Thwarted Tennessee kidnapping reveals that viral hand sign, popularized in Quebec, is saving lives

A young Tennessee woman managed to escape this week from a kidnapping using a hand signal that was popularized on TikTok — at least the second time the signal has been used to flee a life-threatening situation.

The fact that both the woman and the passerby knew the hand sign, in both cases, gives the Montreal sisters who popularized the signal hope that it’s really becoming widespread.

It wasn’t clear to them at first, either, that the signal would take off the way it has, or why, Marie-Emmanuelle Genesse, one of the sisters behind the TikTok account that spread the idea, told CTV News.

Often, women who “verbalize” a danger they’re facing aren’t believed, said Genesse.

“People, when they see a physical sign such as the hand signal… I don’t know, it worked in their brain to [help them] believe women,” she said.

“For us, it’s just beyond words how happy we are that it’s really making a difference in people’s lives.”

In Tennessee last weekend, a woman silently sought help at a convenience store after her ex-boyfriend made a brief stop after locking her into his car, according to local news reports.

Genesse, who runs domestic violence awareness accounts on Instagram and TikTok with her sister, Florence-Olivia, said one of their followers alerted them to the incident and they looked into it.

“I believe there was a woman, she was at her brother’s house, and… her ex-boyfriend picked her up and then he got physical with her when she tried to tell him that she was leaving him,” Genesse said.

She learned that the man threatened to kill the woman.

“He was driving and he locked the doors so she couldn’t escape,” she said. “They stopped at a gas station and that’s when she was able to go outside with him.”

Local news outlet WKRN reported that the woman repeatedly flashed the hand sign in the store, prompting the clerk to call 911.

A fellow shopper named Eric Streeval told the outlet that she also mouthing the word “help” at him. He went outside and took down the license plate number of the truck she had come from.

Police arrived quickly and pursued the truck as it left, ultimately using a Taser on the 31-year-old man driving it, arresting him, and allowing the woman to go home uninjured.

Streeval said he was part of a motorcycle group that helps women trying to flee domestic violence and said he applauded the woman’s “courage” for seeking help, and that it’s important for people to know that they can lean on not only family and friends but also “a complete stranger” if needed.

The hand sign involves holding up a hand, palm out, towards another person and closing all four fingers over the thumb.

This guide from the Canadian Women’s Foundation shows how to do the emergency signal for help, on a video call or in person, in cases of domestic violence.

It was invented by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, but the Genesse sisters wanted to spread the word, so they made videos showing how to use it on their social media accounts.

Those videos have been seen by more than 20 million people, Genesse said.

The sisters, both of whom are about to finish master’s degrees in fields related to domestic violence and are about to start PhDs, said they were inspired by a hunch that many people don’t want to read complex research about the problem, but are hungry for direct, “quick and easy” ways to help.

“We thought, why not also give them tips, for both the victims and the people that want to help?” she said.

They were still surprised by how many people were “invested” in spreading the idea even further, she said.

It struck a nerve she hadn’t quite realized she was there, she said: people’s willingness to take an emergency physical distress signal seriously when sometimes they don’t do the same for a verbal cue.

And also, that strangers can sometimes act more urgently in cases where sometimes people hesitate closer to those in danger.

“Most of the time, when women come out with the abuse in their relationship… they are not believed when they verbalize ‘I’m in an abusive relationship, I need help,'” she said.

“People are on their guards with, you know, ‘It’s not really our place to intervene.'”

Last fall, the hand signal was used by a 16-year-old girl who was also being kidnapped by car.

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