Understanding Bystander Intervention

Last week I attended a community workshop where the topic was on how best to approach bystander intervention. With the recent rash of hate crimes, this prevention method is now more important than ever. In theory, bystander intervention is a “philosophy and strategy for prevention of various types of violence, including bullying, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence.”

However, in practice, many people have a fear of getting involved in active incidents for a variety of reasons, namely out of fear they will be harmed too. I have been primarily riding public transit for over 20 years and has seen my share of hostile interactions, including ones involving weapons. Using a public space like a bus or a train exposes you to the best and worst of humanity.  I think I have been guilty of not intervening when sh*t goes down. My fear is that you don’t know what the perpetrator is going to do if you get involved.

For instance, I remember riding the Orange Line about 15 years ago and getting off at Mass Ave late at night to meet my boyfriend at the time when I saw a man choking a woman’s neck on the platform. Another man who got off the same car with me immediately jumped in and pushed the perpetrator of the victim. Here is where it got strange. The victim turned around and started hitting the man who just helped her! The transit police rushed onto the platform at that moment and almost arrested the man who tried to help the woman. Luckily, myself and others on the platform told the police that he was actually helping the woman. I later found out that the attacker was a pimp and he was mad at that woman – his prostitute – because she didn’t pay him and they were both high.

I believe that situation scared me off from wanting to get involved in other incidents. Whenever anything goes down on the train or the bus now, I tend to look down at my Kindle, turn up the music on my iPod and zone out. I know this is not a good thing, but this mentally crippling habit turns on inside of me automatically.

But what if you see someone being harassed for being Muslim, transgender or for their skin color? I would like to think I would speak up on behalf of the victim, but I wasn’t sure if I would have the courage to do anything until I went to this community workshop.

The facilitator gave out this really thoughtful illustration on how to deal with an incident and I think it gave me a little more confidence.

It was illustrated by French Muslim illustrator Maeril, who says the following about this illustration:

This is an illustrated guide I made as part of my co-admining work at The Middle Eastern Feminist on Facebook! It will be published there shortly. The technique that is displayed here is a genuine one used in psychology – I forgot the name and couldn’t find it again so if you know about it, feel free to tell me!

Some could say: “Yes but you can use that technique for instances of harassment other than Islamophobic attacks!”, and my reply is: Sure! Please do so, it also works for other “types” of harassment of a lone person in a public space!!

However I’m focusing on protecting Muslims here, as they have been very specific targets lately, and as a French Middle Eastern woman, I wanted to try and do something to raise awareness on how to help when such things happen before our eyes – that way one cannot say they “didn’t know what to do”!

I’d like to insist on two things:

1) Do not, in any way, interact with the attacker. You must absolutely ignore them and focus entirely on the person being attacked!

2) Please make sure to always respect the wishes of the person you’re helping: whether they want you to leave quickly afterward, or not! If you’re in a hurry escort them to a place where someone else can take over – call one of their friends, or one of yours, of if they want to, the police. It all depends on how they feel!

Please don’t hesitate to share this guide as it could push a lot of people to overcome bystander syndrome!!

Also, the American Friends Service Committee created their own do’s and don’ts guide for bystander intervention, which you can read here.

The Talking Drums of West Africa

Over at Global Wire Associates, we released the first article in our yearlong series about the history of communication. We highlighted some of the earliest methods of messaging, ranging from cave paintings to hydraulic semaphore systems.

We briefly touched on all of these methods, but the one that most interested me was the West African tradition of “talking drums.” Drumming for communication continues to be prevalent throughout the region, especially in Nigeria. The drums would communicate specific messages across many miles to different villages. Drumming is also used to celebrate community rituals and religious traditions, as well as tell stories and even gossip. It was also used during wartime to rally the troops.

During slavery throughout the Americas, African slaves would pass their time drumming for entertainment. However, drums were banned because the slaves were communicating to each other over long distances, especially during slave revolts, using a code their owners couldn’t understand.

Go figure!

I have been lucky through my work to travel to Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and Senegal to learn about the different functions of drumming for communication.  Even within the same country, drumming has many different “languages” and traditions.

I found these great videos that explain the history of drumming among African peoples.

Pedestrians, Cyclists & Drivers: An Unharmonious Union

A new study further highlights the need for better cooperation between pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. According to Smart America Growth’s Dangerous By Design, 46,149 people were struck and killed by cars while walking in the United States between 2005 and 2014. Americans were 7.2 times more likely to die as a pedestrian than from a natural disaster. The report also shows that communities of color and people over 65 years old were more likely to be struck because (1) they are less likely to own a vehicle, (2) live in communities with poorly designed or maintained sidewalks and (3) lack access to proper public transit.

While Greater Boston ranks low on the Pedestrian Danger Index (PDI), the city still has many unique pedestrian problems. Unlike most American cities, Boston’s street grid infrastructure wasn’t planned. This dilemma is why there are so many narrow, two-way streets that suddenly become one-way streets. Because the city was founded in 1630, Boston streets are literally designed for just horse and buggy travel.  I have said it here before; the problem also stems from the fact that car-less people are treated like second-class citizens because public transit and infrastructure are viewed as an afterthought and not essential in America’s car-obsessed culture.

Just last month, nine people in Boston were struck by cars in one day! It would be easy to just blame all these problems on cars, but in reality, better cooperation and judgment could also be used by cyclists and pedestrians alike. The two snow storms we had last week highlighted many of these issues that I would like to point out:

Pay attention: Stop looking at your phone when you are driving, walking across the street and even cycling (yes, I see this a lot too). If you have a headset on when you are walking or jogging, make sure the volume is low enough that you can still hear what is going on around you. I usually have a headset on, but I always know what is happening around me. Also, with all the snow banks, it can be hard for drivers to see a pedestrian or cyclist come out of nowhere and cross the street. Always look both ways at least three times and walk out far enough, so drivers see you before crossing.

Sidewalks are for pedestrians only: Yesterday morning as I was walking to the bus stop, I saw three adult cyclists riding ON the sidewalk when there is a dedicated bike lane on this particular road. And then one cyclist decided to suddenly go into the street and go across a moving car without signaling. I’m all for cyclist rights on the road, but you all can’t have it both ways! Cyclists can’t demand the same rights as car drivers while not following basic road rules like turn signaling and stopping at red lights. Adult cyclists should only be allowed on the road. I guess the storm forced them to ride on the sidewalk? In that case, maybe you shouldn’t ride a bike if the roads are impacted. Bikes on sidewalks are just as dangerous to pedestrians because we can be easily struck or clipped if the cyclist doesn’t signal or suddenly rides into the pedestrian’s walking space. It is already hard enough for pedestrians to use sidewalks after snowstorms, which brings me to my next point.

Clear sidewalks and pathways: Car-less people have to walk to places where a bus or a train don’t, so it is important to make sure sidewalks are clear enough for walking. Unfortunately, a lot of homeowners just shovel enough to get to their car.  When the sidewalks aren’t cleared, pedestrians are forced to walk in the streets, where they are more likely to be struck by a vehicle or bicycle. Furthermore, don’t you want your postman or Amazon delivery person to drop off your mail or products? Last year a UPS delivery guy wasn’t able to get to my neighbor’s mailbox because the neighbor didn’t shovel the pathway, so UPS threw the package in the front yard instead. Of course, my neighbor was mad when he found his brand new computer sitting in the snow. I don’t know if UPS is supposed to leave packages like that, but my neighbor could have avoided this if he had shoveled his pathway. I do my best to make sure my sidewalk and pathway are clear enough for easy passage. Sometimes if the snow is too hard or heavy to shovel, I put some rock salt down to at least melt the ice. That way the path is walkable, and no one slips.

Overall, it would make more sense to improve public infrastructure in general for inclement weather that would make everyone’s quality of life better. If there were better quality trains and buses in Boston and the MBTA actually bothered to do its job properly, we could encourage more people to use public transit and ditch cars. If there were fewer cars on the road during storms, there would be fewer traffic accidents, spin-outs, and other safety hazards. If snow removal on sidewalks were enforced better, more people would be able to walk safely. Some people ride bikes year-round, even when snow is on the ground, like a former roommate I had many years ago, so roads need to be clear enough for both cars and bikes.

We all have to cohabitate the same space, so why don’t we cooperate better with each other.  After all, we all have to get somewhere, whether by foot, by car or by bike.

James Baldwin: Optimism and Relevance

Photo Credit: Bob Aldeman, Magnolia FilmsLast weekend I saw Raoul Peck’s excellent documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin says so many mindblowing things in the film that it would be hard to try to reinterpret everything that was said by him (so see the movie!). However, if you are unfamiliar with his work, please start reading some of his books, particularly No Name in the Street and The Devil Finds Work, which the film quotes from regularly.

The basis of this movie comes from an unfinished script Baldwin wrote to his agent in the 1980s called Remember This House. In it, he documents his relationships with his friends and civil rights icons Malcolm X, Medger Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.

I was most fascinated by this film because I now have a deeper appreciation for his thoughtfulness and powerful vocal expressions which are still relevant today. Watching the film would give you the impression that he was still alive today speaking about current racial and political issues, although most of the interviews from the movie were done in the 1960s.

Baldwin was years ahead of his time!

Out of the many, MANY things, one thing I remember him saying in the film was that he is only an optimist because he is still alive. Meaning life as a black man in America, whether in the 1960s or today, is pretty dismal. When he said that, I immediately thought of the continuing murders of unarmed black boys and men I see on the news regularly. I also thought about the continued disrespect black people face even in the highest levels of society. Look at all the racial hostility President and Mrs. Obama faced from white detractors and the amount of dignity and class they showed them in return. Unlike the current president, Obama had thick skin and had courage under fire.

We all have to be optimists just to survive.