They were on a bus when one woman angrily confronted another. I saw you drop something, the first woman told the other in a seeming bout of irrational harassment.
A passenger leaped to the targeted woman’s defense. “Is that a big deal?” the bystander asked. “Why don’t we just clean it up?”
That just seemed to make the harasser angrier. “I see this with people like you all the time,” she said, her gaze still fixed on her target.
Trying to intervene in such a situation can be tricky, as illustrated by this role-playing exercise in a workshop Monday at Garfield High School for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The woman excellently playing a harasser effused self-righteousness, presenter the Rev. Andrew Conley-Holcom pointed out. When challenged, such a person will often lean in and the situation will escalate.
“Let’s try it again,” he said.
The workshop was one of some two dozen at Garfield during a full day of activities around the Seattle metro area to commemorate the legacy of the civil-rights leader and encourage people to follow suit. In the morning, Garfield also hosted an opportunity fair, offering booths to meet employers and get resume help, free of charge. Hundreds then turned out for a rally in the school gymnasium, which paid tribute to former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, a civil-rights leader in his own right. In the afternoon, people marched to City Hall.
In these rancorous times, when hate crimes have dramatically increased, many are wondering what they can do about it. Conley-Holcom, pastor at Admiral Congregational United Church of Christ, said he developed the bystander-intervention workshop a few years ago at the request of his congregation, disturbed by the animosity around the last presidential election.
To prepare, he sat in on other workshops and came away disappointed. There was a lot of telling people exactly how they should act — confrontational approaches like holding your hand up in somebody’s face and staring them down. “I thought it could get you killed,” Conley-Holcom said.
Instead, he said, he wants people to realize they will respond differently based on who they are and how they manage stressful situations. He offered guidelines, however, with the importance of deescalation as a key point.
The role-playing continued, with those watching voicing their views on whether the strategies employed paid off. Particularly effective, many agreed, was when a “passenger” created a distraction by inviting the targeted person to sit near her and started a conversation. Also winning approval: another passenger’s decision to move close to the harasser and put her arm up, as if holding a strap on the bus. Her physicality, while non-confrontational, offered a partial shield.
Two passengers, in another go-round, chose to leave. The bus driver had taken control of the situation, and it seemed like they weren’t needed, they explained. “I want to affirm that,” Conley-Holcom said. “It’s easy to say you guys opted out,” he said, but it’s important to remember what is needed in the moment.
Afterwards, Hafsah Math, a 20-year-old University of Washington student, said the workshop had been helpful. This is not a theoretical exercise for Math, who wears a hijab. She has been harassed herself, including one time a fellow student implied she was a terrorist, and another when she was aggressively questioned on the bus about being Muslim. She said she was thankful that people have always intervened on her behalf. For example, when she was being questioned on the bus, another person noted all the answers her interrogator had demanded and asked him “Did you say thank you?”
In considering how she would intervene herself, Math said she realized it’s OK to stop and think about what to do rather than just jump in. She has a hot temper, she noted, and could make things worse.
And then there was her own potential status as a target, given her hijab. “I need to be self-aware,” she said, “and make sure I’m safe as well.”