Organizers embrace at Union Square, at the end of the protest against the killing of Jordan Neely on May 5. Photo: Hari Adivarekar

Following the tragic killing of Jordan Neely in a subway car full of people, many New Yorkers have asked themselves, what would I have done in that situation if I was present? Being a bystander to an uncomfortable or violent event can be scary and confusing and often people aren’t equipped with the skills to react. Other times we fall victim to the bystander effect, thinking someone else will take action (remember the murder of Kitty Genovese?)  Epicenter’s Danielle Hyams spoke with Emily May, the president and cofounder of Right to Be, a nonprofit dedicated to providing the resources to respond to, prevent and intervene in incidences of distress, to learn about how to be a more responsible bystander.

Emily May

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

Epicenter: Can you tell me about your organization and how it got its start? 

May: We started under the name Hollaback in 2005. Since then we have really grown to not just address street harassment or gender-based harassment in public space, which was our founding mission, but to really to address all forms of hate and harassment, including harassment based on ableism, racism, religious identity, sexism, gender, gender expression, sexuality, the whole kit and caboodle. 

Epicenter: The bystander effect is a longtime problem. During the killing of Jordan Neely I know some people assisted in restraining him while others pulled out their phones and filmed, which can be a really natural response. What do you recommend someone do when they witness a situation like that?  

May: At Right to Be we have the five Ds of bystander intervention to give various tactics to people to intervene. One of the things we always tell people is to prioritize their own safety. And in the case where somebody is actively being killed, it’s obviously a very unsafe environment. And yet still, there are likely things that people can do to disrupt the situation or to stop the situation from happening without necessarily physically intervening.

The first D of bystander intervention is to create a distraction. That could be going up to the person who is being harassed and having a conversation. Obviously, that wouldn’t work in the case of Jordan Neely. But it could also be things like setting off an emergency alarm on the train, or spilling water or coffee on the people who are in the altercation as a way to de-escalate or create chaos in the situation to get the person to temporarily stop.

The second D of bystander intervention is delegate. Find somebody else to help. That can oftentimes be somebody in a position of authority, but it can also be the person next to you. Many times, if you are going to intervene, you’re gonna want to do that with somebody else, or at least know that somebody else has your back.

The third D, which we saw happen, is to document. We recommend only documenting if there’s somebody else already intervening. You obviously don’t want to create a situation of documentation while the abuse is ongoing and somebody is literally dying. We also recommend with documentation that you give the documentation to the person who was harassed. In the situation of Jordan Neely, documentation can be a very powerful tool to bring social awareness to something, but it can only really be used to bring social awareness to an incident after its happened because of the nature of the form. 

The fourth D is delay. This could mean checking in on the person. It seems like in the instance of Jordan Neely there was some amount of chaos as to who the ongoing problem was and who was the one who needed restraint. But with some sort of check in, there could have potentially been a supported situation before it was a fully escalated dynamic. 

The fifth D is direct intervention. This is where you are literally saying to stop that, let him go, leave him alone. And really focus your attention on the person who, in this case, was being attacked. 

Epicenter: Right to Be hosts a bevy of bystander and other types of training. Beyond the five Ds, what do you normally teach? 

May: When we do bystander intervention training, we talk a lot about what the spectrum of disrespect looks like and how it starts with things like microaggressions and can lead all the way into things like assault. We also talk about the impacts of harassment. Oftentimes people are like, ‘yeah, we know it happens but it doesn’t really matter.’ We are well acquainted with the impacts that harassment is having on the audience, and also what we’re seeing in our communities. And then we talk about reasons why people don’t intervene, not so much for the sake of shaming them into intervening, that’s certainly not our goal, but really for the sake of them identifying what their fears are when it comes to intervention. That might be safety, a fear that it’s going to turn on them, a concern that they don’t have the full story, they don’t have a context, nobody else is doing anything, that maybe they’re concerned about showing up as a white savior or a male savior, whatever it may be. So that when they do show up as a bystander, they’re able to pick which of the Ds is best. 

Right to Be hosts several free virtual bystander training sessions each month. Learn more about the organization and view the training calendar here.

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