Recent news stories have drawn attention to the issue of student safety in Manchester. It’s an issue we cannot dismiss, says Moya Crockett
Until I got mugged, my Friday night had been entirely uneventful. I’d spent the evening watching The Office at a friend’s house in Withington. As I put my coat on at around 11.30pm, the thought of asking one of the boys to walk me home briefly crossed my mind but I shrugged it off. It’s only a ten minute walk, and it wasn’t especially late. I’d be fine.
As I walked down a well-lit residential street – a nice road, with stained-glass windows in the front doors and shiny family cars parked in the gravel driveways – I noticed a man crossing the road ahead of me. I walked a little taller, kept him in my peripheral vision. I didn’t see the boy crouched in the shadows.
He appeared so abruptly that I still don’t know where exactly he was hiding. All I know is that I was walking along, and then suddenly I wasn’t, because a boy in a grey hoodie had grabbed me by the shoulders and was shaking me fiercely. I thought, very clearly, “He’s trying to pull me somewhere.” My legs were frozen with fear. I tried to push him away, but his face – half-covered with a scarf – was terribly close to mine, and I realised, with a sickening feeling in my stomach, that I am not strong. I’m not strong at all.
After what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds, he stopped grappling with me and yanked at my bag. As soon as I understood that he wasn’t after me, just my belongings, I went limp. He tore the bag from my shoulder, shoved me into the bushes with a snarl of “You fucking slag” (how rude, I thought, sprawled in the shrubbery), and sprinted off. The next thing I knew, I was standing in the middle of the quiet road, shaking and wailing, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” in a voice that I didn’t recognise.
My experience doesn’t represent the pinnacle of trauma. I wasn’t physically hurt, just bruised, and my bag (£5, Primark) contained nothing but an old pay-as-you-go Samsung and unmarked keys. I called the police as soon as I got home and although the guy was never caught, they were kind and efficient. I was lucky. But the events of that night brought two things home to me.
The first was how easily I convinced myself that because I was sober, because it wasn’t “that late,” because the walk wasn’t “that far,” I was in no danger. One only has to see the recent spate of sexual assaults taking place in Withington before 10pm to recognise how flawed this assumption was. Vulnerability doesn’t depend on the time of night. We all know Fallowfield has one of the highest crime rates outside Manchester city centre. Almost everyone has a story to share about a friend-of-a-friend’s mugging or assault. Despite this, a blasé attitude persists: oh, I’m sure I’ll be fine.
Everyone wants to be free to walk around their own neighbourhood, and until something happens to you, assault will always be something that only happens to “other people”. But at a certain point, this kind of positive thinking becomes not just naïve but dangerous. If you have to walk alone at night, stick to well-lit streets and, if possible, walk in the middle of the road. You’re more exposed, but you’re also further from places anyone could hide, more clearly visible if anyone looks out of a window, and having to keep an eye out for traffic shows that you’ve got your wits about you. Most importantly, don’t listen to music. Having white iPhone headphones in your ears is essentially like waving a sign saying, “Hello! I’m not concentrating on my surroundings and I’m carrying expensive equipment!” Sensible as these tips are, however, solo night-time walking should be avoided wherever possible. A 20-year-old female student was recently subjected to a horrifically violent attack on Oxford Road. She was walking alone, with her headphones in.
Being mugged also forced me to think about the psychological effects of traumatic events. My experience was relatively minor. I was fine. I made jokes. But something trembled in my torso for quite some time, a clenched, frightened muscle that I hadn’t even known I possessed. I still flinch when someone comes up behind me unexpectedly. There is a scientific reason why being mugged or assaulted affects us so profoundly. When we experience an “emotionally arousing event” such as a mugging, the amygdala – the tiny part of the brain in charge of deep, unconscious emotion and the “fight/flight/freeze” response – produces a protein that helps the nervous system convert immediate memories into permanent ones.
In other words, the traumatic event becomes deeply embedded in our subconscious. Trauma can lead to serious mental health problems, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Bad dreams, flashbacks, irregular sleep and eating patterns, and feelings of numbness, loneliness, anger, fear or sadness are common responses to a disturbing event. However, if they persist for over a month, contacting your GP or the university counselling service is strongly recommended.
Being a student in Manchester needn’t mean living in fear, but being aware of your surroundings and taking responsibility for your own safety is a fundamental part of growing up. While we can’t stop the perpetrators of assaults and muggings, we can take steps to avoid becoming victims. Keep your valuables hidden, your wits about you, and remember that safety comes in numbers – and that means not walking alone.