After losing her son in a one-punch hit, Brisbane mother Gloria Steensen is reminding us all that “there’s no shame if you just walk away. There is no shame at all.”
The victim – a man of peace
There is a tragic irony that a man who lived his life promoting non-violence and fair play both through his work and at the sports club he was actively involved with, would lose his life after trying to calm down a fight between others.
But that’s what happened to 52-year-old, Bruce Steensen – a sportsman actively involved with the Aspley Hornets football club and a professional risk assessor in the Workplace, Health and Safety arena. It happened in 2014 as Bruce walked along the Moloolaba Esplanade after a pleasant night out.
He spotted a young man, Jesse Patrick, giving a taxi driver a hard time and suggested that he “give it a rest … just let it go mate”.
They would be his last words. Jesse came at him from behind with one punch that ended Bruce’s life and changed many others’ forever.
Those left to carry on …
Sitting with Gloria and John Steensen in their Strathpine home, they reflect on the son who meant so much and the profound sadness and utter waste that resulted from this fateful encounter.
His love of football and golf, the successful career that was making way for travel and his happy childhood days when teachers found it hard to get him to keep his hat, belt and shoes on. He was, then and always, loveable and unique.
Gloria has been involved in child education for more than 40 years and wants children to know there are other ways to deal with conflict than violence.
It is literally impossible to know how parents endure this kind of pain, but there is both dignity and quiet strength in the Steensens’ commitment to create something positive from their own tragedy.
And so, the “Just Let It Go” campaign was created.
There is a choice
“We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control our response.”
This fundamental truth that has been cited by everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to the Dalai Lama, is the premise upon which the “Just Let It Go” campaign is based – a conscious decision that implies choice.
Too often we hear people say that someone else “made me do it” or blame is apportioned to others for how they behaved. The simple fact is we all make hundreds of decisions every day about how we respond to all manner of things, including what others say or do.
Bruce’s mum, Gloria, wants to make walking away or “letting it go” a recognisable and favoured option.
The campaign manager
Simon Turner is Director of The Just Let It Go Foundation. He came to the role from the Homicide Victims Support Group and was the campaign manager for the One Punch Can Kill campaign from 2012 -2015. Having followed the case, he set out to meet the Steensens.
“I wanted to know who they were because their response was extraordinary,” Simon said. “Despite Gloria’s own pain she was aware of the ramifications for [Jesse] Patrick’s family as well.”
It’s true. Gloria “didn’t feel hatred. I just didn’t want him to do it again”. Her victim’s impact statement in court was a powerful reflection on the nature of compassion and generosity of spirit.
In court, she said:
“Jesse, please look closely at my face. See the pain. Look closely Jesse and think of me when you go to throw the next punch. There is no shame if you just walk away. There’s no shame at all.”
I ask Gloria if he looked at her: “I couldn’t see. I was crying. But my daughter says he did.”
A behavioural change is required
Whereas most people will now know that one punch can be deadly, it will be trickier to convince those prone to violence that they have a choice in how they behave.
This is less about public awareness than it is behavioural change.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and Counsellor, Rod Bamberry, agrees. “The problem to be overcome is that, whilst you can say ‘walk away’ when people are rational, unfortunately when they need to make that logical, conscious (cognitive) decision, they are often in a high state of emotion or under the influence of drink or drugs, or both,” Rod says.
“But, if even one person walks away and a life is saved, then that’s a win. But it has the potential to save many more than one,” he says.
This is a point Simon embraces: “With social media, peer-to-peer influence has never been more powerful in all of human history.
“Young people validate their behaviour from other young people; so a large part of the campaign is about encouraging them to bring out their best, rather than acting their worst,” Simon says.
In a world in which there is so much violence this is a formidable task.
Gloria can’t remember a time in her 43 years working with children when they have been angrier.
“It’s incredible. Perhaps they’re picking up on the stresses of their parents or it is video games. I don’t know.”
Simon, the father of nine-year-old Jacob, has a theory: “It wasn’t long ago that we worried about how much TV our children were watching. Now there are iPads and iPhones with instant access to everything. YouTube is the largest repository of uncensored media in the world, so that the content children can see isn’t regulated by any authority,” Simon points out.
“At the same time video games have become more violent and children are often encouraged to create conflict to get a result. So that survival is based on conflict rather than co-operation. Some then take what happens in the virtual world into the real world.”
As someone who worked in radio for more than 30 years, I agree with his reflections on the issue of regulation. Boundaries have moved incrementally and forever.
The Newman Government inserted a new offence into the Queensland Criminal Code, “Unlawful Striking Causing Death”.
Brought in after Bruce’s death, and not retrospective, this law is separate from Manslaughter and Murder and prevents a person from relying on the ‘accident defence’.
The legal system had faced a dilemma: an act of violence causes death, but few people actually set out to kill another person with a punch. That’s the problem – they don’t think of the possible consequences. Most cases end with a manslaughter verdict. As did this one.
Gloria pinpoints the problem: “You don’t know you’re going to kill someone when you hit them. In Bruce’s case, [Jesse] Patrick wouldn’t have intended to kill him. He was just striking out.”
The new law provides a more adequate resolution. The presumption is that if you hit someone, you must know that there is a possibility of that person dying.
The maximum penalty is now life imprisonment; with the minimum time served being eighty per cent of any sentence handed down. This better reflects community attitudes and a genuine desire to address violent behaviour.
Jesse, under the old law, received eight years. He will be eligible for parole after serving at least half.
Attitudes and behaviours are traditionally difficult to change; but in our own lifetimes we have seen successful examples. In 1950 around 50% of Australians smoked. That figure is now below 20%. “Slip, Slop and Slap” tempered the way we enjoy the sun and has saved countless lives. “Life Be In It” made a powerful point in a pleasant way about fitness and well-being; and “One Punch Can Kill” is now an accepted part of our vocabulary. And easily understood.
Gloria Steensen’s aim in all of this is simple:
“I’m just a mother who misses her son terribly. I didn’t want to see another family go through what we’d been through. It was hell.”
Simon makes a telling point: “In Queensland the most common crime against other people is assault. If we stopped assaulting each other, two thirds of crime would be eliminated.”
There will be nothing easy about the task, particularly in a society where the savagery of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) passes for entertainment and some football commentators still reflect fondly on days when people responded with a punch to every slight.
Increasingly (and encouragingly) those involved in the game itself are preaching self-discipline based on a choice of behaviour. As did Bruce.
Gloria’s words to the young man who killed her son, echo: “There’s no shame if you just walk away. There is no shame at all.”
Greg Cary is a Patron of the Just Let It Go Foundation. Greg and Gloria will be attending speaking engagements throughout Queensland and we will keep you posted. Visit the Just Let It Go Facebook page to support this initiative.
She Brisbane staff and our contributors offer our heartfelt condolences to Mr and Mrs Steensen, their family and Bruce’s partner, on the loss of their beloved son, partner and family member.