Fare-dodging is perhaps not the most dangerous of crimes, but we do have a duty to stand up to some kinds of wrongdoing
When would you step in on a dispute between strangers? The world seems to be divided between those who do and those who don't. Whether we call them vigilantes, or "have a go heroes" many of us will have witnessed an unpleasant scenario during which a bystander will intervene. It may be a homophobic attack, or perhaps a street robbery. Plain old bad manners and belligerence can also provoke a citizen response.
The recent kerfuffle provoked by the film of the off-duty fireman chucking the alleged fair dodger off the train in Scotland has opened an interesting debate about this issue.
Stepping in on an argument between others can be dangerous, and I wouldn't make it a priority to tackle someone who is causing inconvenience to others and displaying bad manners. In the UK, the law stipulates that people should use only "reasonable force" as appropriate to the situation, and to prevent a dangerous situation from escalating. Intervention leading to citizens' arrests, which are legal in Britain, should only be employed in extreme cases. I don't think delaying a train or swearing at the conductor can be classed as a "dangerous situation".
While I am against vigilante tactics and the use of violence, I believe it is important to intervene in order to prevent violence and bullying towards others. I once witnessed a man dragging his girlfriend down the street while kicking her in the head. She was screaming but no one stepped in. I did so because it felt impossible not to. For my efforts I was smacked in the face by the perpetrator and suffered a broken nose. No one came to my aid either.
The next time I found myself embroiled in such a situation was on the London underground, when two burly men were attempting to pull the yarmulke off an orthodox Jew. Again, no one said a word. I asked them to stop but they laughed and ignored me. Other passengers looked away.
I have been attacked twice in the street ? once by a mugger and once by a man who took offence at me telling him to fuck off when he asked to feel my breasts. On both occasions all I wanted was for someone to shout "Stop" or to call the police, but no one did.
I recall the Guardian Angels ? an international volunteer organisation of unarmed citizen crime patrollers ? coming to London in the 1980s to patrol the underground. Despite being trained in conflict resolution and communication, and having a clear code of conduct, at least five of its members have been killed during the course of duty since its formation.
In 1989 a group of Acton schoolboys set up their own alternative band of peaceful vigilantes called Ebony Rebels in response to what they considered to be the "aggressive" tactics of the Guardian Angels. The Ebony Rebels spent their time rapping, performing and watching over the streets of Ealing. They would walk around the neighbourhood to see if there was any crime or antisocial behaviour occurring and if there was, would try to talk the perpetrators out of it. I am not sure how effective it was, but at least they tried.
Vigilantes can be dangerous, especially those who do not abide by a code of conduct and accountability. There is nothing to stop them from becoming bullies or part of a glorified gang. But we must also remember our duty to one another as human beings and step in when necessary. Of course there is a risk of getting caught in the crossfire, and I would not approach anyone with a weapon, however much my instincts were telling me to do so. But I would never walk away and pretend it was not happening. Too many people are let down by lazy cowardice and the sort of dog-eat-dog attitude that contributes towards the erosion of a sense of responsibility and community.