'Don't Do Nothing': Milwaukeeans Learn to Look Out for One Another

Sep 19, 2017

If you were to witness someone being harassed would you know what to do? A group of Milwaukeeans is teaching people how to step in and calm potentially violent situations. 

Bystander intervention training is designed to build confidence so more people feel comfortable confronting racism, homophobia, and other kinds of harassment.

Race and Ethnicity Reporter Aisha Turner sat in on one of these trainings.

On a Friday night at the Riverwest Public House, facilitator Stephanie Roades gathers about 15 people for class: “We're gonna start with a basic warm up.”

She claps her hand against her thigh, then the next person adds to the rhythm, and this goes around until everyone is contributing.

She explains, “The silence we observed at the beginning is the status quo and any one of us can interrupt that with an individual action and together we can make a bigger interruption.”

The class is a bystander intervention training. It’s being hosted by a group called SURJ, or Standing Up for Racial Justice.

Another facilitator, Santera Michels, explains that the goal is to help people step in and calm situations of racism, sexism, homophobia -- really any kind of violence or harassment.

Handouts allow bystander intervention trainees to take their lessons home with them.
Credit Aisha Turner

But she warns, “It's not the answer to ending white supremacy, xenophobia, anti-Muslim hate, Islamophobia, transphobia... it's not the answer to that. But it's a piece of how to interrupt violence when it's happening.”

There are four “D’s” of bystander intervention:

  • Intervene directly
  • Distract attention away from the situation
  • Delegate tasks to others nearby
  • Delay - observe the situation until you know what should be done

The group practices the second “D” -- distract -- by splitting up and starting a conversation with a partner. People begin introducing themselves; they talk about what they do for a living and brought them here tonight.

Facilitators float around, occasionally touching people on the shoulder. When you get tapped you’re supposed to yell.


And yell anything...


The point is to become comfortable drawing attention. This could be used to distract a perpetrator and stop an attack.

People discuss different ways to intervene when they see harassment.
Credit Aisha Turner

Different situations call for different responses. Sometimes it’s helpful to yell; but other times it’s better to just go up to someone and say, “Hey! Do I know you?” Quiet interjections can help de-escalate a tense moment, too.

One big “don’t” for the group? They say don’t call the police right away.

“We know that that actually can even incite even more violence or it can escalate a situation,” Michels notes. Police can sometimes be a threatening force within black and immigrant, or queer and trans, communities.

“But then again,” she adds, “there might be situations where the person being harassed does want you to call the police. Your role then becomes as a cop watcher within the situation.”

During a smoke break, Bonnie Bruski tells me this is her second time coming to a training. Her teenage sons have a diverse friend group; she wishes they could be here. “I really want them to think through when they make certain choices - what might be acceptable for you as a white middle class kid in Milwaukee is not exactly what your friends are exactly gonna face,” she says.

Bruski wants her sons to be unafraid to act when something’s wrong. Because the primary tenant of bystander intervention is a fifth “D” -- and that is “Don’t do nothing.”

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Support for Race & Ethnicity Reporting provided by the Dohmen Company.