Image: Boarding public transit – in this case, a tram in Amsterdam. Photo by Linda Burnett.
A poet, a veteran, and a recent college graduate stood up to a bully on a train in Portland, Oregon in May 2017. The man “allegedly started yelling what ‘would best be characterized as hate speech toward a variety of ethnicities and religions’ toward two young women in a Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light-rail train,” according to Portland police Sgt. Pete Simpson. When the men tried to engage with the man, he turned on them with a knife, killing the veteran and the recent grad, and leaving the poet fighting for his life.
This horrible event was a maelstrom of choices. A man allegedly chose to scream racist hateful speech at two women. Three men chose to intervene by engaging with the hostile man. He chose (again allegedly) to stab them. Another bystander chose to take the opportunity to take the wedding ring and backpack belonging to one of the murdered helpers.
I have been disturbed in the aftermath of this story by the number of voices I’ve heard asserting that it is “foolish” to intervene when bullying is taking place. It bothers me on many levels, not least that I’ve raised my sons to speak up when someone weaker is being bullied. I believe, as Leviticus 19 directs us, that we must do something when the vulnerable are victimized. While I am heartbroken for those men and their families, I do not regret teaching my children to do something in such circumstances, nor do I hear their families regretting that their loved ones were kind, brave men.
Acts of hatred are increasingly common. It is not “foolish” to speak up for the vulnerable, it is a righteous act. The question in each of our minds must be, “What will be most effective?”
- One choice is to intervene directly with the person acting badly. That requires bravery and strength, and if that person is armed or violent, it can go badly. It isn’t a bad choice, but it is a risky choice.
- Another choice is to take the advice of the artist Maeril, and intervene with the victim, not the aggressor. The link will take you to a fuller description, but the gist is this: ignore the aggressor, engage the victim in a conversation. Ignore the aggressor. He is likely to then move off. (Again, if this sounds implausible, read the article and follow its links.) Psychologically, this is a less risky choice, but it still takes nerve.
- Another choice is to use our phones to call for help. Ideally there can be more than one person with a phone, so that one can call law enforcement while another records what is happening. It still requires nerve, but it is even less risky. (This assumes that law enforcement will be helpful. That is not always the case, but it is a choice to consider.)
- Another option is to create a distraction. I was taught in a self-defense class to scream “Help, fire!” if I had to flee from a rapist. People freeze in the presence of violence, but they will be more likely to call for help about a fire. Screaming and creating a disturbance is another choice for disrupting bullying, but crying “Fire!” on public transit is a bad idea. Singing loudly or banging on things might be a better choice – it might at least disrupt what’s going on.
- In some settings it may be possible to move to a distance to call for help. That’s a good option as long as the call is prompt. It isn’t really possible on moving transit.
- In any given situation, there will be other choices. The more choices I am prepared to see (besides be-a-hero/do-nothing) the more likely I am to succeed.
Which will be the best choice in a given situation? There’s no one answer to that. What we do know is that people who prepare for crises are those most likely to survive them. In Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, writer Amanda Ripley makes use of case studies from actual disasters (9/11, etc) and of psychology to seek out answers about who responds best to emergencies – who is most likely to survive. One of the simplest answers to come from her study is that people who have rehearsed a plan are most likely to survive a disaster.
In the same way, it makes sense for me, in this time of rising hate speech and crimes, to pay attention to my surroundings and to think about situations which might face me. For instance, when am I in a crowd on a regular basis? For what sort of things might I want to have a plan?
I make a habit of knowing two ways out of every space I’m in. I was once in a fire as a child, and I acquired the habit of knowing exits. Especially in a crowded place (a movie theater, grocery store, or synagogue) I spot two exits before I settle down to pay attention to anything else.
In the same way, I have a couple of plans in place for bullying situations. Plan A is to approach the person being harassed (choice #2 above.) If I don’t feel safe doing that, I plan to grab my stomach or my head and start screeching bloody murder to create a distraction (and to force someone else to call for help, if only because I can scream very loudly.) But whatever I do, I will first remind myself that I HAVE CHOICES: what’s most likely to work in this situation?
I hope I am never again in a burning building. I hope I am never witness to violent bullying. But just as I am not going to sit there and die in a fire if I can help it, I am not going to sit by mutely when someone is being bullied. I am not a hero (aging disabled women aren’t really equipped for heroism) but I am committed to a life of Torah.
What are your plans, if you see bullying?