Active Bystander


Recently, I’ve undergone a bunch of active bystander training and it’s fundamentally changed how I move through the world. Part of this is coming from re-certifying for CPR & first aid, part of this is because Lauren now teaches classes classes about the subject.

In case you didn’t know, an active bystander is defined as ‘someone who not only witnesses a situation, but takes steps to speak up or step in to keep a situation from escalating or to disrupt a problematic situation.’

The basic model is, if you notice a ‘situation’ that is wrong, or might be wrong/dangerous (harassment, dangerous behavior, discrimination, et al) you asses to see and offer what kind of help -if any- might be appropriate and safe. This ‘help’ can range from changing body position to stand along someone, to using humor, to saying ‘I don’t like what you’re doing,’ to offering to summon police/authority. For me, the most important aspect of this is not that I’m necessarily going to ‘solve’ things, but that I am more actively combatting my human biases of defused responsibility, that I am not -via silence/inaction- implying that I/society is supportive of shitty, unsafe behavior. It is training to act, to use what tools I have to try and have improved outcomes for everyone which is forever tempered by the fact that I’m not world police and I often don’t know what’s going on if is ok. But my judgement about when and how I can best help improves with practice.

There’s a pretty good summary of the active bystander concept (as well as information about the tools/techniques used) here but I wanted to discuss some examples of what this has looked like/felt like in my life.

  1. Domestic Dispute while Out with My Daughter

Some months back, I was walking with my daughter home from the park, and while a man was getting in his car a woman was marching away down a nearby alley, flipped him off, and yelled something about him being a bitch. The man jumped out of his car, leaving open his door & keys in the ignition, and ran down the alley after the woman.

I was genuinely concerned there was about to be a fight/beating. I felt like I needed to intervene or at least be ready to. But I was also concerned somewhat about blowback (and slightly more vulnerable with daughter in tow) though I figured I could be reasonably safe staying half a block away with the ability to run back to the park where there were lots of people. I jogged over to the entrance of the alley, they were further down, with her back to a wall him in front of her. I got out my phone (in case I needed to call the police) and I began contextualizing to my daughter doing so deliberately loud enough for them to hear saying, ‘Well, we’re checking on our neighbors. Because sometimes neighbors yell and use mean words and that’s not nice but sometimes neighbors do it anyway. But sometimes neighbors hit and that’s not ok and if they do that we need to call the police for help.’ They heard me, the yelling stopped/tone changed; they started walking back towards their car and I left with Ellie.

  1. Acquaintance Made to Feel Unsafe at a Festival

While dancing at a festival a little over a month ago, an acquaintance came up to Lauren and I. She seemed nervous and definitely wanted to be with us. After some confusing conversation, we understood that a guy had been following her/hitting on her after she’d declined. We linked arms with her to walk her back to her camp, asked her to point him out to us (he was nowhere in sight). We ended up walking with her, reassuring her that we -and anyone in our camp who she knew- was always available to help/talk if she ever felt unsafe/nervous. She kept dismissing her concern using phrases like, ‘I’m sure she was nice…’ which we gently disagreed, tried to help her feel justified in her instincts. We got her back to our camp/her friends, suggested that she report her experience.

This one was ‘easier’ for me since mostly Lauren took lead and I followed, provided extra support.

  1. Antagonistic Drunk at a Party

This is the one I probably handled most poorly; it was also the one where I was least sober and felt the least supported (not knowing most of the party and happening after most of those I did know had left) but that I should have disengaged sooner (as opposed to trying to keep engaged/talking till I was incapable of doing so) and gone for help from authority.

A little over a month ago, I met an antagonistic drunk at a party. My first interaction with him was him claiming to have been pissing on the lawn when the cops showed up, which seemed disrespectful to our host. When he mentioned that he had done so because of the bathroom line I attempted to use the humor of ‘that was the perfect time to practice your kegels.’

Later, I ran into him while he was stumbling drunk arguing with some people in a tent about wanting to come in. Eventually, they relented but he was too intoxicated to find the entrance. I figured I would talk to him to get a better read/distract him.

If I had known him/known more of the party guests; I would have mentioned to his clique that they needed to ‘take care of their guy.’ My read on him was that he was looking for ‘trouble;’ the type of which would vary depending on who he interacted with. The trouble he seemed to want to make with me was to see if he could push my buttons/potentially start a fight; although I’m relatively hard to instigate. I slipped into a ‘don’t escalate’ mode, and ignored various provocations from language (always couched in plausible deniability a frame where he didn’t ‘mean’ what he was saying) to him ‘playfully’ grabbing me/stumbling into my space. I kept myself turned kitty cornered, not facing him or facing away and just kept him talking (since I didn’t fear for my saftey around him but suspected others might).

The conversation was bizarre. He said that he admired and tried to emulate Loki, that he was a shit stirrer. A friend of his joined the conversation and he ‘playfully’ grabbed her as part of a story he was telling (small of her back and hand over her mouth) which I didn’t think was ok (I later apologized to the friend for not speaking up but I didn’t know their relationship and was overly stuck in a ‘don’t escalate mode’ and so forgot a bunch of my tools). At one point he drew a knife he kept at his back and slashed around with it in a pantomime to illustrate his point; I told him he needed to keep his knife sheathed in that particular male command voice I have. He claimed he had seen me with a knife which I had never had. Sometime he acted like we were great friends (talking about his sadness about his estrangement to his daughter who was suffering from drug abuse).

Eventually, while talking about how he loathed his father’s racism and how that had been communicated to his daughter, he asked, ‘Does your daughter love any niggers yet?’ I felt that flash of rage; I wanted to pick him up, drop him on his head, and stamp on his groin till I’d crushed his testes like grapes. Every once in a while white men feel comfortable expressing the most racist sentiments to me and or using the most racist language; they never assume that my wife and daughter and much of my family are multi-racial (I’m sure he didn’t). While I’m hard to instigate, I should well bear in mind that my triggers are any perceived attacks or disrespect of my family. I needed to either hurt him, or leave; so I left. The next day I reported my concerns/experiences to the party organizers. I still wonder sometimes if I fundamentally failed my family by not breaking his face or at least ripping him a new one verbally (which is why I’m grateful I disengaged when I did, otherwise he probably would have gotten the fight I think he wanted).

  1. Domestic Dispute while Out Walking the Dog

Two weeks back while I was out at night walking my dog, I watched a man and a woman yelling at one another in a car across the street (I’m fairly certain it wasn’t the same couple). The man was yelling that she ‘needed to get out of his car’ and I couldn’t hear what she said back (though the tone was antagonistic). This time, I took out my phone, stepped under a street light so I’d be very visible, and just stood watching from across the street.

After some minutes, the man noticed me and the entire tenor of the exchange shifted. He got quieter, mentioned something about me watching and within a minute he’d gotten in the driver’s seat and they’d driven away. I waved to them as they did.

It’s possible I’d made the situation worse, if it truly was his car then he certainly has a right to tell someone to get out of it; but I didn’t say or really do anything beyond merely being present and it seemed to deflate what seemed to be escalating tension.

  1. Car Accident on the Way Home

While driving home, I watched a car accident three cars up which brought me and most of the motorists around me to a stop. Car in front pulled forward to get off the highway, car behind stayed where it was (in maybe the third lane). I watched an older man get out and he seemed disoriented and he began to circle to car, making no effort to get himself or his vehicle off the highway. My concern was him being struck and /or his car causing another accident. I pulled to the side of the road, and got through the few lanes of traffic.

Upon reaching him I asked if he was hurt (he wasn’t) and if he needed help (he did). His English wasn’t the best, and either due to his age or the shock of the accident he seemed confused, unsure. I laid out the plan, we were going to get him and his car to the side of the road, was it driveable? No. Ok, so I told him I’d push and he’d steer. He seemed not to know how to operate a car without power steering and his windows were filled with deflated airbags so I’m sure his visibility wasn’t the best. It took some minutes (and several attempts) to push the car to the side of the road as he wouldn’t crank his wheel/properly use his parking brake (meaning that I often had to catch his car one handed while gesticulating wildly because he hadn’t set the parking brake).

Eventually, we got him and the car to the side I advised him to call the police. He didn’t have a phone, so I recommended he go talk to the driver he had struck (who had pulled to the side of the highway ahead).

Listing all of these, and realizing that 4 of these have happened in the last month a half, it feels like a lot. That said, I’m actually confident that I live, work, and play in  incredibly safe communities, by and large I live an incredibly safe life. What I’ve come to suspect is these sorts of things are happening all the time; everyday I see situations where assistance/help is potentially called for. Whether I choose to notice or not is an entirely different issue. For me, the thing about being an active bystander means training myself to notice, equipping myself with tools beyond ‘call 911’ or ‘punch a guy’ (which are great tools, but there’s all kinds of situations that my assistance, intervention, or even just attention might be urgently needed but not at the level of emergency). This is especially important since my various privileges mean I don’t have to notice and certainly don’t have to get involved.

And so, I want to practice doing a better job noticing, a better job making myself available to render appropriate aid. I want to be a better, more active bystander.

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