We shouldn't stand by and watch our neighbours get abused, and we shouldn't stand by and let our governments get away with inaction and detrimental cuts.
When you live in a small two-bedroom unit in a row of units, above another row of units, the way people act in their homes can affect your life.
In such close proximity, you experience much of what they do on a day-to-day basis. Their cigarette smoke drifts from their balcony into your windows. The sounds from their television overpower yours; their music might wake you up at 1am on a Tuesday morning.
But it’s not all bad. Perhaps the smell of your chef-neighbour’s Indian cooking next door will tantalisingly drift into your lounge. Maybe, if you are lucky, they will bring you leftovers and their little daughter will laugh at you struggling with the spice levels she has been eating since she was a baby.
Sadly, most new neighbours don’t change your life for the better. Each and every time someone moves into one of the units, you feel impending dread imagining the new ways a stranger might influence your time in your home. Usually it’s just small annoyances that are easy enough to ignore. Sometimes, it’s not.
One January, a new couple moved into the unit below the one I shared with my girlfriend. Neither of us had seen them move in, nor had we seen them in the few weeks they lived there. Up until this night, they’d been fairly quiet and unobtrusive. It was about 8pm on a Tuesday night when a man started yelling. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he sounded very mad.
Every so often I could hear a woman respond, crying. I was immediately on high alert. At first it can be difficult to judge what is actually happening in these scenarios, because sometimes people argue. Still, I think we should always be overcautious in intervening when it comes to the safety of women. And it soon became clear that this wasn’t an argument over who did the dishes last.
At this point my girlfriend and I were discussing if the yelling warranted calling the police, when we heard a loud smash. That decided it. The police were called, the woman on the other end asking for details of which I knew none. I remember being asked, “Does he have a weapon?” There is no way I could have known this without seeing them, but I remember thinking: an angry grown man is a weapon. I would learn to say, “he could,” in the coming months, in hope of making them arrive sooner.
I hung up and waited for the cavalry to arrive. The yelling continued, the smashing continued. Then came the unmistakable sound of an open hand smacking against flesh. There was no waiting for the cavalry anymore. I grabbed a baseball bat from the closet and went down the stairs, my girlfriend behind me, ready to call 000.
Around me, there was no movement or noise from any of the other flats. There is no doubt in my mind that other people were listening to this. We would soon realise that almost nobody else wanted to get involved, and never did. Yes, there was no way of knowing what would happen if you knocked on that door. It’s scary. But I did know what would happen if I didn’t knock on it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.
So I did, the yelling stopped, and a woman of about 19 eventually came to the door, in tears, her face red. Behind her, a pacing and angry young man of about 19. I told her that I’d called the police and they were on their way. I asked her if she wanted to come with us upstairs, or if she had somewhere she wanted us to take her. She didn’t want to leave. I stayed until the police came about 45 minutes later, talked to them both, and then left.
So this was the pattern over the next few months. It happened about once a week. He would start to yell, I would immediately go down and knock on their door and ask if I should call the police. He would push past me and silently leave. We would talk to her about her options. There was no pushing and no judgement, just letting her know that she would have support in whatever she decided. We told her she wasn’t alone, and gave her information for support services that could help her if and when she so chose. She would respond by running through the common adages, “…he isn’t like this all the time”, “…he only smashes his own possessions”, and the hardest one to contest of all, “I love him”, but always also admitting that she should probably leave.
One night he started yelling at her and pushing her around while two of his friends were visiting. That night I yelled at the other two 19-year-old men on the stairs about what on earth they were doing standing back and watching this happen. They explained to me that I didn’t see how she ‘pushed his buttons’. Then they told me if a man treated their sister like that they would kill him. I tried to make them see the disconnect, but it was fruitless. Sometimes he would come back later at night, sometimes he wouldn’t leave; sometimes we’d call the police again. They came a lot more times; always well after it was over, and it never resulted in any consequences for him.
Soon after, they moved out. I am hopeful that she didn’t stay; that she got help, but I also know it can be a long process. She deserves no judgement, and I will always wonder if more could have been done. I have no idea where they went, or what happened after that. The same desperately sad, helpless, and frustrated feeling I had during this time flares up again with every new report of a woman being killed at the hands of her partner in this country, as happens every single week. The frustration flares up when news sites reports on these as ‘domestic disputes’ or ‘domestic incidents’ and not ‘violent attacks’. It burns when just after Rosie Batty becomes the Australian of the Year, and Tony Abbott creates a national advisory panel on domestic violence, appointing Batty and retiring Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay as its founding members, he still doesn’t even mention domestic violence in his National Press Club address.
The feeling of anger becomes almost too much when reading that while creating that panel, the Prime Minister is still presiding over $300 million in cuts to family violence and homelessness services that are vital to people in these situations. It’s there when I think about someone like my neighbour trying to access services to get out of a domestic violence situation, and not being able to. And when I think about how this epidemic isn’t the subject of national dialogue driven by governments across the country, instead destined to be ignored.
We shouldn’t stand by and watch our neighbours get abused, and we shouldn’t stand by and let our governments get away with inaction and detrimental cuts.