Bystander Intervention

The horrible events on the Portland light-rail train – two men killed and a third seriously injured when they intervened to protect two women being harassed – make a key element of bystander intervention dreadfully clear: It can be very dangerous.

I don’t say that to discourage people from intervening in situations involving hate, other kinds of harassment, or even violence. In our current toxic atmosphere, I think willingness to take action when we witness abusive or violent behavior is very necessary. But people need to remember that it is not a risk-free activity.

Last Friday evening – before I heard the news about this attack – I was doing a talk at WisCon on self defense that included some words on bystander intervention. I’ve done this talk, which I call “Taking Care of Ourselves” and which is aimed at explaining some basics of non-fighting self defense and encouraging people to recognize their ability to protect themselves, several times.

After the election, I went to a short workshop organized by the Impact self defense organization in the Bay Area on bystander intervention. I am now involved with a small group in Oakland that is working up a short presentation and a wallet-sized card on what ordinary people can do if they witness abusive behavior in public places.

At my presentation and in my work with the local group, I have emphasized that while such intervention is necessary and valuable, it is also dangerous. Any person who wants to help in such situations must make a personal evaluation on what they are reasonably capable of doing.

Given that news reports show that the Portland killer was still spewing hate in court, it is clear that this is a terrorist attack. It is alleged that he was known to be violent. I don’t know if the man is directly affiliated with a white supremacist or other hate group, but he was clearly spurred to violent action by the kind of hate those people preach.

This is not the only hate crime in the last week. There was the murder of an African American man by an avowed white supremacist on the University of Maryland campus last week and a report of a similar crime in Sacramento, just to mention stories I’ve come across at a time when I haven’t been following news closely due to being at a convention and a writing retreat.

It is possible that any of us may be confronted with such a situation. Even in more ordinary times, things can happen. We all need to be paying attention and thinking about things we can do.

Here are some of my ideas about bystander intervention:

  • First, remember that this can be dangerous. Know that you’re taking a risk if you take action.
  • Seek allies before you jump in, if you can. Someone else can be watching, quietly recording the event, or ready to call the police if necessary while you intervene.
  • If possible, deal with the problem indirectly. Approach the person being attacked, sit or stand next to them, start up a conversation with them. Do not lose sight of the attacker and what they’re doing, but focus on the potential victim. Your presence may defuse things.
  • If you need to confront the attacker, ask the person being attacked if they want your help before leaping in – if possible. (If you are breaking up a violent attack it may not be possible.)
  • If you must confront the attacker, keep your hands open and raised about chest level so you can take action but don’t look threatening.
  • Don’t try to convince the person that they’re wrong or scream at them. Stay calm and tell them they must stop doing what they’re doing.

While you may not know how to fight – and it is unwise to jump in to break up a physically violent situation if you don’t have those skills – you do know how to do a lot of other things that will stand you in good stead.

For example, if you drive or ride a bicycle or even walk in a city, you have probably come to an intersection where you had the right of way, seen a car coming, and said to yourself, “That car isn’t going to stop.” So you waited, and the car didn’t stop, and you avoided an accident.

That uses two major skills: paying attention and trusting your instincts. Those same skills will protect you from accidents, help you avoid a situation where you might be attacked, and can be used in bystander intervention. If you are paying attention to your surroundings and listening to your instincts, there will be times when you can see trouble brewing before it breaks out. You can then do something to defuse the situation.

One of the best examples of successful bystander intervention I’ve heard of lately was reported by a neighbor of mine on a local email list. She said she was walking home when a man began walking beside her and pushing at her. She was trying to figure out what to do when someone else – a man she didn’t know – came up to her and said something to the effect of “There you are. Let’s go get that after-work drink.” He pointed her toward a nearby bar.

They walked in, and the guy waited there with her until the other man went away. She was very appreciative.

By the way, that’s the kind of intervention that almost anyone can do with minimal risk. But remember that getting involved in touchy situations always carries some elements of risk. Pay attention.



Bystander Intervention — 6 Comments

  1. That example you gave unfortunately sounds like a setup that I have heard about numerous times–the key is, the ‘helper’ steers you out of the public eye. This guy went into a public building where there were witnesses, which is good.

    Good thoughts.

    • This is where learning to trust your instinct comes in. Don’t go along if it gives you the creeps. (Really learn to trust your uncomfortable feeling adn to act on it, even if you’re not sure why you think something is off.) And for those who want to intervene but aren’t sure they’d be welcome, an invitation that leaves the person room to say “no” is the best way to handle it.

      I’d point out that this is the kind of intervention a woman can do for another woman without putting either of them at serious risk, for the most part. Also, going into a public place with other people in it on your own is a great way to deal with street harassment.

  2. It is a pity that we need to know this kind of thing. But that is a power that women have — we can help others, because we’re perceived as less threatening.

    • Especially women “of a certain age.” I’ve lost track of how often in recent times I’ve been singled out in well-populated areas and asked for help from various people in various situations. The worst is when they ask me for directions. I live in my head, folks—half the time I don’t even know where I am!

      • I have given people bad directions by accident and only realized my mistake after they drove off. But I’m getting better, at least in my own neighborhood.

        But we women of a certain age are the best people to ask for help when you’re in one of those situations, because we’re not likely to take advantage of people.