7 Bystander Intervention Tips for Racist Harassment

Last weekend, an episode of racist hate speech on public transit in Portland, Oreg., escalated into a stabbing that claimed the lives of two men who attempted to intervene and seriously injured another. The horrific incident left many people across the U.S. shaken — and it may remind some of a shooting in a bar in Kansas earlier this year that unfolded in very similar circumstances.

This incident may have many of us wondering about the future of polite discourse in America, but it should also spark a conversation about bystander intervention.

The men killed and injured in Portland were ordinary people who saw two teens being harassed and said something — any one of us could, and should, do the same, because politely ignoring hate speech doesn’t make the problem go away. If the deaths of Rick Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche have you afraid to speak up, or inspired to follow their example, here are some tips on deescalating situations as safely as you can.

1) Engage with the victim

Sometimes, it’s possible to navigate an attack like this one by focusing on the victim. Harassers often pick people who appear alone and vulnerable — pretend to be someone’s friend or otherwise engage with a target to make it clear that the harasser chose wrong. If you can, do what Meche and Best did — subtly put your body between the harasser and the target.

Try: “Hey, girl, I haven’t seen you in forever! How’s your mom?” “I just got out of Wonder Woman — have you seen it yet?” “Hey, how’s it going?”

2) Delegate

If possible, contact authorities, whether they’re security staff at a venue or transit cops, to defuse the situation. Be aware that calling on law enforcement can come with its own risks — if anyone involved in the situation is a person of color, police may hyperfocus on that person, even when they’re the victim. Check in with the target of the harassment to see if they’re comfortable with you calling the authorities.

Try: “You look like you’re in trouble, do you want me to call the police?” “I’m going to ask the residency advisor for help, okay?”

3) Document

If you can do so safely, use your phone or another device to record. Don’t assume other people on the scene will do so, and take charge of gathering evidence that could be used in court or mediation in the future. However, if the victim asks you to stop recording, respect their wishes!

Try: “I’m recording this!” “This kind of language isn’t okay! I’m recording so I can report you!”

4) Ask for help

If you’re at a party, on public transit, or in any other public setting, it’s highly probable that you aren’t alone with the victim(s) and their harasser(s). Take advantage of that by calling on others who are witnessing the scene to take action — turn the tide from one of quiet tolerance to one hostile to the harassers.

Try: “Do you see what’s happening?” “That’s not okay!” “Do you know the host? I think this guy doesn’t belong here.”

5) Disarm

Harassers may expect you to act on their level. In fact, being disarming with warm, friendly, sympathetic words and body language can disorient an attacker, just as it did in Portland when Best attempted to defuse the situation by being friendly and companionable. It’s important to note that many safety experts advise against engaging with harassers at all — if you feel the need to do so, try to respond rather than react, and monitor the harasser’s body language carefully.

Try: “I understand how you feel. Let’s sit down and talk about it.” “I feel you, man. Hey, there’s a stop coming up — let’s sit down.”

6) Distract

If things are turning physical, don’t dive in if you don’t have training in personal protection and safety. Instead, turn to a time-honored tactic: Distraction. Shout “the police are coming,” wave your arms around, and use other tactics to pull the harasser’s focus away from the victim.

Try: “Hey, Dave, I think the pizza’s here!” “Hey you guys, are you seeing this! This guy’s being totally racist!” “FYI, I just called the cops on you!”

7) Name it

Explicitly call out what you see as racism. (Or Islamophobia, or sexism…) People need to understand that what they are doing is racist, and you see them doing it — especially in the case of little kids, who may have picked up harmful language and attitudes without realizing it.

Try: “Calling someone the n-word is racist and not okay.” “Actually, ‘gook’ is racist — and it refers to Vietnamese people, not Chinese people.” “Hey Cindy, you may have heard that word around the house, but you should know that it’s hurtful.”

It’s important to remember that situations can change rapidly, and it’s not always easy to predict when things will go south. The brave men who tried to intervene in Portland, as well as the people who stepped up in turn to help them, didn’t do anything wrong, and neither did the young women who just wanted to ride the train in peace. The responsibility for harassment lies on the harasser, not victims or those who attempt to help.

Photo credit: Isa Sorensen

54 comments

Marie W
Marie W1 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Berny p
berny p1 years ago

Good advice ...dont interveen if you have not the necessary phyical skill.

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Carl R
Carl R1 years ago

Thanks!!!

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iskrica k
iskrica knezevic1 years ago

thank youthank you

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Elaine W
Elaine W1 years ago

Some very good and useful advice.

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Chris Ringgold
Chris Ringgold1 years ago

I would like to thank the author, Miss. S. E. Smith, for these 7 tips on how to combat harassment and properly intervene when necessary.

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Carl R
Carl R1 years ago

Thanks!!!

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Elaine W
Elaine W1 years ago

Having a plan ahead before something happens is a good idea and these tips are good.

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Leah E
Leah E1 years ago

The best way to be prepared to intervene safely and effectively as a bystander is to get trained. Hollaback!'s digital trainings in bystander intervention are free for a limited time with the code "hollabacksummer." Sign up at betterbystander.eventbrite.com.

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Danuta W
Danuta W1 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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