Bystander training is a nonviolent mechanism for community members to go out into the real world and prevent confrontations from escalating, prevent harassment or hate crimes, and act as better allies.
Approximately 40 people came to learn bystander training from the Washington Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-WA) on Jan. 13. The training event included people who had experienced harassment as well as those who had only witnessed it.
Fatima Sheikh has experienced both.
Sheikh, a 20-year-old University of Washington transfer student, was on her way back to campus from Ballard. As was usual for her, she was wearing her hijab and niqaab, a veil that covers most of the face and head, with a rectangle area cut out across the eyes. Sheikh stepped onto the bus and was immediately met with a man’s shocked stare from an inward-facing front seat.
“I get that look a lot,” she said. “Some people are used to it. But I thought nothing of it, and sat behind him [in the first row facing forward].”
The man then called Sheikh a terrorist and threatened to call the police. He frequently turned around and looked directly at her. The man talked loud enough for the rest of the bus to hear. But no one intervened or said anything.
“This is my city.” Sheikh is a born-and-raised Seattleite. “I felt really disappointed and scared. I was trying to understand what the best thing for me to do was.”
Looking around at other riders, Sheikh tried to find support with her eyes. Nobody made eye contact with her, but Sheikh thought everyone around was visibly uncomfortable. At one point, Sheikh felt desperate enough to stare at a woman next to her. The woman would only catch Sheikh’s gaze and then quickly cast her eyes to the ground. Again, nothing.
A few stops later, an elderly couple came on the bus, and Sheikh moved to the back of the bus with them. The man’s hateful words didn’t stop, however. Sheikh could still hear him from the back of the bus. Her heart was racing.
“I didn’t want to say anything where he’d lash out because he was that energetic,” she said. When Sheikh’s bus stop finally arrived, people exited the bus with her. But no one stopped to ask her if she was okay.
“Show some support if you see someone being harassed,” Sheikh said. “At least look, even if you don’t do something — acknowledge it. Even after [the incident] would be great.”
In the bystander training, Sheikh’s experience was used as an example of a situation that went horribly wrong, without being resolved. Bystander training is intended to prevent exactly what Sheikh went through.
“We want you to be brave enough to stand up for community members but not get hurt doing it,” said Megan Fair, a bystander trainer. “Ignoring someone is hard to do when it’s about principle.”
Ultimately, Fair said, bystanders seek a rapid solution that brings a situation to a close as quickly as possible while weighing the risks.
First and foremost, bystanders are encouraged to not engage with the attacker or aggressor at all: No eye contact, no response, no argument. Ignoring an attacker cuts their energy and can quickly dissolve the tension in a situation.
Zahra Billoo, another bystander trainer, cautioned to first ask the person being attacked or threatened what they need. Bystanders should not condemn someone being attacked if they choose to engage and respond. What bystanders should do is ask the target if they’re okay and if they would like any assistance. Bystanders shouldn’t approach a situation with a savior mentality or with the idea of being a hero.
Billoo also said bystanders should not immediately call 9-1-1.
“We were taught that police are there to help, but then we grew up and learned about immigration enforcement, detainments,” Billoo said. “Many people see police as a risk of escalation in itself. The targeted person gets to decide.”
At the training, bystanders were advised to record dangerous or escalating situations. Tips for video recording: Try to hold phones sideways (hotdog style), pan or move slowly, and keep your hand stable. If video recording is difficult, audio recording can also help. However, Washington is a two-party consent state, which means people must give consent, audibly or visually, to being recorded. If you are in a public space and say you’re recording loud enough for those involved to hear, and the attacker continues speaking, then the recording is legal. It is also legal to record if you simply make it obvious that you are in fact recording by very visibly and obviously holding your phone in a manner that it’s clear, and those involved acknowledge it by continuing to speak.
Bystanders can record on social media, but should know its drawbacks, trainers said. While they can draw immediate and significant attention, such recordings aren’t always permanent. Facebook, Twitter, Google are all subject to police warrants and can take down videos to cooperate with police, as happened to a Facebook live video recorded by Korryn Gaines before she was fatally shot by police. Instead, bystanders should save the recordings on their own phone.
But it’s important to remember personal safety, trainers said. “Get out if you’re feeling unsafe, leave,” Fair said. “And take the targeted person with you.”
What if a bystander witnesses police using force? There’s an app for that: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Mobile Justice app. Trainers stressed that bystanders should not get involved during an incident with police. Instead, consider contacting a local legal group, get the names of the police officers, and if possible, ask the target if they want their identity hidden.
Trainers recommended practicing the “hassle line.” It’s an exercise from the Civil Rights movement before big demonstrations where people would break off in pairs and one would act as an attacker and another as a target. It forces people to get accustomed to yelling and aggressive behavior, while letting it all roll off. This requires zero eye contact, no verbal or physical engagement, and reminding yourself to de-escalate.
Many attendees had questions along the lines of “If X happens, then what?” Trainers said they can only equip bystanders with the best tools. Bystanders have to assess each situation themselves.
“I don’t have all the answers,” said trainer Balloo. “We’re learning as America is going through what it’s going through.”
More on bystander intervention training:
Bystander intervention training assumes that:
- We have an ethical, social and political obligation to help each other, when we are in a position (situationally and psychologically) to do so
- Stepping up to act in solidarity with others can help to reduce the impact of a problematic situation
- As a bystander, you are there to support what the targeted person wants
- The best way of responding as a bystander is through de-escalation
- Practicing how to respond helps us to get past our hesitations so we can step up when necessary
Being a bystander means occupying a new identity in public, as someone who will step in when there is something bad developing or happening. To do this effectively:
- Be aware of what’s happening around you when you’re in public
- Really pay attention if something is happening. Take off your headphones, pause your conversation, position yourself to get a better view.
- Don’t assume someone else will do something (This is known as “responsibility diffusion”).
- Point out the situation to people around you. Tell them you’re going to support the targeted person and ask if they’d like to help.
- When first approaching targeted person, introduce yourself, quietly explain you saw what was happening and want to offer support. Respect their wishes and move back if they don’t want support, but continue monitoring the situation.