Less than a week after the presidential election, Drake Hagner was scrolling through Facebook when she saw a post by an African American female friend who wrote that she had been followed by someone in a pickup truck yelling racial slurs. The woman said that she had traveled all over the world and never felt less safe than she did then in the United States.
Hagner, a 34-year-old legal aid lawyer in Washington, wondered what she would have done if she had seen it happening. She realized she had no idea.
She posed a question to her Facebook friends: Would they be interested in learning how to intervene if they were ever witnesses to hate speech or violence? The response was overwhelming, and by the time Hagner organized a training event for the Saturday before the presidential inauguration, more than 800 people indicated they were interested.
She had enlisted Lauren Taylor, founder of Defend Yourself, who over 20 years had trained nearly 30,000 people, including Hagner, in protecting themselves against harassment and abuse. But after the presidential election and the uptick in reports of hate crimes and harassment that followed, people for the first time expressed interest in learning how to defend others.
In the five weeks after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center compiled more than 1,000 reports of bias-related harassment or intimidation across the country. And incidents continued well after, like the woman at a J.C. Penney in Kentucky who was caught on cellphone video days before Christmas screaming at a Hispanic woman who allegedly cut in line to “go back to wherever the f— you come from, lady” while other shoppers seemingly stood by silently.
“I think people are realizing they need to step up,” Taylor said. “They want to be more proactive, and feel like they want to do something and they’re not sure what that is.”
So on this dreary, cold Saturday afternoon, three dozen people met in a small community arts space in the Washington neighborhood of Takoma, to learn the tools to be an “active bystander.”
The timing of the workshops wasn’t coincidental. People requested training to coincide with the inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington. Taylor had three others scheduled, including one with Women’s March organizers.
The Women’s March has also partnered with another group to host at least two dozen free bystander intervention trainings Friday across the Washington metro area. They are organized by Swamp Revolt, which began as a secret Facebook group after the election as a response to Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.” It’s a group largely made up of federal workers who never before saw themselves as activists but wanted to do something constructive, said Amy Ard, who created Swamp Revolt. More than 1,000 people have signed up for the Inauguration Day trainings. They’re hoping to train 2,500 to fan out across the march on Saturday.
“We have a specific emphasis on getting this kind of training in the hands of people who will be at the march the next day,” Ard said. “The goal is de-escalation. We’re not trying to engage with counter protesters, we’re helping protect targets so they know they’re not alone.”
Participants in Taylor’s training wrote down on sticky notes the reasons why they would intervene (stand up for what’s right, hope someone would do the same for me) and why they wouldn’t (fear for own safety, could make it worse). They watched Taylor act out several scenarios where she taught them, for example, that if you are engaging someone who is being hostile, to stand diagonally while talking to them, because squaring off makes them more defensive. Never label someone or their behavior with names like “racist” or “bigot.” Instead say something like, “It’s not okay to talk that way” or “Hey, that’s not cool.”
Taylor never mentioned President-elect Donald Trump by name, or even the current political climate, but when it was time to make up scenarios to role-play it was clear what inspired the crowd to give up three hours of their weekend to be there.
Sara Elsemore, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of New England in Maine and her 79-year-old grandmother, Frances Elsemore, were in Washington for the weekend visiting a relative, who took them to the training.
In one group skit, Sara Elsemore pretended to be sitting alone on the Metro when two men (in this case, played by two women) approached her. “I can grab your p—y now,” one said. “It’s legal now,” said his friend. Elsemore bowed her head and tried to ignore them, but the men were persistent. Another commuter saw what was happening, sat down next to Elsemore and began engaging her in conversation to distract her from the abuse. Meanwhile, a second person put herself between the aggressors and their victim and asked them to move because they were blocking the station map.
In this example, the participants showed two strategies for de-escalating the situation: They directly went to the target to let her know she wasn’t alone, that she had someone on her side. And they distracted the harassers by pretending they needed to see the metro routes.
“Even though it wasn’t real, it was a shocking experience. I felt uncomfortable, thinking of what would happen if it really happened to me. I feel like it could definitely happen; it’s something that is feasible,” Elsemore said after the training. “At my college there are a lot of Muslim girls and I’m always afraid something is going to happen. If something does happen now, I think I’d be able to help her out.”
Taylor told the group that in some instances it’s enough to simply show solidarity with the person being attacked. Whether that’s sitting with them, or offering to walk with them away from the situation, or pretending that they’re an old friend and striking up a conversation. She also stressed that although it can be scary to be the first bystander to act or speak up, once someone does, typically others will follow.
During the role-playing at Taylor’s training, Hagner was in a group that pretended they were at the Women’s March and a group approached them and began taunting, “Get over it, Trump won.” Hagner and two other women linked arms and started singing “Amazing Grace” to drown them out.
“I think that was another one of the myths that was busted for me. I thought you had to be incredibly courageous and direct and convince someone to stop what they are doing, but you can hold hands and sing, you can distract someone. It gives me a lot of courage,” she said. “It feels very constructive, it feels like taking something very crushing in spirit and turning it into courage and community.”
That’s exactly the sentiment Bernard Fulton, a 47-year-old father of two daughters, 11 and 8, left with. He didn’t know anyone at the training, but he had seen the event shared on Facebook and decided to go for his daughters. He said he wanted to learn skills he could pass on to his girls to teach them how to protect themselves and how to stand up for strangers.
Fulton, who plans to attend the Women’s March, said the workshop reminded him how many people are eager to do the same.
“The night of the election when my daughters went to bed that night and Trump was up, they went to bed scared and crying. It’s important for me to get their sense of security back, and I’m grateful there are people who agree and are finding strategies,” he said. “I’m heartened. As sad and scared as I was that night, I think we’re going to be all right.”
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