Last week the Justice Committees of the SCNs and Louisville Ursulines offered Bystander Training to the women religious and associates in the Louisville area. The training was created by SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) because of the increased violence and hatred endured by people of color, including African Americans, Hispanics and Muslims. This violence has occurred in word and action in stores, on the street and other places. The trainers provided strategies in attempting to de-escalate the violence if one encounters it. The two hours included lecture, films and small group discussions.
The two trainers began with teaching certain basic values in any situation of aggression: 1) Assess your own safety first and keep yourself and those around you safe. 2) Be aware of the stakes involved. Each person is the best judge of her own tolerance level depending on many factors in her experience. 3) Keep your body calm and project calm even if you aren’t feeling calm. Deep breathing can help this. If you project anger, you can escalate the violence.
A very important point that was stressed is that your attention is focused on the person being harassed in word or deed and not on the aggressor. The trainers suggested a number of ways of doing this. If you are present when it happens, make eye contact with the targeted person and move beside the one receiving the verbal assault. You might validate her by saying, “You do not deserve this. I’m sorry. Can I help you? May I walk with you?” Be respectful and do not assume that the person wants support. Do not touch the person as he/she may have been assaulted in the past and it is not legal.
The usual pattern in these incidents is that the white person freezes and does nothing. If you feel comfortable addressing the aggressor, there were several suggestions. Distract the group by dropping something to break the tension. Involve others around by calling out something as others who disagree likely will join you. It could be something like, “We respect you. We welcome you.” Finally, if you are comfortable, you can directly confront the aggressor and draw attention away from the person being targeted by saying something like, “This is not how we behave in public.” Again, in all cases, remember your own safety.
If your state allows the recording of the incident with pictures, as Kentucky does, and if you feel safe, you can record it with a picture of the aggressor or a recording if the person is shouting.
Above all, do not call the police unless the person attacked asks you to. This is request of people of color because they often experience having their rights and safety impacted by over policing. This is the position of SURJ and movements working with the most vulnerable communities around the country.