Time to learn how to be an effective bystander

Special to the S-E

You’re at the gas station and a man is harassing a father with light brown skin. His family is in the car, stunned and fearful. What can you do?

“I thought all this racist stuff stopped 20 years ago,” commented a local fellow, who prefers to be anonymous. But the election of Donald Trump, who demonized Mexicans and Muslims while campaigning, has brought into focus that racism and bias still have a stronghold in the U.S.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported over 400 cases of harassment or intimidation of minorities as of mid-November.

So, as a bystander, the ability to react to harassment in a helpful way is pertinent.

Research shows witnesses of bullying face four choices: join the harassment, watch, feel uncertain about what to do, or play defense for the target. The latter may require forethought to create an appropriate reaction.

A response

According to the Educator’s Guide to Street Harassment, there may be no specific right or wrong way to respond. But Cornell University research shows an aggressor is likely to stop if a bystander does intervene in some form.

There are several possible responses, but first it’s important to assess risk. In a recent case in California, a woman witnessed a Latino man being harassed by two skinheads, who emphasized that it was OK, since it was what Trump wants. She observed that the aggressors were probably “tweaking:” high on drugs. After they were done shouting at the young man, they jumped into their big truck and took off. She asked the fellow if he was ok, and they discussed what had happened, and why.

That choice was the “delay” response.

Even though she did not intervene directly in the situation, her follow-up show of support was important for helping the targeted person to recover, according to websites that address bullying.

Racism.It Stops With Me, one such website, says there are a number of actions that can be taken without putting one’s self at risk. If it feels safe, go ahead and say something. Sometimes “just chill” or “why don’t you leave them alone” is sufficient. But if speaking up seems ill-advised, the website suggests alerting someone or calling police if there is potential danger. If not, sitting or standing next to the target person is appropriate.

The latter is the “fake friend” or “distraction” tactic. You pretend to know the person being harassed and engage them in talk, such as asking directions, talking about a movie or the weather. Acting oblivious to the actions of the perpetrator/s is part of the tactic. Keep eye contact with the target person and do not acknowledge the attacker’s presence. If possible, escort the target person to a safe or neutral area.

And if the aggressor tries to initiate contact, respond with a “warm demeanor,” not with aggression that could escalate the conflict. At all times, retain a look of confidence.

Does this work?

Another key piece of advice is to have batteries well charged in case photos need to be taken or calls for help are required.

How well do these tactics work? In a recent incident at a university campus in Texas, a Muslim woman student was shoved off a sidewalk. Two young men quickly came to her aid and asked the perpetrator what he was doing. He said, “Dude, like what? I’m just trying to make America great again.” After classes ended for the week, the Muslim woman found some 300 fellow students waiting to escort her home. Both the intervention at the time and the follow-up show of support helped the woman in her recovery.

Hateful rhetoric has not been limited to criminal types. At a Florida high school, a teacher was put on administrative leave after allegedly telling a group of black students, “Don’t make me call Donald Trump to get you sent back to Africa.”

On another campus a student posted a video of himself handing out letters, labeled “Deportation,” to minority students. In a dormitory elsewhere, a black doll was hung, photographed and posted on social media.

And on a college campus in Texas, leaflets promised tar and feathering for minority sympathizers.

Graffiti has also been on the increase since the election. In North Carolina, where black votes were suppressed with new voting regulations, one graffiti author wrote “Black lives don’t matter and neither do your votes.” And in New York State, a swastika was painted, surrounded by the words “Make America White Again.” The Seattle Times reported swastika graffiti in Spokane.


While many perpetrators revealed their motivations by invoking Trump, there were some cases of harassment being directed at Trump voters. Two minority men punched and kicked a Connecticut man who was holding an American flag and a Trump sign.

And in Washington State, a Trump voter was dismissed from his job by his foreign-born boss. The boss explained that since Trump’s candidacy, he no longer felt safe, and he did not want to employ a Trump fan.

Malicious harassment and intimidation both fall under the umbrella of bullying. In The Psychology of Men and Masculinity, (American Psychological Association, 10-2012), it says “the strongest prediction [of bullying] was the perception of whether the most influential male in a [football] player’s life would approve of the bullying behavior.” Currently, Trump fits the title of “most influential male.”

On “60 Minutes,” the president-elect lamented the increased aggression, and asked perpetrators to “stop.” He has also said he wants the nation to unite. But his choice of Presidential advisor, Stephen Bannon, contradicts Trump’s surface shift. Bannon has a leadership history among racists, misogynists and anti-Semites, including operating a prominent white nationalist news site before becoming Trump’s campaign manager.

“Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon is a clear indication that he wants the next four years to be full of the same anger, hatred and division that his campaign waged,” says Charles Chamberlain, Executive Director of Democracy for America.

‘A nightmare’

Conservative TV and radio host Glenn Beck calls Bannon a “nightmare.”

The presidential vote tally may not be a clear indication that vast numbers of people are going to be racist trouble-makers. Looking at the election tally -- 61.82 million voted for Trump, despite his enthusiastic KKK and American Nazi Party endorsement -- some had concluded that almost half the nation’s population is racist or biased in some form.

But with a total national population of 318.9 million people, and 61,820,845 (61.83 million) voting for Trump (ABC News, 11-19-2016), that means just 19.39 percent of the entire population gave a boost to Trump’s white nationalism.

When a malicious harassment event occurred in Kettle Falls last summer, even though it is part of a county that gave Trump 65.61 percent of the Stevens County vote, an outpouring of support to the people targeted was quickly offered by area residents.