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Bystander Intervention

We teach bystander intervention in sexual assault and intimate partner violence prevention, but it is an important and useful tool in the prevention of many forms of personal violence.  As we see more emboldened public displays of racism, misogyny, and bigotry it is inevitable that one day you will be witness to an act of violence, whether that is bullying, a physical attack, or some other threat to a person’s safety.

This is a basic breakdown of reactive intervention techniques for bystander intervention, which you can use when you are in such a situation. Think about them, discuss them with your community, do some role playing. Be prepared to claim and wield your power for the protection of another.

Reactive intervention is designed to distract and interrupt the perpetrator and allow the victim time to respond and get to a safer place, or for the attacker to leave.

Basic techniques of reactive intervention are Direct, Distract, Delegate.

Direct: you intervene directly in the situation by inserting yourself into it, sometimes putting yourself between the victim and the perp, and addressing the perp directly by calling out their behavior. This is the most involved and potentially dangerous of the interventions, and you should be prepared for potential escalation and hatred being spewed at you too. But it is the most likely to allow the victim time to get away. Consider power dynamics carefully here; great option for those who carry privilege in the situation.

Distract: you intervene by distracting the perp with unrelated questions or comments. Ask for directions, ask about a game on the TV, somehow engage them in questions about something else going on around them. This is the second most involved of the interactions and does carry some potential for escalation.

Another technique is not to say anything, but make your presence known. Stand close to the victim. Stare at the perp. Let them know you are watching and present and may step in if it gets worse. This technique straddles the line of Distract and Direct.

Delegate: This technique gets other people involved. You may see something but not feel comfortable intervening by yourself. You can ask others around you to intervene with you. There is power in numbers and a group of people addressing a perp and making their presence known can shift a situation faster than anything else I’ve seen. This is a powerful option particularly for those who do not hold privilege in a situation or are not comfortable with confrontation (which is often due to an individual’s own trauma).

In the Delegate response, traditional BI suggests getting a police officer or other individual with systematically imbued power involved. In situations of violence of oppression I do not encourage this as a first reaction, as it may add to the victim’s trauma.

What techniques do/would you use? In what situations might you see these techniques be useful, or to fail?


Syren Nagakyrie

syrenSyren Nagakyrie is a Goddess-centered Polytheist Witch and Priestess, a feminist, herbalist, writer, and radical bridger of worlds. Her heart sings for the sea while her body yearns for the forest; her spirit is that of the Wandering Hermit. She also blogs at syrenofminds.wordpress.com


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6 Comments »

  1. Syren, this is an excellent posting. I’d like to add that the Distract and Delegate approaches can also be learned by pre-teens and teens at school for use when bullying occurs. As someone who witnessed the physical and verbal bullying of a student while in junior high school the typical reaction of classmates was to remain mute and carry on. They were afraid of speaking up because the bullies threatened physical retaliation or writing nasty graffiti in the street or schoolyard, or worse, the school bathroom.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. P.S. To answer your question, I believe for young and teenage students banding together to apply the Distract technique is best. Delegate is sometimes hard to do because many bullies operate covertly. They are very good at being duplicitous and some teachers fall for their manipulations and lies.

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    • Thank you! Yes, BI can absolutely be taught to students. I taught it to middle and high school aged students to address bullying as well as dating violence. It’s a wonderful tool to remind them of the power they have over their own lives and experiences, and to not have to rely on ineffectual authority.

      I agree that it can be most effective for the students to band together to address bullying. That would actually still be considered a Delegate response, even if the intervening action was then Distract – it is the coming together of more than one person, ie asking for support from someone else, before intervening that makes the Delegate response. I realize I didn’t make that very clear in this brief introduction. Personally I don’t like the term “delegate” for this very much, but that’s the terminology that’s used most often.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for clarifying the terms for me. I think one has to really get into this more to understand the subtle differences. Please keep posting about this whenever possible. It is important to know these tactics as they can be applied to so many situations, down to small get-togethers where one or two participants are known to persist in prying and needling about politics and who one is voting for. Really, there are some events where people don’t want the conversation to go that way because said needler is know to ratch things up. And after this election many of us need a course in this. Sometimes confrontation and challenge is not right, especially at a birthday party or similar happy event.

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  3. I am a white appearing,visibly elderly, obviously handicapped person living in Canada— not only am I fairly unlikely to elect violence as a reaction, but if I did bystanders would immediately react. As well, I can whip out an exemplary pissed-off-granny voice and I actually (through bitter training) don’t fear assholes.
    That being said, my Gods-driven directive is to always point out the asshole, generally with foul language to snap attention at the situation. And to always engage the victim as a person worthy of respect in hir own right.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I think the method suggested by the cartoon on dealing with Islamophobia is helpful. Be with the victim, let them know they are not alone, talk to them about something else, and block out the perpetrator – draw the victim’s attention away from the perp and let the perp know that they are meeting a wall of being ignored. (I haven’t tried this technique myself – my way is to use the Bene Gesserit voice of power.)

    Liked by 1 person

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