Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
There are ways to intervene that don't involve putting yourself in danger.
It was nearly dawn on October 20, 2012, when Elisa Lopez hopped on the 4 train downtown from the Bronx* to head to her boyfriend's apartment. Lulled by the subway's rock and rumble, she fell asleep, head cradled by the Plexiglas divider between her seat and the doorway.
That's when one of the other riders, Carlos Chuva, sidled up to Lopez. He started caressing her, and put his hand up her skirt. Lopez did not wake as Chuva molested her. And no one on the train did anything to intervene, except for Jasheem Smiley, who captured about 30 seconds of the incident on his cell phone. When Lopez finally stirred and found Chuva's hands on her body, she says she punched him in the face. As she ran off the train onto the platform, she quickly glanced around the car, realizing that other passengers had been standing by silently.
"I stood there for a minute, like, What just happened?"Lopez told Cosmopolitan last December. "I see some guy staring at me and the doors closed and the train left. I started crying, because I realized no one helped when this guy did something to me."
It seemed like a textbook example of the bystander effect: The more witnesses there are to an emergency, the less likely any one of them is to step in. The phenomenon is not a reflection of human heartlessness; it's more that our sense of personal responsibility is inversely proportionate to the number of people around us. When we see nobody else intervening, it normalizes and enforces an idea that there isn't a way to help—or maybe that help just isn't needed.
Last week, after more than two years of Lopez crusading for justice and working through the psychological trauma of the incident, Chuva was charged with first-degree felony aggravated sexual assault. His arrest was greatly helped by the evidence in Smiley's video—which, after the assault, traveled from his phone to a free porn website, then to Gothamist before going viral. Smiley, who came under fire for not doing anything to physically stop Lopez's assault, has stated that, in fact, he went immediately to the authorities with the video. But it's not clear how it made it online—which, as Lopez has stated, was a whole separate trauma.
"You should have been in my shoes to know what I was thinking," Smiley has said. "You shouldn't judge. I did the best I can."
What should have Smiley, or any of the other passengers on Lopez's train, done as witnesses? Can we blame the bystanders that her assault went on as long as it did?
"It's easy for outsiders to look at this story and say, 'How could you not help?' and 'What kind of people were they?'" says Dorothy Edwards, the executive director of Green Dot, an organization that offers bystander-intervention training for different forms of violence worldwide. "But put in the same situation, every person would run up against their own barriers."
By barriers, Edwards means the very legitimate cultural, psychological, or physical hurdles an individual might be confronted with when witnessing a violent assault like Lopez's. You might reasonably fear for your own life by physically intervening: Who knows if the perpetrator is armed? You might not speak the right language or know what to say to get them to stop. Maybe you've had your own trauma, and seeing something similar is too much to bear. According to a 2007 survey, 63 percent of New York City subway riders reported that they'd been harassed on a train. Ten percent said they'd been assaulted.
Faced with any form of violence, what can a bystander do? There's no single prescription, says Edwards. The trick is to recognize your own personal barriers in responding to an emergency, and then the range of options you actually have to help the victim. Whether you're in a crowd or all alone, "you can be direct, you can distract, or you can delegate," says Edwards. "Those are the basics."
Taking a direct tack is the most obvious option: You insert yourself directly into the situation to attempt to stop it. "But that's stranger danger," says Edwards. "Probably 97 percent of us would be intimidated by that."
And if that includes you, distraction is a useful alternative. You can make a noise, throw something against the wall, swear, talk loudly on your cellphone—anything to create a scene, and in a case like Lopez's, wake the victim up. "There is a lot of power in letting to perpetrator know they're being seen, and that neither they or the victim are invisible in this," says Edwards. "Making noise can also be a catalyst for someone else to step in and help in some other way."
If that doesn't work, or if you're not comfortable creating a distraction, delegate. Find somebody else who's willing to step in to help. "You can create momentum," says Edwards, by simply asserting to other people that something needs to be done.
And what about cell phones? Edward strongly condemns the fact that Smiley's cell phone footage made it online: "It's outrageous. It's its own broken law and violation." But, she says, capturing video is a legitimate and powerful mode of intervention. It lets the perpetrator know they're being watched, and can obviously be later used to prosecute, as with Chuvas. "Or you could just throw your phone at the guy's head," says Edwards, only mildly kidding.
Finally, maybe obviously, you can go the authorities. On New York City's subway, some cars are equipped with intercoms that you can use to alert the conductor. MTA has also been rolling out platform "help points" since 2011, which contact emergency personnel in a jiffy. A spokesperson from the NYPD, which patrols the subways, also pointed out that some stations get cell service, and you can call 911 that way.
Could cities do more to prevent public transit assaults? Studies have found that more law enforcement dedicated to patrolling transit could deter sexual harassment and assault. Surveillance cameras might help emergencies, too. As CityLab wrote in 2012, research shows that by making us all a little more self-aware, cameras can actually reverse the bystander effect. An MTA spokesperson stated that while most NYC buses are equipped with surveillance cameras, subway cars aren't—but a roll-out is in the works.
For Edwards, reducing violence is about creating an aggregate social effect, intervention by intervention—small, uncomfortable, and imperfect as our interventions may be.
"When we as a society watch something like that on the train happen over and over, it communicates two things: One, it says to both victim and perpetrator that what's happening is socially acceptable enough that none of us will act. And two, that to the other bystanders that this isn't worth reacting to in any way," Edwards says. "We can reset these norms by taking small steps to diffuse these situations. It's the sum total that counts."
As for Lopez's assault, "Watching that video made me want to vomit," Edwards says. "Of course I wish someone had intervened. But I also have empathy about how hard it is to act."
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Lopez was traveling on the 4 train from Queens. Lopez was traveling from the Bronx.