You are in a public place, say the line at Walmart or gathered at a bus stop. A voice begins, first at a normal level and then suddenly ramping up, demanding that all around hear the message. “You don’t belong here! Get out of our country. We don’t want your kind in the U. S. Go on, leave, right now!” Then you see them. The “true patriot” is yelling at a veiled woman with children, or an old man wearing a Pakistani Kurta shirt, or two dark skinned women, heads together, talking softly in Spanish. What to do? Should you intervene at all? If you do, what action do you take, what do you say? And who do you say it to – the crowd, the targets of the attack, the attacker?
In the last two years, and especially since the November 2016 election, sources such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the U. S. Department of Justice are reporting climbing numbers of acts of hatred especially against Muslims and Latin Americans. These, of course, are in addition to the “normal” number of verbal and physical attacks against Black and Native Americans. The attacks are happening in both the North and the South, in urban, suburban and rural areas. So the probability is increasing that you will see one of these racist attacks. What should you do?
The consensus of the experts and the experienced suggests three principles:
1. Take care of the people being attacked first. Get them out of physical and psychological danger and pain.
2. If the people you are aiding give you permission, call for assistance from the closest authority figure.
3. Do not communicate directly with the attacker, but do make a statement.
First, take care of the people who are the objects of an attack. This might mean getting physically between the victim and the person delivering a racist tirade. Talk softly and give comfort to the victim. Ignore the verbal attacks. Turn your side, but not your back, to the attacker. This will likely have the effect of stopping the racist ranting based on a psychological technique called “non-complementary behavior,” which means that you adopt the absolute opposite behavior of the other. You do opt not to play his or her game. In fact, you ignore her and give your attention to the person she is attempting to isolate. It takes two to fight; don’t fight. Rather, ignore the racist bully and call for assistance from bystanders, “Will you two women (looking at them) come over here and care of our sister, please, now.” You now are inviting people to attend to the situation and to take action, action to thwart the attack. If there are no bystanders willing to help, stay with the victims, talk calmly with them. Lead them away from the confrontation. The attacker may follow. This can be scary. There is a risk. Is it worth it?
If this action requires that you leave your order of groceries at the checkout stand, don’t worry. The store will either save your order or will put it in the “go back” basket where courtesy clerks will put the items back on the shelf. You may suffer some inconvenience because you will have to shop again for the same items. Ask yourself if the inconvenience is worth it, and if yourself does not answer yes, scold that self.
The second step, calling the authorities, is conditional. It is imperative to obtain the permission of the people you are supporting before getting police or other authorities involved. The reasons for not wishing to get police assistance can range from previous negative experience with police to concerns about immigration status. Once you get permission, the call to authorities can take many forms. It might mean asking people with cell phones to call 911 if the situation is close to violence. It might mean asking a specific personto contact the bus driver (“Young man with the red jacket there, will you please tell the driver to come back here?”) or call the store manager. Asking bystanders to record the incident on their smart phones is an indirect call for assistance. The attacker may realize how embarrassing the situation will turn out for her/him. When an attacker sees that authority will not support him, but will ask him to cease his behavior, the attack is likely to stop. But there are no guarantees. Intervening is a risk. Will you take it?
Take the third step when, and only when, the person or people who were attacked are safe, both physically and emotionally. Do not risk their welfare for the sake of making a heroic speech in the canned food aisle.
The third step is to make a statement to the bystanders, not to the attacker, about the attacker’s behavior. Such a statement must come from your convictions. And it is worth thinking about it in advance so that if necessary you can deliver it under pressure. For example:
“Those two women she was yelling at about being here illegally are here on visas. I asked them just now. The kind of language she was using is the kind of language that Hitler would be proud of. It not acceptable to me as an American to have human beings degraded and frightened this way.” If you have a religious or ethical conviction about practicing love of neighbor, feel free to share it.
Do all this without looking at the attacker, pointing at him, touching him, or making any comments about his politics or associations. Refer only to the actions which everyone around has just observed.
This last step may be the most difficult, but in a way it is the most important. Racists must get the message that they do not have unanimous support. They must learn that their way of treating people is not acceptable in public. That lesson will only be learned if someone tells them. And the neutrals, the people who are oblivious to the suffering that racism causes, who don’t want to get involved, they need to be awakened. You and I are the ones who will teach this lesson, first by our actions, and then by our words.
Are you in?