Louise Livesey explains how she found herself in Court, giving evidence which would be used to support her own harasser. A by-stander in a violent incident between two men, she recounts how the fact of her own harassment was treated by the system as incidental.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me tell you a story, in fact let me tell you two stories, at the same time.
A man walks into a bar. He’s with friends; they have a few drinks. They have a few laughs. Some of the bar staff aren’t impressed with their behaviour but it’s a great night out. Our man is the centre of the attention; he’s really pulling the laughs tonight. He’s acting the fool, making everyone feel good. After all it’s a Friday night and he’s out to party.
Towards the end of the night things have been a bit raucous. One of the bar staff is being rude. Our man is a bit rude back. There is a row. Our man knocks an ice bucket over the bar. Without warning the barman runs round the bar and hits our man, with a glass.
Our man is bleeding from a nasty gash in his head. His friends are calling the Police and an Ambulance. Everyone is leaving the bar as fast as they can. The Police arrive and arrest the bar man, he doesn’t deny what happened. A few witnesses leave their details. The Paramedics arrive and dress the wound and take our man away to hospital.
Another group walk into the bar. They’ve had a few drinks already, you can tell. One of them thinks he’s a real joker. No real harm in him. Until he starts trying to throw ice cubes down the back of the top of one of our customers on the mezzanine balcony. She’s doing nothing but chatting with her friends, and she’s a cripple, or at least on crutches.
We ask him to cut out, he says its just a bit of fun. He stops, for a while. Then starts again. Not only is this antisocial but he’s so drunk his aim is off and he’s getting ice cubes all over the floor. That’s a health and safety danger.
“Look mate, can you stop now. A jokes a joke but enough”
The ice bucket goes flying past my head. I see red, run around the bar and throw a punch. Where’d the blood come from? Shit I still had a glass in my hand. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. That’s it then, coppers will be all over this one.
What’s the point to these stories, or rather, this story? Let me tell you another story.
I am sat waiting to go into Court to give evidence. The case revolves around the glassing of one man by another. I was a witness. But on another level the case is also to do with the ubiquity of social harassment of women and with competing claims on socio-judical patriarchy.
The case is simple enough. One man, a customer in a bar, was asked to desist from his drunken behaviour by another man, a bar tender. The first man refused several times and the incident escalated to the barman hitting the customer whilst holding a glass. I in no way condone this violence; the reaction was out of proportion to the provocation. But the behaviour the customer was asked to desist from was trying to throw ice-cubes down the back of my jumper.
It may seem petty, childish even, and thankfully the man was a bad shot. But let’s put this in perspective. It was a crowded bar, one drunken man decided to target a woman he doesn’t know from Eve for this drunken jape. No-one except the bar man attempts to stop him.
His drunk and slightly hysterical female friend said at the end of the night “Had I known this would happen I would have stopped him”. Of course, I realised, his injuries were worthy of preventing his actions, my harassment wasn’t. To put additional context to this – he was aiming the ice-cubes from the ground floor to the first floor over the safety wires of a mezzanine balcony and over the armrests of my crutches. I was, at that time, crippled by torn ligaments in my foot, sporting not only the crutches but also a splint which immobilised one foot.
So, this begs the question of how I came to be acting as a witness for the customer via the Crown Prosecution Service. The answer is simple – I did the right thing.
Whilst most of the bars clientele evaporated into thin air the moment glass hit skin (or more accurately blood hit varnished floorboards) I stayed and gave my witness details to the Police. I couldn’t really evaporate; it doesn’t work when every step in punctuated by the metallic clunking of crutches. I stayed because I didn’t know then the cause of the fight. All I knew was that I’d seen the barman hit the customer.
After giving my details I was granted permission to leave. Cue the hysterical friend who stopped me to apologise and explain.
Shift forward to the trial date, the customer (who I cannot conceive of as a victim) approaches me to thank me for attending. I non-commitally tell him it was only because it was the right thing to do. He looks stunned and asks me what is wrong. I tell him his actions were indefensible that night. He tells me his actions were only a bit of fun. I respond with a deadpan “ha ha”. I explain his actions were sexist and harassing. At no point in our five minute exchange, which ends when I explain I have no desire to speak to him, does he apologise or accept his behaviour was wrong. He denies it was even sexist, I ask him whether he would have done the same to a man, he tries to brave it out by saying probably. I ask him why he therefore wasn’t targeting the men sat either side of me at the table, I point out everyone was very sure he was targeting me. He is silent, he cannot answer. But of course his actions weren’t sexist.
Put simply, to my mind, this man claims patriarchal privilege to minimise his behaviour. I was a woman out in a public space that serves alcohol, apparently I should therefore expect harassment as part of the evening. Let me be clear on the judgements of patriarchal culture – I was not provocatively dressed unless jeans, a leg splint, a jumper and crutches count as provocative. He claims patriarchal privilege to minimise his actions and yet when the barman exercised patriarchal patronage (to protect me, to express his structural superiority in this situation) the customer dislikes it. My explanation of the fact that I didn’t like his actions holds no weight – his missiles didn’t hit me, it was a joke and unspokenly I am a woman in a public space, what did I expect? The customer appeals to a higher patriarchal order – the law – much like a child to a parent. “But Daddy, he hit me”.
I repeat, I am not condoning the violence, but the Police and the victim are condoning his harassment of me in the construction of the case. I am not allowed to mention that I know what he was trying to do in targeting my body for his “prank” because I didn’t know it at the time and my evidence is carefully stopped before the point at which I left the bar and therefore found out what had really happened.
Essentially this is a fight between men. The female witnesses – his hysterical friend and I – are merely adornments to the central issue – one man hit another. I take umbrage at this contestorial nature. Yes the barman did a bad thing and deserves punishing but surely the customer shouldn’t be allowed to leave unexamined his own actions? After all, had he not been attempting to invade my bodily space with his missiles, there would have been no provocation for the barman. But interestingly in this case the “victim” cannot be conceived of as contributing to the crime against him. How different from a rape trial where most defences rely on the victim contributing to the crime.
Seems to me the law still has a long way to go if it is to free itself of patriarchal assumptions. In some countries the judicial system is very different. Courts set out to find out what really happened; not to play Top Trumps with witness statements which was my best analogy for this courtroom experience. In France a Magistrate is charged with ascertaining what happened and how the participants and allocating blame, and therefore punishment, on a fairer basis understand that.
In this case I left the Court immediately after giving evidence. The “victim” thanked me again on the way out. I asked him to consider his own part in what happened. The Investigating Officer thanked me as I left. I pointed out that it was ironic – I had to speed across London to run the rehearsal of my first play. “What’s it on?” he asks politely. “Sexual violence,” I answer “And how everyday it is for men to commit it against women”.