National News

Here's what you should (and shouldn't do) to defuse a racist tirade in public

Posted May 17, 2018 7:11 a.m. EDT

— When you watch public, racist tirades online -- like the recent one at a New York City restaurant -- it's easy to cringe from behind a screen or lob some choice words of your own.

But what if that scene unfolded right in front of you? Would you intervene if you saw people getting harassed or intimidated based on their race or religion?

"I'm not going to tell anyone it's not risky ... but I don't think staying silent is going to make anything better," said Lucy Duncan, who conducts training on bystander intervention for American Friends Service Committee.

"If they don't intervene, that kind of violence or that kind of incident becomes normalized. ... It's dangerous for people to not do something."

Whether to act is a deeply personal decision. But if you do, Duncan offers tips on how to stay safe, what not to do, and what to do after the situation is over.

What to do

First, bystanders should assess the risk by seeing how many people are nearby. It's good to make eye contact with others and gauge whether you'd have allies if intervening, Duncan said.

"If you're in a space where there's a massive response, that makes it safer," she said.

She praised the bystanders at a Manhattan Fresh Kitchen who stood up for Hispanic employees and customers after a man berated the Spanish speakers -- suggesting they're undocumented and claiming "I pay for their welfare."

"There were multiple interventions that were happening," Duncan said. "The husband of one of the women being harassed started filming him. There was one man who was quietly intervening with him an well as people trying to more assertively intervene."

All that led to an effective response before the man left. "There was a general feeling in the space that what he was doing was wrong," she said.

Other tips for standing up to racist bullies include:

-- Keeping a safe distance between yourself and the bully

-- Making eye contact with the victim to show your support, and asking if he or she would like to go somewhere else

-- Calling the police if the victims asks you to

-- Filming the event if it's OK with the victim

-- Following up with the victim after the situation is over to see if he or she needs anything else

What to avoid

Of course, there are some risks to intervening. The most tragic recent example came last year, when two good Samaritans died while standing up for two Muslim teens getting lambasted on a Portland train.

When a trio of strangers tried to calm down the suspect, all three were stabbed.

It may have been impossible for those men to have predicted the instigator would try to kill them, said Andrew J. Scott, a retired police chief and president of AJS Consulting.

"In this society, we're raised to not allow bullies to engage in racist behavior and to intervene verbally," Scott said. "Bullies tend to back down when verbally challenged."

But the Portland incident is an anomaly. In that case, the assailant appeared to be "a sociopath or a psychopath, and it's not the norm," Scott said.

He said it's important to evaluate how dangerous the instigator might be, and what your surroundings are. For example:

-- Is the perpetrator much larger than you?

-- Does he or she appear to be intoxicated or mentally unstable?

-- If things get ugly, is there an easy escape route? Or are you stuck in a confined area?

Duncan suggests not calling police for harassment cases unless the victim asks you to because it might make the situation worse for the victim. She said in some cases -- like the one at a Philadelphia Starbucks last month -- those who are mistreated actually end up getting arrested.

So what if you're too nervous or afraid to speak out? Duncan's group suggests moving closer to the person being harassed so you can communicate your support.

But whatever you do, Duncan said, don't do nothing.

"The danger is if we don't speak up for each other, the number of people being targeted is going to be expanding," she said. "And you may be one of them, too."