Bystander training focuses on countering hate with solidarity

Attendees participate in a hassle line at a bystander intervention training run by CAIR-WA on Jan. 13, 2018. (Photo by CAIR-Washington.)

In a meeting room, two lines of people stand facing one another. For a period of minutes, one side of people hurl insults, vitriol and abusive words at the people standing opposite. The people in the other line listen, but do not engage.

Then, the people switch roles.

The hassle line is one exercise that puts into practice the training and principles taught during bystander intervention training.

Later this month, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Washington State (CAIR-WA) and Densho, a nonprofit centered around action for equity, will partner on a training session that with the goal to provide people with techniques to de-escalate verbal harassment.

The hassle line allows the people being antagonized to practice not engaging with the attacker. Civil Rights protestors in the 1960s used this method to train for the expected blowback against lunch counter protests in the American South.

“We do a lot of debriefing around that,” said Sarah Stuteville, media and outreach director for CAIR-WA. “What was that like? How did you deal with your fight-or-flight response? What are some strategies?”

CAIR is America’s largest Islamic civil liberties group, dedicated to the empowerment of American Muslims and the protection of civil rights. Densho is centered around the mission of inspiring action for equity and the preservation of testimonies of Japanese-Americans incarcerated in internment camps during World War II.

This training is being held at the Nisei Veterans Memorial Hall in Seattle on Feb. 19. That’s the Day of Remembrance, the date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed for the internment and removal of Japanese-Americans in 1942.

“We see this bystander training as a way to be better allies to the Muslim community, as well as other racial, ethnic and religious minorities,” said Tom Ikeda, executive director of Densho.

For the past two years, Densho has used the Day of Remembrance to focus on this connected history between the modern persecution of American Muslims and the historic oppression of Japanese-Americans, according to Nina Wallace, Densho’s communications coordinator. The 75 anniversary of the executive order was in 2017.

This year, Densho reached out to CAIR-WA to conduct a bystander intervention training in order to move their partnership from conversation to action, Wallace said.

“We’ve done a lot to forge meaningful dialogues with our Muslim neighbors, who are being targeted in similar ways that our community was in the 1940s,” Ikeda said.

Michele Storms, Khizr Khan and Tom Ikeda speaking at the 2018 Day of Remembrance event. Feb. 19, 2018 at the Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion. (Photo by Kayla Isomura.)

The FBI reported a 17 percent increase in reported hate crimes in 2017 from the previous year, according to BBC. Muslims were the target of 18.7 percent of religiously-motivated hate crimes, dropping 6 percent from 2016. The 2017 increase most heavily impacted black and Jewish-Americans.

CAIR-WA started conducting the bystander intervention trainings due to an increased number of complaints from people who experienced harassment and hate in public but were not assisted by surrounding bystanders, Stuteville said. When the first training received a large turnout and began drawing in requests from other organizations, CAIR-WA quickly increased the amount of trainings offered every year.

“It’s kind of heartening to see in a time when there are increased hate crimes and hate incidents in Seattle, Washington state and around the country,” Stuteville said. “When we hear about people not intervening, I know that it often feels like it’s because people don’t care, but I’ve found it heartening that so many people in fact are saying that we just don’t know what to do.”

The trainings are intended to give people the tools to feel confident intervening in the face of harassment, with the tools to both de-escalate the harassment itself and to stand in solidarity with the target of the encounter, she said.

The two-hour training focuses first on establishing the principles of nonviolence, and then on the importance of being there for the target rather than to confront the attacker.

“The most important role that you have as a bystander is to be there, in solidarity, with the target of harassment,” she said. “That means always thinking of them not as a victim, but as a target of harassment, and yourself not as a savior, but as someone who is there to try and help.”

The strategies for doing this are to go up to the target, acknowledge the situation and ask if they want help, she said. If they do, bystanders are encouraged to provide suggestions for leaving the situation and ignoring the harassment. Additionally, participants are trained in how to engage the help of other bystanders, when and how to engage the authorities and when and why they may or may not call the police.

CAIR-WA then breaks participants into smaller groups to role-play using real-life scenarios from incidents reported to their office, Stuteville said.

This partnership between Densho and CAIR reflects the parallels that exist between Japanese-Americans and American Muslims in regard to government vilification, which increases the likelihood of targeted harassment.

“These are both communities that could be the targets of harassment or could be bystanders, so it’s really about them being able to support each other, learn from each other and offer training to their communities,” she said.

CAIR-WA has partnered with multiple groups across the region for bystander intervention training, including the Pacific Science Center, the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, schools, workplaces and youth groups.

Overwhelmingly the feedback that the training draws is positive, she said.

“The idea is to give people basic foundational ideas,” Stuteville said. “Then they have some experience practicing them so that if they are in a situation where they might intervene, they have some experience, know a bit about what it feels like and they know why they are going to intervene in the ways that they do.”