In Troubled Times: Bystander Intervention Training

In January 2018, I attended a seminar entitled Stand! Speak! Act! A Community Bystander Intervention Training. The subheading suggested I would learn how to nonviolently support someone who was being harassed. The event was presented by the local chapter of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), the Muslim Solidarity Group, and the local rapid response team. The idea of becoming a nonviolent ally in directly ameliorating the harm from harassment greatly appealed to me. I found the seminar enlightening, although not always in ways I expected.

To begin with, although two of the event’s three sponsors were specifically Muslim solidarity groups, the techniques and strategies apply whenever a person is being targeted. Although hate crimes against Muslims have increased drastically (first after 9/11 and then ongoing since Trump’s election), racism (anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-Asian) still accounts for the majority of incidents, and anti-LGBTQ violence continues. Most of my friends and relatives who have been harassed have been targeted because of race, sexual orientation, or gender identification, but by far the greatest number have been because of race. The principles of intervention remain the same, and if in the future some other group becomes a target for extremism and violence, allies will step forward.

The workshop drew its guidance and inspiration from the principles set out by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

  • Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people
  • Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding
  • Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people
  • Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform
  • Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate
  • Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.


It’s tempting to lash out when you or someone you observe is a target of violence, whether physical or verbal. We’ve all seen enough superhero movies to want to jump in, swirling our capes, and single-handedly take on the offender. Outrage at what we perceive to be hateful and wrong fuels our adrenaline. It’s hard to remain calm, to think clearly, and to act from principle instead of reactive emotion. That’s why practice is so important. Harassment can escalate very quickly, and unless we have some experience in how we are vulnerable to engagement, we can become swept up in the confrontation.

Bystander intervention isn’t about confronting the person spewing hatred, it’s about supporting the person being targeted.

The best way to do this is through de-escalation, but in a way that respects the needs and wishes of the targeted person. This means, firstly, not engaging with the attacker: not making eye contact, not responding to their words, not contributing to the drama. It can also mean including other witnesses; one person can video the incident (using their phone, with or without the ACLU app that sends the video directly to them*) or call appropriate help (ambulance, paramedics).

Intervention at its best empowers the person being harassed. (That’s why the workshop avoided referring to them as “victims.”) The principles encourage us as bystanders to approach that person calmly, introduce ourselves, and explain that we saw what was happening and we want to offer support. This can mean proposing courses of action like “Would you like me to sit with you?” or “What can I do to help you?” or “Shall we walk together in the other direction?” Or it might mean striking up a friendly conversation that excludes the attacker, like “The weather’s been lovely, hasn’t it?”

The targeted person may not want to interact with us or may say they’re fine, and as difficult as it is, we should remember the goal is solidarity, not rescue.

In practicing various scenarios, I was amazed at my own emotional reaction even though I knew it was an exercise.  We split into groups and acted out various situations (a woman in hijab being harassed on a bus, a black person being insulted by someone driving by, a Spanish-speaking person being threatened in a language not understood). Tempers flared, and the person playing the target often felt fearful. That happened to me when I was portraying a Spanish-speaking person in a line at a store. Even though I understood the English verbal attacks (based on perceived immigration status), I felt confused, frightened, and trapped. All I wanted was to escape. The participants playing bystanders bunched together to make what felt like a wall of hostiles, even though they were supposed to be portraying allies. Then one approached me from the side, made sure I noticed her, and gently said, “Hola.” I was amazed at how my body relaxed. I engaged with her, feeling I was safe, then asked her to help me leave the store. How much more terrifying must it be when it’s not a practice scenario!

The final caveat was that no one should feel obligated to intervene if they don’t feel it is safe to do so. Emotions can run high in harassment situations, and matters can escalate very quickly. Always trust your instincts. Even if you aren’t able to act at the moment, approaching the targeted person with support and help after the danger has passed can do much to minimize the harm.

As an addendum, not long after I took the seminar, I had an opportunity to practice the techniques in real life. At a women’s march, I noticed that a young woman with a baby in a stroller was being harassed, quite loudly, by a much larger man. I placed myself between them, my back to him, and began talking to her in a friendly manner. I babbled about the weather and how cute her baby was, adding in the same light voice, “Would you like help getting out of here?” Her entire demeanor went from panic to relief. By the time I’d finished my question, the loud, angry man had melted back into the crowd and I didn’t hear his voice again.


*The ACLU’s Mobile Justice app is available in California and other states.

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