Work Samples

What should bystanders do if they see a bias incident?


What would you do if you witnessed a bias incident – be it verbal harassment or an actual attack on someone based on race, religion, gender or sexual preference?

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking bias incidents since the presidential election. The organization has collected 1,372 reports of such incidents (either reported directly to SPLC or found in news reports) between the day after the election and Feb. 7. That includes bomb threats to synagogues, hateful chants at high schools or racist and anti-gay notes left on doors, as well as instances of someone being verbally harassed or physically attacked.

"Fortunately for us – and I mean this – we have had very few, recently, events that rise to that level, but we’re very, very conscious of it, considering the world that we live in," says Capt. Laurence Martin of the Wayne Police Department.  "There’s a lot of tension in the world. The economy’s not doing that great. There’s a lot of competition for jobs. The political climate that we live in, people on both sides of the spectrum. So we have to be very, very conscious of what’s going on and very sensitive to what’s going on."

It is clear these incidents are an issue around the country. People should not only think about what they would do in such a situation, but come up with a plan and practice it, says Kristen Parks of Green Dot Etcetera, a violence-prevention organization that trains people to be engaged witnesses.

The group's model “targets all community members as potential bystanders, and seeks to engage them, through awareness, education, and skillspractice, in proactive behaviors that establish intolerance of violence as the norm, as well as reactive interventions in high-risk situations.”

It requires preparation.

“If you can actually think through how you’ll react and actually practice some of that, it increases the likelihood that you’ll actually do it when you’re faced with that situation,” she says.

It’s one thing if you see swastikas drawn on the subway – a recent situation in New York City that led to many riders taking out tissues and hand sanitizer and cleaning the anti-Semitic graffiti off the cars. But what if you see one stranger yelling at another? Do you step in?

"You should first ascertain whether or not it's safe to intervene," Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Chicago Tribune in January. "If it is safe to do so, you should, because we don't want to normalize this type of behavior. In addition to supporting the person that is being victimized, you're making a statement about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable behavior."

Example goes viral

One illustration of how to step in when witnessing harassment went viral. In it, a bystander focuses on the victim and ignores the perpetrator.  Simply stepping in and showing support is often enough to make the harassment stop, according to Brooks, who says that the harassers typically don’t want to get into an altercation with a crowd; they have selected their victims carefully and count on isolation or on onlookers not being willing to step up in some way.

What to do? The answer is not easy, and Parks doesn’t suggest that it is. As a matter of fact, Green Dot makes clear that before doing anything, you must assess any barriers or possible dangers to yourself. The answer may be getting another person involved, such as a restaurant manager or stadium security guard, or simply trying to create a distraction, or (as the illustration suggests) speaking to the victim about anything.

“Can I go up and strike up a conversation, ask for directions – say you’re new to the area, trying to figure out where to go eat, can I do something that can de-escalate the situation by distracting in some way?” Parks says.

Many people might think that immediately calling the police is the answer in all situations, but if what you're witnessing isn’t a physical altercation, the situation can be tricky for law enforcement. Although someone may be treating another person badly – harassing them, in your opinion – they may not be breaking the law.

“The mere fact of, ‘I don’t like you because you’re a Martian’ doesn’t mean anything,” says Martin, the police captain. “It’s words said. The words following it, you have to worry about. ‘I’m going to blow up your spaceship. I’m going to kill your family.’ That’s where you start seeing law enforcement kick in.”

Have empathy

Sometimes, the situation is much less extreme and doesn't present the possibility of violence, but being an empathetic bystander is still important support.

Puneet Sawhney was born and raised in India and moved to the United States more than 25 years ago. She has two children and is a business teacher at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack. She is always stopped for extra security checks when she goes to the airport, she told a group of students on BCA’s International Day of Acceptance in January.

When she is pulled aside, she often sees the smirks of other passengers going by. A Sikh woman who wears the traditional garb, she has accepted this as part of her life – “People think, ‘She must be Muslim. I don’t know where she’s from or how she’s dressed,’ ” she said – but asks that others not find joy in it.

“Don’t smile. Don’t laugh. Please be empathetic,” she told the students.

It makes a difference for those who have to fight through these situations on a daily basis. During a family trip in Switzerland, she was on a train with her husband and two children when two police officers came up and asked to see their passports and questioned them.

Sawhney’s mind reeled – the family had no contacts in that country, what if the authorities took them? – but the officials eventually left. At that point, she was feeling very uncomfortable and tense when another passenger spoke up and said what had happened wasn’t fair, that she and her family hadn’t done anything wrong, that it wasn’t right for the officials to question them like that.

Did that stranger's support change anything? Take away the sting of being treated differently just because of the color of their skin, the way they were dressed or ignorance of their religion? No, but it changed the post-incident dynamic for Sawhney immediately. Instead of feeling isolated and targeted, she felt supported, felt that her family was safe. It made a difference.

If the incident you witness is a physical altercation, experts say, call 911. There may be a safe way to also intervene, but that is a case-by-case decision and requires the bystanders consider their safety, along with that of the victim and others around them, experts say. Parks' organization is about violence prevention and being an engaged citizen. Sometimes, it works great; sometimes, the result isn't as black and white. Parks has seen both as she puts the Green Dot training into practice in her personal life.

"I’ve had the experience of doing something and someone thanking me after, and I’ve also had the experience where it was really awkward and uncomfortable," she says. "What I know is [that in] all of those situations, I’ve made the decision that’s the kind of person I want to be, even if it’s a little awkward or uncomfortable. Sometimes it is challenging."

In an attempt to document and verify bias incidents around the country, the Southern Poverty Law Center partnered with ProPublica’s investigative team on a project called “Documenting Hate.”

“Hate crimes and bias incidents are a national problem, but there’s no reliable data on the nature or prevalence of the violence,” the project’s website states. “We’re collecting and verifying reports to create a national database for use by journalists, researchers and civil-rights organizations.”

General FeaturesKara Yorio