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by Ana Menendez

In the coming years, some of us may be called upon to act with dignity in the face of appalling acts. How should we react as a witness, as a victim? Unless we plan a response beforehand, most of us will be paralyzed by shock and fear. 

Heroism, like indifference, must be practiced. If we’re to choose an honorable response, we need to begin training for it. 
Here are some things you can do as a bystander to or victim of harassment:

Speak Up

A president who speaks in broad terms about others and mocks disability not only coarsens the national discourse, but gives the most vulnerable permission to act on unkind impulses, said Ed Dunbar, a nationally renowned researcher on hate crimes who is working on a book examining the fallout from the 2016 election.

“If you have a president-elect calling Mexican rapists, for some percentage of the population we’re shifting from ‘of course this is not okay’, to ‘it might be okay,’” said Dunbar, a clinical professor at UCLA and a practicing psychologist in Los Angeles.

“What happens if it becomes a chronic condition? Are we going to move into an age that this kind of aggression is going to be so normative that it starts to change us in fundamental ways?” 
The only way to keep that from happening, Dunbar argues, is engagement.

Dunbar’s research suggests that, as victim or bystander, speaking up is usually the best response.

“When someone experienced inappropriate ethnic jokes or being ignored and I asked ‘what did you do?’ people felt best when they directly spoke up and confronted the behavior,” Dunbar said. “When they tried to minimize it, they felt more depressed.”
On the street, Dunbar suggests engaging the harasser by subtly changing the subject.

“Tell the person, ‘You’re being biased,’ and then immediately change the topic,” he said. “Don’t go into a lengthy discussion. You’re not going to change opinions. Just change the focus.”
Hate crimes, which include assaults, threats and property destruction aimed at women and racial, ethnic and sexual minorities, seemed to have spiked since the election, according to civil rights groups. So have incidents of verbal cruelty, such as the one led by middle-schoolers in Michigan who taunted Latino students with chants of “Build The Wall” in the days following Donald Trump’s election 

“Now we’re in the era of straight-up harassment,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “As a result of the campaign, people feel they can say anything and their language won’t be scrutinized. People are more emboldened to spew this hatred.”

Many of us are most likely to be called upon to confront bigotry among family and friends, where a greater level of engagement may be possible. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published an online guide that offers scenarios and possible responses for handling harassment from the workplace to the family dinner table. 

In more intimate settings, you might appeal to loftier ideals: “Our family always has stood for fairness, and the comments you're making are terribly unfair." Or you can be more direct: “I’m sorry; what’s so funny?”

-- If speaking up in the moment feels unsafe here are some things you can do as bystander or victim.

If you are a bystander and don’t feel safe enough to speak up, at least stand with the victim.

Recently, Marie-Shirine Yener, a Paris-based illustrator, published a guide on how to come to the aid of someone being harassed for their Muslim faith (and then she became a victim of harassment herself) 

Among her suggestions: Engage in conversation with the victim while ignoring the attacker and continue talking until the attacker leaves.

Brooks, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees: “You want to direct all your attention to the person being victimized and encourage them to concentrate on you. If you feel it will help, put your arm on their shoulder. Let them know you are there. When the harassment stops, ask ‘Are you okay?’ and continue to support the victim.”

If you can’t stand with the victim, get help. Call 911 and, if you can, record the harassment. 

If you are the victim of street harassment and feel too unsafe to speak up, scan the area silently for allies. 

“Look for someone you can make eye contact with. Try to move toward that person,” Brooks said. “Don’t engage (the harasser) in a verbal battle, let them rant and look for an escape route, and hopefully there is someone there who is a witness and who will come to your assistance.”

After the harassment is over, and you are safe, vow to break the silence. 

“You need to find someone you trust and discuss it immediately,” said Besiki Kutateladze an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Florida International University. “Silence does much damage, not just psychological. It also increases the chance that the abuse will repeat itself. Victims end up in a cycle of violence.”
Kutateladze is studying the scope and nature of hate crimes against LGBT young adults in Miami. Many, Kutateladze finds, are victims within their own families and are reluctant to report violence or seek help.

“Whatever you do, never be silent,” he said. “Talk to someone. Even if it’s not law enforcement. Even if it’s not a professional. It’s always much better to confide in someone than to say nothing at all.”

Finally: Have a plan.

One late night in the early 1990s, my boyfriend and I were walking back to our South Beach apartment when a van suddenly tore around the corner and blazed to a stop in front of us. 

Five or six young men jumped out the back. One of them pointed a gun at our faces. The others swung white PVC pipes with which they began to beat my boyfriend.

I stood frozen and mute for a moment before finding my voice: “Stop, please stop!” And then I started screaming “Fire! Fire! There’s a fire!”

I hadn’t lost my mind. In fact, my mind – and a memory long-buried there – might have saved us.

As a child in Tampa, I had taken a safety workshop sponsored by my school. “If you’re ever in danger,” the trainers told the class of second-graders, “don’t yell ‘help’ – no one will come to your aid. Yell ‘fire’”.

It was advice rooted in the cynicism of the 1970s. And I never thought of it again until, many years later, it bubbled forth when I most needed it. 

“We’re not in these situations every day so it’s not something we learn,” Brooks said. “You need to be prepared, otherwise you will be frozen. And you could miss an opportunity to intervene and help.”

How will you react if you see a family member being bullied for his sexual orientation? How will you help someone being harassed for her faith? For a disability? How will you stand up to racists and homophobes in the street? What will you say when the thugs roll through your town? Thinking through your response, however briefly, may mean it’s the first option you call forth under duress.

Depending on your own tolerance for conflict you can design the plan you are most likely to carry out. You can decide to speak up forcefully, especially among family and friends. But your plan can also be to simply stand silently beside the victim. It may be to leave and summon help. If trapped in a dangerous place, you may even scream “Fire!” on the assumption that “Help” is too lonely a word. The point is to hold a rehearsal in the comfort of your own safety.

On that terrifying night in 1993, no one came to our aid. But my irrational utterances seemed to spook our tormenters, who fled to their van and sped away. Today, in our streets and in our subways, emboldened bullies are afoot. One by one, with even the smallest acts of solidarity, the rest of us have the power to send them running.

- Ana Menendez

Ana Menéndez was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of Cuban exiles. She is the author of four books of fiction, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, which was a 2001 New York Times Notable book of the year and whose title story won a Pushcart Prize, Loving Che (2004), The Last War (2009) chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the top 100 books of the year, and Adios, Happy Homeland!

Since 1991 Ana has worked as a journalist in the United States and abroad, most recently as a prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald. As a reporter, she has written about Cuba, Haiti, Kashmir, Afghanistan and India, where she was based for three years.

Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including VogueBomb MagazinePoets & Writers, PoetsArtists and Gourmet Magazineand has been included in several anthologies, including Cubanisimo! and American Food Writing. She has a B.A. in English from Florida International University and an M.F.A. from New York University. A former Fulbright Scholar in Egypt, she now lives in Maastricht and Miami.

Didi MenendezComment