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How to intervene when you see street harassment: an illustrated guide

Forget safety pins. How can you really help victims of hate?

You’re walking to work when you see a man tailing a woman, muttering sexual obscenities at her as she stares straight ahead, picking up her pace. You’re on the train when someone shouts across the aisle, calling a Muslim family “terrorists.” You’re shopping when you see an employee following a black teenager with a backpack, waiting for him to swipe something.

At first, you look for some other brave witness to intervene, calling out the discriminatory or scary acts to try to put an end to them. But research shows that the more people are around, the less likely they’re going to help. So why should it be on you to do something, when no one else will?

“It's dehumanizing when you allow yourself to just go along with something you don't agree with,” Lecia Brooks, outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said. “Especially now in this season of heightened harassment, harassers and bullies often depend upon people not saying something so they can continue their reign of terror. They're depending on their loudness and garishness to keep people silent.”

We have always wanted tips on how to speak up, Brooks said, adding that SPLC’s resource on responding to everyday bigotry was first published more than a decade ago. “People are uncomfortable with people being dehumanized or being talked about in their presence,” she said.

That discomfort is likely the motivation behind the safety pin movement, which has been mocked as performative slacktivism. As my colleague Alex Abad-Santos writes, “We should all be asking what else we can do” other than wearing a pin.

Intervening in a situation like this may be uncomfortable, but when it falls on you, you can still be prepared. I spoke with both Brooks and Jason Williamson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, about approaches you can take as a bystander of harassment. You can use the following strategies to help others, though many of them are also applicable if you are the one being victimized.

Assess, record, and report the situation

An illustration of a hand filming an incident of harassment with a smartphone. Brittany Holloway-Brown

Before you do anything, assess your surroundings. Are you in a crowded area? Are you in an area with a cellular connection so you can call emergency services if necessary? Is the aggressor calm or agitated? Are they being only verbally abusive, or is there a threat of physical violence, too? You’ll be more helpful to victims in a physically dangerous situation if you can get to a safe space and alert authorities, but there are other things you can do if the situation isn’t as physically risky.

One of the most accessible ways to help can be documenting what’s happening with your phone, whether it’s through audio or video. “Oftentimes it's very difficult to prove these allegations [of harassment], but it helps to have evidence,” Brooks said.

For example, a woman recorded her neighbor telling her to leave public property and grabbing at her cellphone this past July in Miami; the recording led to the neighbor’s arrest. And Delta gave a Trump supporter a lifetime flying ban from the airline after a video of him clapping and yelling at passengers, “We got some Hillary bitches on here?” went viral.

An illustration of a woman reporting an incident to 911. Brittany Holloway-Brown

After recording, report the incident to the police, Brooks said. I asked her about the numerous incidents in which police have escalated conflicts to violence beyond reason and the resulting erosion of trust in policing. What if you’re uncomfortable calling the police for fear of escalation and increased harm to any of the people involved?

In those cases, Brooks suggested calling the police after the incident passes. “That way, you don't have to bring a police officer to the scene,” Brooks said. But she insists that the events have to be reported to the police. “Hate incidents of harassment foretell hate crimes to come. Law enforcement needs to be aware of it so that community members who are targeted can have hard data.”

In the event that you’re hesitant to intervene, the very least you can do is report the incident.

An illustration of reporting an incident to an advocacy group online. Brittany Holloway-Brown

After you tell police, you can also let local advocacy groups know. For example, the SPLC has a form that helps it keep tabs on hateful intimidation and harassment.

Other ways to help deescalate harassment

It’s not possible to anticipate every type of harassment, but here are a few ways to intervene in common harassment situations.

Distract with the “fake friend” tactic

An illustration of a woman pretending to be the friend of another woman who is being harassed. Brittany Holloway-Brown

A popular comic by an illustrator who goes by Mae suggests you should pretend to be a person’s friend if they’re being harassed in public. Ignore the harasser and talk about any random subject — the weather, movies, current events — until the harasser leaves or you can escort the victim safely somewhere else.

An illustration of a man distracting an aggressor from street harassing a woman. Brittany Holloway-Brown

If you’re concerned that the victim could perceive you as an alternative threat, try distracting the aggressor. Depending on the severity of the situation, you can interrupt the aggressor’s attacks by engaging them in random conversation, like asking for directions and insisting on more specifics until the victim can get away.

If you feel safe enough, you can also be direct, like giving the aggressor a disapproving glance, which can be surprisingly more effective than you might think. “It's typically enough to indicate one's disapproval,” Brooks said. Or tell them, “I think it’s wrong to treat others this way,” or “I find that language very offensive.” Remember to stay calm, keep your distance from the victim, and use nonthreatening words and body language to de-escalate the situation.

Customer service

An illustration of a store clerk following a black teen with a backpack. Brittany Holloway-Brown

If you witness discriminatory customer service — for example, refusal of service or following customers around a store — confront the employee directly. You can make a big show of canceling any store credit cards or telling the store managers that they’ve lost your business, telling them your reasons loud enough for other customers to hear. Move higher up the chain, from the managers up to the owners and the corporate levels. And if there’s a formal complaint procedure, use it.

How to deal with police harassment

An illustration of a person recording a police officer frisking a man. Brittany Holloway-Brown

The number one rule of dealing with the police? Don’t get in their way. “It’s important to remember that the primary thing that you don't want to do is obstruct whatever it is the police are trying to do, which, of course, can be tempting if you are watching something that you think is completely outrageous,” said Williamson of the ACLU.

Both victims and bystanders of police harassment should remain abundantly cautious. “Just because [you] may be following the law doesn’t mean the police will be following the law. It doesn’t mean [you] won’t get arrested,” Williamson said. He added that there’s no guarantee bystanders will escape witnessing a hateful encounter unscathed.

If you decide to record the encounter, make sure you are out of the way. “You just want to make sure that you are close enough to get a good sense of what’s happening, but far enough so that you are not jeopardizing yourself and the footage,” Williamson said.

And, if the police stop you for any reason, then the best bet is to not tell them anything, beyond the most minimal of information. “There are some states where you are required to at least provide the police with your name and address if they ask for it. So if the police stop you, and you’re in a state where you’re required to provide your name and address, then you should provide it. And that is basically where it should stop in terms of communication with the police,” Williamson said.

An illustration of a hand taking down notes. Brittany Holloway-Brown

After the encounter is over, you should write down as much as you can if you’re in the position to do so, Williamson advised. It’s information that you need to share with your attorney if you do get arrested, and if you’re not arrested, you’ll want to have the most contemporaneous documentation to file a complaint or share with media.

We have agency. Speaking up is our responsibility.

Since the election of Donald Trump, a number of high-profile hate incidents have been reported, including rants at Michael’s, white students yelling “build the wall” at Latino students, and text messages threatening lynching directed at black students. Although we don’t know for sure whether these incidents represent a rise in hate crimes or whether they’re just being reported more frequently, the reports indicate that some harassers are using Trump’s name and campaign messaging in their attacks.

It’s obvious how hurtful and diminishing these attacks are to their victims. But they’re discouraging for bystanders and witnesses, too. “It's disempowering for me to see something that I know is wrong and not say something and not indicate my disapproval for it,” Brooks said. “It's important to rely on your own agency to be able to say, ‘No, this is wrong.’”

A smaller percentage of the reported hate episodes have escalated to physical violence, but Brooks reminds us take the long view.

“The US Holocaust Museum put out a beautiful statement about how the Holocaust and the extermination of Jews and Gypsies and all these people started with words and not with actions,” Brooks said. “Hate, discrimination — all of that exists on a continuum.”