You’re sitting on a train, and the guy next to you starts verbally attacking another passenger with racial slurs. Or homophobic, anti-Semitic or Islamophobic slurs. What do you do?
Say something? Physically intervene? Bystander-intervention training teaches people how to react when they witness bigoted harassment or attacks.
I recently attended a training at the Muslim Community Center in Pleasanton, focused on responding to Islamophobia, which has been on the rise since last year.
In a carpeted banquet hall, trainers Zoha Reza and Andrew Schutts give the go-ahead to about 30 mostly white people standing in two rows, facing each other.
The formation is called a "hassle line." They partner up — one pretends to be a harasser, the other a target of harassment.
There are no bystanders here — yet.
Participants Kate Wiley and Marian Conning are teamed up. Marian’s supposed to keep her cool while Kate verbally harasses her. You can tell it’s clearly not in Kate’s nature to be an aggressor. It’s awkward to try to be mean. She giggles, “Oh God this is so hard!”
Now they switch. It’s Marian’s turn to attack: She frowns and has at it. “I’ve seen some STUPID people in my day…” she taunts.
Kate is quiet. After that, I ask Marian what that was like for her. “She just looked right past me!" she laughs. "I wanted to say, ‘Pay attention — I’m attacking you!’”
This is the first lesson — take away power from your harasser by staying calm.
That’s hard for some people, such as participant Martha Kreeger, because, she says, “I’m so confrontational. So it’s gonna be a real exercise to look away.”
While this is all fake, it reflects a very real and troubling reality.
Hate on the rise
And according to the Council on American Islamic Relations — which is staging today's intervention training — anti-Muslim attacks nationwide increased by nearly 60 percent between 2015 and 2016.
Trainer Zoha Reza is herself a target. She’s visibly Muslim in her headscarf, and says that since the presidential election it’s been hard for her and for communities around her.
She says it’s necessary for everyone to know what to do in these times.
“We wanna push for — even in bad times, sticking up for each other, and creating a connected community,” she says.
Reza goes back to the trainees for the next exercise. This one teaches that if you’re witnessing a verbal attack, ignore the aggressor, and go up to the targeted person and talk to them.
The trainees are broken into small groups and given scenarios to act out, such as a man harassing a Muslim woman on a train, or a racist car driver harassing someone on the street, or an impatient anti-immigrant person standing in line in a shop.
The bystanders start talking to the targeted person, as instructed. Some move in closer, saying things such as, "That’s a beautiful scarf — where’d you get it?" or just a straight up "Are you okay?"
"Be in solidarity"
Reza nods approvingly, but she cautions — always ask for permission.
“You are not their savior, you’re here to be in solidarity with them,” she says. “We want to give them the option to talk to someone. So say, ‘can I sit here?’ and if they’re like ‘Oh, I don’t wanna talk to you’, you can say, ‘Okay, I’ll be here to monitor the situation and if you wanna talk I’m here.”
She makes one thing clear. Safety first. Always. If the situation is dangerous, get out of there.
That’s one big reason why many witnesses to hate crimes may choose not to act. They’re afraid they’ll be hurt.
Just earlier this year, two men were stabbed when they intervened to help a Muslim woman on a train in Oregon.
There’s also what psychologists term ‘the bystander effect’ — that people think someone else will do it.
Sometimes it’s even more complicated, according to University of New Hampshire researcher Jane Stapleton, who's part of the team that created one of the country’s most used bystander training programs, called "Bringing in the Bystander."
Stapleton explains how complex these situations can sometimes be, because of cultural and environmental factors that come into play.
As an example, she says, “if you’re an African American man, and you see something happening, and you’re in a predominantly white area, where members of your family or your community have had negative interactions with law enforcement, are you likely to pick up your phone and dial 9-11? So your own experiences determine whether or not you intervene.”
So, she says, bystander training can help people be more conscious if they end up being witnesses to harassment or other crimes.
But some critics say this kind of training puts more burden on the bystander than the perpetrator — resulting in a kind of "bystander blaming" if things go wrong, one step away from victim blaming.
Stapleton disagrees. To her, she says, bystander intervention engages the entire community and that doesn’t take perpetrators off the hook.
Critics also say that putting the responsibility on the bystander takes the conversation away from big-picture institutional discussions about safety, police and the justice system, and the role they’ve played (or failed to play) regarding hate crimes.
Stapleton acknowledges the need to address all that, and adds her belief that bystander intervention has a social justice framework as well.
”I don’t see it as an abdication of these larger systemic issues at all,” she says
Back at the training, trainee Amy Leona says, she doesn’t feel a burden. She feels a responsibility.
To her, it’s also about being white, and upper middle class. She says, “I do have quite a lot of privilege. So I can use my privilege in a lot of these situations to help people out who are not able to stand up in certain ways, and be listened to.”
In search of empathy
I walk around and check in one last time with one of the groups — one where a man is pretending to harass a Muslim woman on the train.
“Come on, take that scarf off! That’s un-American!” he taunts.
The bystanders start talking to the person pretending to be the target, totally ignoring the harasser.
He says: “Hey guys! you’re ignoring me! No fair! Aw ... I give up.’’
Later, the man playing the harasser reflects on what it felt like.
“What’s really uncomfortable,” he says, “is if you’re the attacker and nobody supports you — that really works, that feels bad.”
Mission accomplished. While everyone here wishes they won’t need what they learned today, they’ll be ready on the day they do.
Trainer Zoha Reza leaves them with one final thought — beyond all the specifics of the training today, the important thing to remember is — empathy.
She says, “Imagine yourself in that situation. Put yourself in the position of the targeted person, and it’ll come to you. It’ll come to you to help them.”
Look for an upcoming training near you, find more information at CAIR-Sf Bay Area.