In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment in Queens. While this murderous act was taking place, a few dozen bystanders gathered around and no one called the police. No one intervened. 37 people just stood there in shock while someone’s life was taken. Shortly after this murder was reported on, a few sociologists decided to look into why so many people failed to intervene, or at least contact the police. They wanted to know how something like this could happen with so many people watching? Their research resulted in the discovery of a common sociological pattern, known as the bystander effect, where people get stuck in a kind of collective paralysis when encountering something way outside the realm of their daily experience. This discovery resulted in changes to how people get trained when encountering medical emergencies, violent crimes, and natural disasters. That’s why citizens who are trained first responders will now ask specific people to do specific tasks, like call 911, when they act during crisis situations.
Since the election of Trump, there has been a marked increase in hate speech and hate crimes all across the US. With this increase, many people have expressed a desire to stand with people of color who are being targeted (e.g. the safety pin movement), but don’t know how to actively intervene so they quickly fall victim to the bystander effect. This is why bystander intervention trainings are so crucial in today’s political climate. If people aren’t practicing the tools needed to act in crisis situations, then it will be incredibly difficult to act when a hate crime is actually taking place.
Think of the lunch counter sit-in’s of the 60’s. Long before a group of black college students sat down at the Woolworth’s “whites only” lunch counter, they were in a nearby church doing a series of role-play activities meant to mimic what could happen during the actual sit-in. In a safe environment, allies were instructed to yell at, dump liquids on, and gently kick the students all in an effort to prepare the students so they could remain steadfast in their commitment to non-retaliation. This same kind of training and commitment is required of anyone looking to intervene as a bystander. It is important for folks looking to intervene to understand how their actions can affect the person of color. What happens to the person of color if the bystander who is “trying” to help ends up in a shouting match with the aggressor? Hopefully through solid training, the bystander has the tools necessary to responsibly support the person of color being targeted while employing de-escalation tactics that diffuse the situation.
Imagine what kind of effect it could have on society if people in every city hosted bystander intervention trainings. Imagine what kind of effect it could have on society if people moved beyond the passive solidarity of the safety pin, and into the active showing of solidarity through bystander intervention. Imagine what kinds of violent acts could be prevented if people everywhere didn’t succumb to the bystander effect. Although bystander intervention won’t undo systems of racism and oppression, it does show people of color who fall victim to racist attacks that other folks are willing to put some skin in the game, and that is a positive step.
For more information on the do’s and don’ts of bystander intervention, watch this short video produced by SURJ.
Written by Nick Pickrell, SURJ-KC