© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Influence Of Bystanders When Someone Is Getting Assaulted Or Harassed


Police have arrested a suspect in an anti-Asian attack in New York that was documented on surveillance video. The footage shows a man kicking and stomping on a 65-year-old woman who was walking in broad daylight past an apartment building. And the video also shows someone in the lobby of the building looking but doing nothing as the attack unfolded. The building's management says it has suspended staff who witnessed the attack pending further investigation. And we're going to talk now with two people who've been thinking about the role of bystanders when someone is getting assaulted or harassed. Marita Etcubanez is with the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, AAJC, and Dax Valdes is with the group Hollaback! They've teamed up to offer something called Bystander Intervention Training. And I'm glad to have you both here.


DAX VALDES: Hello. Thank you for having us.

MARITA ETCUBANEZ: Hello, and thank you.

SHAPIRO: We don't yet know the full circumstances of the bystanders in the video of this attack, but what went through your minds when you first saw that footage?

ETCUBANEZ: This is Marita. I'll go first. I mean, I think like so many, I was absolutely horrified. But unfortunately - and this is also horrible but not surprised, right? - we have been operating in this environment where the Asian American community has been experiencing heightened anxiety and fear over the last - more than the last year because of the increased harassment and discrimination that we've been facing connected with the COVID-19 pandemic. And, you know, recent events have just ramped things up. So it's a really rough time that we're in right now.

SHAPIRO: Dax, do you want to speak to what you thought when you saw the bystander in that video?

VALDES: You know, in our trainings, we always emphasize that we want the bystander to prioritize their safety. And as you had mentioned earlier, we don't know the full story from the bystanders who were present. But I think the heartbreaking thing for me was seeing the door close.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about what you teach in these sessions. Dax, part of the training focuses on why bystanders don't act. How important is that part of the conversation?

VALDES: It's a huge part of the conversation because there are a number of reasons why we would not act when we see harassment happening because maybe it is fear for our own physical safety, or maybe you share the same identity as the person who's experiencing that conflict. But our tools are designed to help overcome all of that. So there are things that we can do. So maybe you don't feel comfortable directly intervening, but you could use another tactic like delegate and ask somebody else to help. Maybe it is somebody who presents as physically bigger who could step in and intervene on your behalf.

ETCUBANEZ: You know, if you're on public transit, it could be the bus driver or transit security, but enlist others to help out.

SHAPIRO: In so many cases, I think people are afraid that if they intervene, they might themselves become victimized. There was this horrible case in Portland, Ore., a few years ago where a couple men who tried to protect women from racial harassment were themselves stabbed to death. So what do you tell people about addressing that fear?

VALDES: Again, we always want people to prioritize their safety. And if nothing feels right, then, you know, there are four other strategies besides directly intervening. And then if the situation does escalate into physical violence or if medical attention is needed, then yes, we recommend that people call the proper authorities to help deal with that situation.

SHAPIRO: So you're really not urging people to be superheroes and jump in the way. You're giving them a lot of options that are somewhere between that and pretend it isn't happening.

ETCUBANEZ: Absolutely. Absolutely.


ETCUBANEZ: We are not talking about, you know, strapping your own cape on and physically intervening in every situation. But we hope that there will be a tactic that you would feel comfortable deploying in most situations after doing the assessment for your own safety and whether it feels right to intervene.

SHAPIRO: Give us another one. What's another strategy that you recommend?

VALDES: So you could use a tactic like distract and you could maybe walk by the people who are experiencing the conflict and you could pretend to be clumsy and drop a bottle of water or drop a cup of coffee. Everybody's going to back up because they don't want to get wet. Or you could pretend you know the person who's experiencing the conflict, walk up to them - oh, my goodness. I'm so sorry I'm late. We got to go. Who's this? OK, thanks. Or, you know, ask them for directions. You don't have to talk about or refer to the harassment. You're just creating that safe space around them.

SHAPIRO: So you've been collaborating for a year now and thousands of people have gone through these trainings. Tell us about, like, who's participating and what the response has been.

ETCUBANEZ: We have been, frankly, overwhelmed by the response, especially in recent weeks. As we have been adding new training dates in response to the demand, they keep filling up, even though we have boosted our capacity to manage thousands of people in each training session. So to me, it really signifies that people are eager to learn what they can do and to feel empowered so that they could act should they need to.

SHAPIRO: How long do you expect this to go on? I mean, what's the plan for the next steps?

VALDES: We'll make ourselves available until hopefully this does not happen anymore. But as the vaccinations roll out and the mask mandates perhaps roll back as we go out into the real world, we're going to have to learn how to readjust to each other in public space. So, again, these are going to be good strategies to have in our back pockets.

SHAPIRO: Dax Valdes of Hollaback! and Marita Etcubanez of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, AAJC, thank you both.

ETCUBANEZ: Thank you very much.

VALDES: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And their free bystander intervention trainings are being held online. You can check out Hollaback's website for more information. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.