Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Reports of hate crimes apparently tied to Donald Trump’s election are surging. Here’s how to be an active witness.
Black university students added to a “N---er lynching” text message group at the University of Pennsylvania. Elementary schoolers chanting “build the wall” in Michigan. Latino high school students in California handed fake deportation letters. Muslim women having their head scarves forcefully removed by strangers in California, and threatened with fire in Michigan. Swastikas painted on buildings from New York to Indiana.
Hate crimes, especially against Muslim and transgender individuals, have already increased in the U.S. by about 7 percent since last year. And now a wave of racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic attacks has swept the country since Donald Trump’s victory in last week’s presidential election. A webpage created Thursday by the Southern Poverty Law Center to collect accounts of these aggressions gathered more than 200 responses within 24 hours, The New York Times reported. These incidents and Trump’s victory appear to be linked; indeed, many reports on social media recall statements made by perpetrators to this effect. In an interview with 60 Minutes, the President-elect said he was surprised to learn of the hate crimes, and remarked, in response, “I am so saddened to hear that...I will say this, and I will say right to the cameras—stop it!”
Whether Trump’s words will register among would-be attackers remains to be seen. Meanwhile, violent incidents have direct implications to the safety and sanctity of public space. There are actions to take if you ever witness such incidents on the street, in the park, in your child’s schoolyard, in the grocery store, at Starbucks. You can act to challenge hateful actions, and protect the victim. Here are some ideas about how.
1. Devote your attention to the victim
A comic strip guide written by the artist Marie-Shirine Yener illustrates how to help if you see a Muslim woman verbally harassed in public, and it gives great tips for responding to a hate-driven incident of any kind. It suggests directing your attention entirely to the person who’s being harassed: sit down next to them, engage them in conversation, and refuse to make eye contact with the attacker. Eventually, the comic suggests, the attacker will back off, realizing that they’re not going to be acknowledged. You can escort the person to a safe space and make sure they’re OK before heading off on your own way.
This is a pretty good set of directions for handling a verbal attack of any kind, regardless of who the perpetrator and victim are. It’s important to keep yourself safe and out of danger’s way—if no other reason than to be available as an ally.
2. Handle physical attacks with extreme caution
It can be very hard to know what to do with yourself when watching a physical assault of any kind. Unless you feel extremely prepared and trained, direct intervention is rarely a good choice—keeping your own bodily safety intact should always be the priority. But that doesn’t mean you should give into the bystander effect: the sense that since no one else is doing anything, you might as well not, either. Not taking action of any kind serves to normalize discriminatory violence.
So what can you do? Last year, Dorothy Edwards, the executive director of Green Dot, which offers bystander-intervention training, told CityLab that if you don’t feel safe being direct—which most of us probably wouldn’t—"you can distract, or you can delegate.” Distraction means making noise, swearing, talking loudly on your phone—anything that’s designed to create commotion and attention. "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," Edwards said. Making noise can also encourage other witnesses to get involved—and if they don’t, you can also “delegate” by asking someone else to step in to help. Remember, too, that you can always film a violent incident with your cell phone—just don’t post it to social media. Communicate with the victim wherever and whenever possible. (For more on how these steps apply specifically to incidents of sexual assault, check out our piece from March 2015.) Call for medical attention if the victim is physically harmed.
3. In some cases, contact the authorities
Sumaiya Ahmed Sheik, the communications director at the Michigan Muslim Community Council, warns against getting involved directly with the perpetrator. “Don’t engage in any kind of fighting or verbal assault,” she says. She stresses the importance of diverting the task of direct intervention to an authority figure: call the police, a security guard, or a school administrator to handle an assault. “Step away from the situation and engage in a hierarchy.”
4. In other cases, definitely don’t
Whenever possible, communicate with the victim before calling in police—because alerting authorities might be appropriate in some encounters, and not at all in others. Doug Meyer, a gender studies scholar at the University of Virginia and the author of Violence Against Queer People: Race, Class, Gender, and the Persistence of Anti-LGBT Discrimination, says that if you witness a verbal or physical assault on a person of color and/or a LGBTQ individual—identities which are obviously not mutually exclusive—it’s crucial to tread carefully before getting an authority figure on the scene. “They might have had negative experiences in the past and don’t want it reported to the police,” he says. In any circumstance, make sure that the victim is safe before doing anything else—and then check to see what they’re most comfortable with.
5. Responding to children
If you overhear very young children making racist, sexist, or xenophobic remarks, bear in mind that they’re not miniature spouts of evil: They’re modeling words and behavior that they’re overheard from adults. “They may literally not know that what they’re saying is anything worse than calling someone a stupid-head,” says Eve Ewing, a sociologist of race and education at University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. So keep your emotions in check. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t say or do anything, though: If one kid is physically attacking another, you have a responsibility to intervene and protect any child at risk. If the attack is verbal, you might want to intervene, but be cognizant of what your relationship is that child, and of what your goal is. If you’re not a parent, a teacher, a relative, or a friend, “your ability to be a learning influence on the child doing the harm is probably pretty limited,” says Ewing.
So, just as with an adult, it may be best to focus your attention on the kid who’s being harmed, and letting both children know that they are being seen and heard. Approach the children with a careful distance, so that you don’t appear threatening too (this can be particularly tricky territory for adults of color, as a heart-wrenching piece in The New York Times recently showed—white adults can act as crucial back-up in these situations). Ewing says to ask the kids questions such as, what is going on here? Did I hear some words that were not appropriate? Where is a grown-up? “Like adults, children are more likely to do and say things that are unkind and hurtful when they think they can do so without impunity,” Ewing says. “So it might be as simple as saying ‘stop,’ and making it clear to the aggressor and the child being harmed that this is not invisible.” Make sure the kid on the receiving end of the attack is relocated away from immediate danger, and receives any medical attention they might need. If you can find a parent or adult who can follow up with both children, that’s great. But make the child who’s harmed your priority.
6. Follow up, follow up, follow up
Responding in person to hate crimes and damaging speech is primarily about ensuring that the endangered individual finds safety. But there can also be a broader motivation, many sources say, and that is to ensure that such behavior is not normalized in society. That purpose has taken on new meaning since the presidential election, as the man who opened his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and openly bragged about sexually assaulting women prepares to enter the highest office in the land. Discriminatory, hateful behavior is not only at risk of being normalized—it seems to have been rewarded by millions of voters.
If you witness an attack of any kind, and you help a victim get to safety, that’s great—and your work doesn’t need to end there. You can keep persevering on behalf of that person and other members of society who feel acutely threatened right now. Consider donating to an organization that works for civil rights. Find ways of coping with your own stress so that you can be a strong ally for folks more vulnerable than yourself. If you personally feel endangered in public spaces, take a self-defense class. “Our faith and religion tells us to get back on our two feet,” Ahmed Sheik says.
Whether it’s happening directly in front of you or occurring in the form of, say, federal legislation that threatens the rights of other citizens, no one needs to be a mute witness to an attack. “Do something that makes you feel empowered. Volunteer. Get active in your community,” Sheik says. “Go to your state capital and talk to people who can really affect change.”