There is a biker gang on the rise, in America and in countries around the world. Its members are known to each other only by their road names — names like Chief and Nytro and Tool and Bigg Dogg. They are fearless. Relentless. As Karina Bland warns us, they are coming for the children. The most vulnerable children. The abused children.
They are the Bikers Against Child Abuse, and they are coming to give these children strength, comfort, support, and vigilance.
“Even kids know that nobody messes with bikers. Bikers look big, and strong, and mean, both in real life and in how they are portrayed on television and in films. They are easy riders, sons of anarchy, not afraid of anything. And they take care of their own.
A child who has been abused by someone bigger and stronger knows too well what it feels like to be small and vulnerable. BACA shifts that balance by putting even bigger and stronger people – and more of them – on the child’s side.”
Formed by a licensed clinical social worker and play therapist, the BACA is a group of bikers who’ve all passed rigorous background screenings and training. The children they protect get road names too – helping to safeguard all of them from vengeful abusers. Whether it’s by being on-call, 24/7, to stand vigil in a child’s driveway overnight when he can’t sleep for fear of an abuser, or going on “Neighborhood Awareness Rides,” or accompanying a child to court when one must testify against an abuser, the BACA is there. Each child gets two “primaries,” two main contacts who they can call or text whenever they need someone. And each child gets a t-shirt, denim vest, do-rag, and photo of themselves with the group, tangible reminders that they have a strong and vigilant family.
As wonderful as this is, it’s saddening as well. Not just because it’s shameful that child abuse happens in the first place; not just because an abused child has to cope with such trauma. But because the BACA’s response is so simple, so straightforward, apparently so effective – and so unlike what anybody else does.
When an abuser comes pounding on the door, of course the child’s guardians will call the cops. But what can they do? Even if the abuser is still there when an officer arrives, there may be little that can be done. Maybe there’s no protection order, and knocking on a door is not a crime. Maybe they just park the car on the street outside a child’s home, and parking in a legal zone is not a crime. And if the abuser has left by the time the cops show up – almost certain to be a long time, if there’s no blatant threat of violence to the residents – all the cops can do is to take some notes and go back to their rounds. Maybe the kid’s got a caseworker. But that caseworker might have hundreds of kids and a severe case of burnout.
The BACA, on the other hand, will stand guard all night, if need be. To deter an abuser from coming back, and to protect the family if a few big, stern bikers is somehow an inadequate deterrent.
It might seem like vigilante justice, at first: a group of people who think the law has failed, and who take matters into their own hands to punish wrongdoers. But that’s far from the case. As their mission statement says, “BACA does not condone, support or participate in the use of aggression, violence or physical force in any manner. If, however, ANY person should seek to inflict harm on one of our BACA Members, we will respond with commitment and loyalty to protect our Member.” They don’t rough up abusers. They’re out to show the children that violence is not strength, that aggression is not power, that no matter what somebody’s done, nobody has the right to mess with another person’s body in any way. But they do tend to be strong, and they are willing to stand their ground and fight. Whatever it takes. As long as it takes.
Unlike cops who have more important crimes to concern themselves with, unlike guardians who still have to go to work or do the housework, unlike caseworkers who have more cases than can be handled, the BACA will stand guard as long as it takes. They will do nothing BUT stand guard. In shifts, if need be.
“Fast Track’s grandfather says he learned more from Pipes and Sassy about such things as how to navigate the child-welfare system and how to file for a restraining order and guardianship than he had from the boy’s state child-welfare caseworker.”
“‘There are things I can’t do as a therapist,’ Wahlheim says. She can call Child Protective Services or the police, but there isn’t always enough evidence to put away an abuser. And although she can help young victims recover mentally, she can’t protect them physically.”
And that’s why it’s needed. The kinds of terrible things that nobody wants to talk about are happening all the time, all around us. Even when a child is bold enough to speak up, the system is overtaxed. Cops can’t stand guard for eight hours when a child has a nightmare. Neither can a caseworker. The system, as it’s set up, cannot help everyone. I can’t find the article I was reading, but I know I saw one once where a state’s child protective services department was proud of having split up fewer families than any other state – but it had one of the highest rates of death by neglect and abuse. Even within the structure of the law, more attention seems to be paid to quotas and bureaucratic procedures than common sense or basic needs. So why NOT take matters into your own hands, if you have the time, the strength, the capacity, and the commitment?
This isn’t vigilante justice. It’s vigilante compassion.
And while I’d love to see more of it, I’d obviously like to see less of it at the same time. I’d like it if this weren’t necessary. Again, not just because I wish the abuse weren’t happening – but because I wonder if the communities themselves couldn’t offer similar protection, filling in those gaps that the law leaves behind, in such a way that the vulnerable members wouldn’t need to call upon some group outside either system.
There are non-terrible people in the world, exceptional people and ordinary people, all around us. Neighborhoods full of families, childless couples, and singles. Neighborhoods – but not communities. Sometimes you don’t know who lives across the street, or in the apartment next door, or the mobile home next to you. I’ll be first to admit that I don’t. But why is it that, in a situation like this, it takes a group of people outside the law and outside the community to give that kid a sense of being protected, a sense of being part of a bigger and stronger family than the unit they live with?
Because I’m the sort of weirdo who LIKES trying to answer rhetorical questions, I’ll delve into that. But it’s a little bit tangential, so if you’d rather skip to the end of the rant, here’s yer warp pipe.
I find it disappointing that communities themselves don’t come together more, and that even the people we live closest to and see most often aren’t necessarily part of our Monkeysphere. Since almost every kind of residential area now seems to be an apartment complex or one of those grotesque vinyl-siding subdivisions in the iron grip of a homeowners’ association, not just a string of houses on a street, it’s disappointing that these places don’t use that centralization to the residents’ advantage. Especially since we’ve got that magical thing called The Internet. I mean, come on — there are forums devoted to people who roleplay relationships between Vocaloid singing-synthesizer personae, but my apartment complex doesn’t have a forum for its residents to talk to each other, or even a freaking Facebook group. Through forums, Skype chats, virtual environments, and Facebook, I connect with and even organize events with friends all over the world – but if the owners of this leaky-ceiling’d sweltering humanhive want to organize a pool party, they leave a flyer on the door and hope it doesn’t catch fire in the midday sun.
It’s pithy to say “We’re more connected than ever, but we’re even more emotionally distant.” But there are ways in which it’s true. What’s less awkward, buying a used lawnmower on Craigslist or asking to borrow your neighbor’s? What kinds of stress might it defuse in a family if their community actually communicated like one?
Having this connectivity would not stop abuse. There are no simple pushbutton solutions. But y’know, if people who are literally stacked on top of each other in the same freaking building, or smashed together in a row of identical houses on the same stupid-named street, were given some way to get to know each other, know each other’s situations, and help each other out even with the simple stuff, maybe it would go a long way. Abuse isn’t always caused by Pure Evil in a person; it can be a parent who’s just so stressed and so desperate that they don’t realize what a terrible damn thing they’re doing as they smack their kid in the face with the soup ladle. Don’t get me wrong: stress and desperation are NOT excuses for abuse – but they are contributing factors. If there were more community support — if Mrs. Hernandez two doors down could fix that damn flickering ceiling light the super won’t do anything about but that’s been driving you crazy for weeks, or if Steve in #62 could watch the kids for a couple hours while you did chores without having to worry about the pitter-patter of little feet where you just freaking mopped — maybe the people living there would feel a little less isolated while being surrounded by people. A little more open, a little more trusting, a little less stressed, a little less desperate.
As for the kinds of abuse that DO seem to come from calculated malevolence, maybe a more interconnected community would help someone feel like they had more people to turn to – or at least more people who might notice if something seemed wrong. (Or maybe not. Thanks, Genovese effect.)
I’m not saying we should turn all apartment blocks and neighborhoods into communes, and I’m not saying everyone has a moral obligation to babysit someone else’s diarrhetic rugrats, or give their stuff to that bozo next door even if you don’t need it anymore, or miss a shift of work because you’re trying to protect a kid from a damn psychopath. I’m not trying to spout bullshit platitudes about how “it takes a village.” And I’m definitely not saying that a family affected by abuse should alert everyone in the neighborhood about that intensely private trauma.
But if you were interconnected enough with your community that you knew something like this was happening…
If you knew because those people saw you as someone they could trust and talk to, not a faceless person behind some numbered door…
If you knew that you could help, just by watching out for a black Ford Ranger with a crack in the windshield…
If you knew they’d help you out just the same…
Would you still ignore the thumping next door and call it “someone else’s problem?”
I know parents who won’t let their children play outside, because they don’t trust their neighbors. Not because those neighbors have done anything wrong – just because “you never know.” Parents who sincerely believe in poisoned Halloween candies and razorblade apples. Parents who teach “Stranger Danger” despite the fact that it’s bullshit and that 95% of abductions, murders, and molestations are perpetrated by somebody the child knows. Parents who mistake fear for safety.
(And I’m not even going to go into the parents who are afraid of terrorists, or germs, or vaccinations, or “chemicals,” or who are racists or bigots, or any other hyperbolic and irrational fear that they think is necessary to their safety. All I’m gonna say is that, just as plonking your kid down in front of Sesame Street isn’t enough to help him learn or become engaged with the world, plonking yourself down in front of any cable news channel isn’t adequate to engage or inform yourself about the world, either.)
If you just teach a child that all strangers are scary and aren’t to be trusted, how do they learn how a stranger becomes a friend? How do they learn to trust someone? How do they learn when a trusted friend, adult, or authority figure has betrayed that trust? Well, it’s possible that they don’t, and they go from being the kind of kid who believes in Stranger Danger to the kind of teenager or co-ed who thinks she’ll be raped by a bush-lurking stranger if she walks alone at night: equally ignorant of the fact that most victims know their attacker.
It’s better to teach kids how to recognize abuse itself – and to teach them to speak up if it’s happening to them, or to a friend – no matter how much they trust the person or people involved. That what matters isn’t how somebody looks, or how well you know somebody, or how well you think you know somebody; what matters is who that person is on the inside, and how they treat people. No matter whether they’re wearing a black leather vest or a black liturgical vestment.
You don’t have to be a big burly biker to protect a kid from an abuser. You don’t have to be a licensed therapist to help a vulnerable person feel safe. You don’t have to be a cop, or a social worker, or a lawyer, or a judge. You do not have to get a degree in anything. Just talk to people, extend compassion, offer whatever you’re willing and capable of offering, respect their boundaries and acknowledge your own, and be there.
“The whole backbone of what BACA does is showing up,” Rembrandt says. “We show up when we say we are going to show up, and we do what we say we are going to do.”