In New York, Activists Prepare Bystanders To Take Action Against Harassment

Dec 22, 2016
Originally published on December 23, 2016 12:07 pm

If you were to witness a bias-based attack or a hate crime, how would you respond?

It's something some activists are preparing some New Yorkers to be ready for, as reports of hate crimes in the city have increased since the election of Donald Trump. They are up 63 percent compared to the same period last year as of Dec. 14, according to the New York City Police Department.

Earlier this month, a man allegedly threatened to cut the throat of an off-duty police officer wearing a hijab. Two days later, a transit worker wearing a hijab was allegedly pushed down the stairs in Grand Central Terminal by a man who called her a "terrorist."

Christen Brandt, a trainer with the Center for Anti-Violence Education, wants more bystanders who witness attacks and hate crimes to become what she calls "upstanders" — people who will intervene rather than just walk away.

"Watching an act of harassment in real time, it's something that makes people really tense up. They're often just not sure what to do or how to get involved," Brandt says.

Recently, she helped train about a hundred people at a community center in Queens. They warmed up by repeating phrases they might use on a harasser, things like "Leave him alone!" and "You can't do that!"

But before you speak up, Brandt says it's important to stay level-headed. Then, figure out what's the safest way to take action.

"Are you behind the harasser? Are you in a position where you are in physical danger of being assaulted should the harasser decide to attack the victim?" she says.

Intervening as an "upstander," though, doesn't have to involve getting in a harasser's face. Brandt says there are more indirect strategies.

"If there are people around you, go up to that person and say, 'Hey! Do you see what's happening? Yeah? Can you call someone?' " she says.

You could ignore the harasser completely and instead engage the person who is under attack, or you could ask the harasser unrelated questions — about directions, for example — in an effort to distract the harasser.

Advocacy groups have been scrambling to hold more workshops for bystanders.

Debjani Roy is with Hollaback!, a group that offers webinars on how to respond to street harassment. Her organization is working with a video-training group called WITNESS to figure out how best to train bystanders to record cellphone video of any incident with tips like filming landmarks and saying what day and time it is.

Roy warns, though, that it's always best to check with the victim before sharing a video publicly.

"It's very easy to use it in the wrong way where you're actually putting someone in danger," she says.

In New York, where the threat of danger has been heightened in the Muslim community, Mariana Aguilera of Queens says she finds comfort seeing so many of her neighbors training with Brandt at the community center.

"I'm a convert to Islam, so for the last 10 years I've been going through these experiences of harassment. And in these 10 years, I've never witnessed something like this in this room, people from different faiths and different walks of life coming together," she says.

They're all preparing to stand up against hate and violence, and that, she says, is an empowering sight to see.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Since Donald Trump was elected president, there's been a rise in reports of attacks based on religion, race, gender and sexual orientation. In New York City, they've jumped dramatically. Last week, the NYPD said it's seen a rise of more than 60 percent compared to the same time last year. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on how some New Yorkers are training to respond to these attacks.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The attacks are taking place in the streets and in the subways. In early December, a man allegedly threatened to cut the throat of an off-duty police officer wearing a hijab. Two days later, a transit worker wearing a hijab was allegedly pushed down the stairs in Grand Central terminal by a man who called her a, quote, "terrorist." And that's why Christen Brandt wants more bystanders of attacks and hate crimes to become what she calls upstanders - people who will intervene rather than just walk away. She's a trainer with the Center for Anti-Violence Education.

CHRISTEN BRANDT: Watching an act of harassment in real time - it's something that makes people really tense up. They're often just not sure what to do or how to get involved.

WANG: So on this night, she's helping to train about a hundred people at a community center in Queens. They warm up by repeating phrases they might use on a harasser.

BRANDT: Leave him alone.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Leave him alone.

BRANDT: You can't do that.

WANG: But before you speak up, Brandt says it's important to stay level-headed, then figure out what's the safest way to take action.

BRANDT: Are you behind the harasser? Are you in a position where you are in physical danger of being assaulted should the harasser decide to attack the victim?

WANG: Intervening as an upstander, though, doesn't have to involve getting in a harasser's face. Brandt says there are more indirect strategies.

BRANDT: If there are people around you, go up to that person and say, hey, do you see what's happening? Yeah? Can you call someone?

WANG: Or you could ignore the harasser completely and instead engage the person who is under attack.

MICHELLE KENNELL SHENK: I don't have a big preference, no.

WANG: Do you have a preference?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No.

WANG: Michelle Kennell Shenk, her husband, Tim, and Don Kao try out some of Brandt's strategies in a training exercise. Tim pretends to harass Don in the subway.

TIM SHENK: I am so tired of seeing people like you on this train. I can't believe you're still here.

SHENK: Hey, do you know how to get to Times Square?

SHENK: You know, I - look...

SHENK: I wasn't sure if I should take the seven or the E.

DON KAO: I know how to get to Times Square. Let's go over to that subway (laughter).

SHENK: OK. Let's do it.

WANG: Michelle tells Don that she was trying to distract the harasser.

SHENK: And you as the victim-harasee took the initiative to be, like, let's just move away all together.

KAO: Right, right, right.

SHENK: I think when you were both being assertive at the same time, and I was the harasser, it was a lot harder for me to even continue it.

KAO: Right, right, right.

WANG: Advocacy groups have been scrambling to hold more workshops for bystanders. Debjani Roy is with Hollaback!, a group that offers webinars on how to respond to street harassment. And her organization is working with a video training group called Witness to figure out how to best trained bystanders to record cell phone video of any incident with tips like...

DEBJANI ROY: ...Film some landmarks, say what day it is, maybe even say what time it is.

WANG: Roy warns, though, that it's always best to check with the victim before sharing a video publicly.

ROY: It's very easy to use it in the wrong way where you're actually putting someone in danger.

WANG: In New York, where the threat of danger has been heightened in the Muslim community, Mariana Aguilera of Queens says she finds comfort in seeing so many of her neighbors training to intervene.

MARIANA AGUILERA: I'm a convert to Islam, so for the last 10 years, I've been going through these experiences of harassment. And in these 10 years, I've never witnessed something like this in this room - people from different faiths and different walks of life coming together.

WANG: All preparing to stand up against hate and violence, and that, she says, is an empowering sight to see. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.