In an upstairs classroom at a Washington, D.C. Unitarian Universalist church on Wednesday, Jessica Raven filled a whiteboard with examples of violence. Her students had come for training on bystander intervention, and she asked them to call out types of harassment they’d experienced or witnessed. Raven placed them on a scale of severity: from threats and hate speech on one side to sexual assault and police brutality on the other.
“What connections do you see between these behaviors?” asked Raven, who is executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a D.C.-based group that works to prevent sexual harassment and assault. A trainee noted that incidents often started on one side of the spectrum and ended on the other. “Exactly—there’s always a threat of escalation,” Raven said. “That’s why we have to intervene.”
Bystander intervention has been at the forefront of public conversation for the past week, since a Portland, Oregon white supremacist killed two men and critically injured another on a public train after they tried to stop him from harassing two young women he perceived to be Muslim. The tragedy has hit hard for people who teach others how to do exactly what three men were stabbed for doing on May 26.
“Standing up in solidarity when anybody in our community is targeted is the best of who we are,” says Kit Bonson, who wrote a bystander-intervention training curriculum with the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition. “Those of us doing this work in the D.C. area feel such an enormous kinship with those three men.”
Debjani Roy, deputy director of anti-harassment organization Hollaback, says she’s been “living and breathing this story ever since it happened.” Roy does digital bystander-intervention trainings with Hollaback and helped the Southern Poverty Law Center develop its campus bystander training program. In her curriculum, directly confronting the antagonist, as the men in Portland did, is just one of five strategies discussed, and it can be framed as something of a last resort. “With a direct intervention, there are many different kinds of risks—the number one risk being an aggressor or harasser redirecting the harassment toward the bystander who’s trying to help,” Roy says. “In no way do we want to say, ‘This is the right way and this is wrong way.’ What we can say is that there are other ways.”
Kids are taught that standing up for someone getting picked on means telling the bully to stop. As adults, it’s natural to default to that mode of intercession. One goal of most bystander-intervention training programs is to offer alternatives that are accessible to different kinds of bystanders—like introverts, who may be too timid to approach an aggressor. Those alternatives can be just as effective in achieving the ultimate goal: preventing physical violence.
To that end, groups like Hollaback and Collective Action for Safe Spaces teach what they call the “Five Ds.” Direct intervention, the method practiced by the Portland men, is one. There’s also document, delegate, delay, and distract. Documenting is easy: Record an incident and ask the targeted person if they’d like to post it online or share it with law enforcement. Delegating involves bringing in some kind of authority figure, like a bus driver or security guard, or asking the aggressor’s friends to get their buddy in line. (Most advocates caution against involving police officers, whose presence may increase the potential for violence, especially if the target is a person of color.) If bystanders witness a passing act of harassment that ends before they can intervene, they can ask the targeted person if she is okay or needs any help—this is the “delay” tactic.
In a comic that went viral after reports of hate crimes spiked following Donald Trump’s election, French illustrator Maeril writes that bystanders who see verbal harassment should ignore the aggressor completely and strike up a random conversation with the person being harassed. Trainers call this the “distract” strategy. Bonson’s de-escalation training materials use the same hypothetical situation as a role-playing scenario. The curriculum suggests “focusing only on the woman, offering her support, breaking the line of sight with the attacker, and ignoring the attacker.”
“Attention is a valuable thing,” it continues, “and when an attacker doesn’t get it, that person can often feel the wind go out of their sails—or they may try to escalate. In either case, we will continue to ignore the attacker unless s/he becomes physical.”
Raven says one of the most surprisingly successful distractions she’s ever seen is intervenors singing “I’m a Little Teapot,” complete with the accompanying choreography. “It’s effective because it channels energy away from the aggressive situation, and it’s hard to be aggressive after you hear that song,” she says. “It gives people a second to collect themselves, and sometimes that’s all they need to be able to walk away. Also, it isn’t likely that someone will turn their aggression toward the intervenor, because it’s not clear it’s an intervention.” She also recommends the tactics of “Snackman,” a New York City subway rider whose low-key intervention in a violent fight got a lot of press in 2012. A YouTube video from another passenger shows the man stepping in between the two aggressors, chomping on his Pringles, never making eye contact with either party. Blocked by a snacking man, the two people in the fight could no longer see each other, forcing them to take a second to cool down and giving other passengers an opportunity to step in.
Bonson’s curriculum teaches that bystanders should choose escape rather than intervention in any situation of immediate danger. “If you encounter a person who is threatening harm to you or another person, it is important that you do what you can to leave the situation as fast as possible and to encourage others to do so as well,” the training materials read. But Bonson is quick to point out that none of this—the distraction technique, the suggestions to retreat if an aggressor threatens violence—means the men in Portland, who reportedly continued their direct confrontation after the perpetrator said he would kill them, brought the violence upon themselves.* “Any time a man comes onto public transportation with a knife and subsequently wounds one person and murders two others, it’s pretty clear he was intent on visiting violence on someone, based on any random excuse,” she says. Trainees often worry that aggressors will see their intervention as provocation, but some attackers don’t need to be provoked to do harm.
“No matter what we do as bystanders, whether we intervene or don’t intervene, we can’t control the actions of an aggressor,” Raven says. “We can take steps that are most likely to de-escalate an aggressive situation, or make it less likely that violence will happen. But every intervention isn’t going to be 100 percent successful 100 percent of the time.”
Trainers hope that, after the attack in Portland, potential intervenors aren’t deterred by the small but ever-present chance that a de-escalation tactic might fail and end in violence. “Even if goodness still has strength in numbers, those numbers feel less safe than they did before Friday,” wrote Slate’s Lowen Liu earlier this week. “I worry that in a similar situation I may hesitate before saying something. And if we all do, then hate … has shaken off yet another social restraint.” In the best-case scenario, the Portland tragedy might push responsible bystanders to seek information and learn their options. Bonson says she’s already heard from an activist group in Portland that wants to use her scripts for a just-scheduled training.
The best any training can do, advocates say, is give people a wide range of choices and the opportunity to practice intervening in role-plays, which help make split-second decisions easier. “We see a huge value in thinking through these scenarios in advance, especially since there is a very clearly documented spike in hate violence and harassment happening around the country,” Roy says. “What these guys [in Portland] did was stand up for people who are being actively targeted all across the country. They did something that I think more of us are going to be asked to do.”
*Update, June 6, 2017: This sentence was altered to better represent Bonson's view of the Portland MAX train attack.