One day as I took the bus to work, a man talking to himself and shivering sat behind me and started whispering violent rape threats in my ear. I got up, told the driver, and moved to the front of the bus. The man followed, yelling in my face that he was going to kill me, as I yelled back at him to stop. Though many others were around, no one intervened until the driver finally stopped the bus after 15 minutes.
The last thing I'd wanted was to call the cops on a possibly mentally ill Black man in a hoodie. I'd wanted help defusing the situation, and for the man to get the help that he needed. That might have been achieved through "bystander intervention," a harm-prevention strategy where people step in to support someone being threatened or harassed.
Though bystander intervention has been discussed, studied, and implemented most commonly in relation to sexual harassment and violence, advocates for the rights, protections, and well-being of marginalized people of many identities believe that its principles translate to interventions in racist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic instances of abuse.
Knowing how to practice safe bystander intervention is especially critical-feeling right now, given recent increases in hate crimes against Muslims, Jewish people, transgender people, and Latinx people, as well as the violence law enforcements enacts on the same populations. Here are some steps from experts on bystander intervention and crisis de-escalation for being prepared to step in, help out, and reduce harm where you can.
Stop and consider whether calling the police is the right move.
It's imperative to account for whether police may endanger marginalized people further before involving law enforcement in conflicts. If the perpetrator or victim of harm is Black, disabled, in mental health crisis, a sex worker, or an undocumented immigrant, involving law enforcement could further escalate a situation.
According to Maya Kingsley, organizer and former co-chair of the Healing and Safety Committee of the the activist group Black Youth Project 100's Durham, North Carolina chapter, the police “uphold and perpetuate white supremacy and patriarchy by inflicting violence upon … historically marginalized communities.” She said that, by developing intervention skills, “We are able to address crises while keeping ourselves and each other safe, and avoiding any contact with the police and the carceral state.”
When intervening as bystanders for victims of sexual assault, it’s important to ask the victim if they want to involve law enforcement. There are many situations in which a victim may not want to report, especially if they are trans, a sex worker, or both. (In Washington, D.C., police officers have been accused of threatening to arrest trans sex workers if they didn’t engage in a sexual act with the officers.)
Amiti Munshi, who works at the acute diversion unit (ADU) at a San Francisco residential psychiatric program, stressed that bystanders should weigh carefully how to involve the cops in situations when someone may be in a mental health crisis. “Police can be extremely triggering/traumatic, be it due to the individual’s past experiences with law enforcement or because of psychotic symptoms,” she said. Munshi pointed out that involving cops in mental health crises can create a distrust for “systems” in general for those in crisis, making it less likely they would access social services in the future.
Use the "5 D's" of de-escalation: direct, distract, delegate, delay, and document.
Some training methods utilize the "5 D's" of bystander intervention: direct, distract, delegate, delay, and document. These are adapted from the Green Dot method of de-escalation, which tasks community members as interventionists in order to prevent violence.
1. Direct. Direct intervention means stepping in and addressing the conflict outright to demonstrate that you are witness to what is taking place and that the perpetrator is wrong.
Kristina "K" Agbebiyi, an organizer at the gender-based violence victims’ advocacy and prison abolitionist organization Survived & Punished, advised naming the harm being done, maintaining direct eye contact with the person perpetuating it, and addressing them in “a clear, confident, strong voice” as you tell them to leave the person targeted alone. You can say things as simple as, “That’s racist,” or, “What you’re saying is inappropriate,” then follow whatever you call out by making clear that they need to stop. Agbebiyi said that perpetrators are “usually thrown off” when the harm they are perpetuating is named succinctly and, if necessary, repeatedly: Because harassers are so often ignored, being directly confronted may throw a wrench in their behavior.
2. Distract. If you think direct intervention could cause a situation to escalate and further endanger anyone involved (including you), distraction may be a better approach.
According to Da’Shaun Harrison, associate editor of the radical publication Wear Your Voice and lead organizer of the Black- and trans–led abolitionist organization Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative, distraction tactics can include the person being harassed—they gave the example of “pretending to be the victim’s friend.” If you’re on public transportation, you can try asking the victim if they know where you can transfer stops. You can even spill coffee or drop some items out of your purse, causing enough commotion to interrupt the aggressor's focus on the person they're harassing. Distracting the perpetrator can give a victim time to articulate what they need from you and other bystanders, if not to pause or stop the harassment or allow them to leave.
3. Delegate. If possible, ask for help with an intervention if you think you need it.
Try pointing out a conflict to those around you by saying something like, “It looks like that person is bothering that family. Can we all go over there and try to calm this down?”
If you’re in a business, on public transportation, or in another setting where people are positioned to handle the situation as a part of their job, tell those with decision-making power what's going on. Explain that someone is in danger and escort them to the situation if you can, ensuring they see this as a priority.
Kingsley said that preventing “police violence is a particular way that white people can play a role in de-escalating state violence." If you are a Black or brown person witnessing police harassment of another marginalized person, see if a white witness would be comfortable engaging the police officer. You can say something along the lines of, “I noticed that woman over there is being targeted with racial slurs and/or police harassment. I don’t think the perpetrator/officer will respond to me, since I'm the same race as the victim. Could you try to talk to him?” If you're a white witness, think very critically about asking Black and brown people to intervene in instances of racist violence, and don't do it if they involve the cops.
4. Delay. When you or others aren't able to intervene in the moment for safety reasons (or even just because it passed quickly), you can offer support after the situation has ended.
Agbebiyi suggested asking a person if they’re OK and seeing if and how you can help: Do they need help getting somewhere? Would they like to talk? Would it be useful for you to research resources or contact anyone?
5. Document. If someone is already helping a person who is in crisis, you can document the situation by recording on your phone.
If you feel safe directly engaging as you do this, tell the perpetrator that you are recording them, which may help convince them to stop. If you don't feel safe, you can remain silent, but never post or share a video without the consent of the person being harmed. Putting a video (or even a picture) online can open you or the victim up to harassment, doxxing, or other continued harm. It may involve law enforcement even when a victim doesn't want that. If the situation ends while you're present, ask the victim if they'd like a copy of the video and let them decide what to do with it.
Call organizations trained to give support if the perpetrator may be experiencing mental health issues.
“Most people dealing with mental health challenges are not dangerous,” said Azmia Magane, a social worker who responds to calls about folks in mental health crises in Florida. “They need mental health services, not criminalization and jail.”
Some counties have Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) that can be called to intervene. CIT programs aim to bridge the gap between police who aren't trained to deal with mental health issues and professional mental health and behavioral healthcare providers. CITs focus on getting a person in crisis into treatment—not into jail. If your community doesn’t have a CIT, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests becoming an advocate for the creation of one. You can find your local NAMI affiliate or State Organization to identify these efforts and get involved in them.
If there's not a CIT near you, Magane suggested researching mental health crisis services in your area in advance of finding yourself in an escalated situation. And if you need guidance while witnessing a conflict in the U.S., Azmia recommended calling 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor.
If you want to be prepared ahead of time, consider taking a class.
According to Harrison, “You don’t need training to de-escalate a situation,” since most of us already possess many of the skills de-escalation requires. Still, they recommended that those who are able to register for some kind of class or training do so.
You can find bystander intervention trainings through Hollaback!, an organization “on a mission to end harassment” in all of its forms. Visit their website to find the chapter nearest you (both in the U.S. and internationally) or to access the information they make available for bystanders.
BYP100 also hosts de-escalation trainings throughout the year. Each regional chapter has different schedules, so Kingsley said following them on Instagram or Twitter, or getting in touch with the one nearest you are the best ways to stay up to date about upcoming trainings. You can also contact them to request a training at your workplace, university, or place of worship.
By choosing to engage one another in moments of crisis without defaulting to calling the police for help, we commit to accountability and the effective protection of marginalized people from violence—whether it's coming from others in the community or from part of the state.
Follow Reina Sultan on Twitter.
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