clamped his foot down on his victim’s head and pressed him to the pavement. “It’s nothing to do with you. What you getting involved for?” said a big lad, probably 15 or 16 years old, next to me. It’s a bit lame but I replied, “I’m a citizen and so are you – it’s to do with all of us”. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the attacker move off from his victim, freeing him up.

What happened next had an ominous tone. “Don’t stand so close to me! Why you standing so close?”, the big lad said. I had a number of choices at this point: there was only one way this exchange was going. I had got in the way of their fun. I tried a light remark to ease the rapidly increasing tension – no joy, the big lad wanted conflict. Several options ran through my mind: fight, flight, or freeze? Talking was not going to work. I could try a pre-emptive strike: I remembered seeing this on a documentary on self-defence, and it would probably shock us all – but no, it was time to make a tactical withdrawal. At least the victim had had a reprieve, and if he was wise, had run off – I never saw, as I was having to contain my own situation.

I walked off and approached a security guard who was giving directions. After being told primly to wait my turn, I told her was a fight going on and she sheepishly thanked me and dashed away.

The whole incident was perturbing: not so much that young people were fighting, but how easily it turned on me. It was also disappointing that there was no one else around for backup.

I wandered off for one more purchase and, as I came out of the shop, who should walk by but the threatening lad, on his own. One of the hard realities of bullying is that the bully is often someone who themselves has experienced bullying. Rather than producing empathy, bullying seems to create a perpetual vicious circle as each vies not to be at the bottom of the pile.

It made me wonder – why was he like that? Why the aggression? I wondered if I should take one more risk and offer him a McDonald’s and try to talk to him. I turned to follow him, but he turned again and started talk to some others in a large group. It wasn’t to be – I only had a chance of a talk if he was on his own with no one else to play up to. I was off the hook… maybe next time.

Is there a lesson for us here? I’m not sure, but bullying exists because we allow it: we get the society we are prepared to put up with. We have to decide we won’t excuse bullying in our classrooms, staff rooms, workplaces and most of all in ourselves.

Daniel’s blog can also be found on the Huffington Post.