The Limits of Bystander Intervention

Late last year I witnessed what I believe was a racially charged incident. I only caught the end of the incident, and train doors were closing and people were moving. It all happened in a moment. I didn’t do anything in part because of the aforementioned train doors, but also in part because someone else was already intervening—someone who was presumably more aware of what had happened than I was. As I read about the Portland MAX stabbings a few weeks ago, though, this incident came back to me.

In the wake of last year’s election, there was a lot of talk about safety pins, and about being willing to step in and intervene in incidents of racially charged intimidation or violence. There were also those who cautioned that words were easy, but actions were harder. Then came the Portland MAX stabbings, when three white men placed themselves between an angry white man and the two teenage girls of color he was harassing. Did they know they were risking their lives, when they did it?

In the wake of the incident I witnessed last year, I was conflicted about my non-involvement. I almost wrote a blog post about my lack-of-response, coming as it did amongst talk of safety pins, words, and actions. Even though someone else was intervening and closing train doors were quickly bringing the incident to a forced end—in other words, no one was in immediate danger by the time I was aware of what was happening—I still felt that I had failed.

I promised myself that I would step in next time.

The tragedy on the Portland MAX has thrown into stark relief the limits of bystander intervention. Three heroes stepped in and successfully protected two vulnerable girls, yes, but two of them lost their lives in the process.

In November, bystander intervention was happy and uplifting, a way to push back against the helplessness we felt. We shared stories, we cried together, we held hands and promised to be there for each other. But it’s June now, and it’s been made imminently clear that bystander intervention is also risky, and dangerous. Intervening can mean putting your life on the line.

When I think about the incident I witnessed in November, in light of what happened in Portland, I remember other things. I remember that it was late, and dark. I remember that by the time I was aware that something had happened, the perpetrator was walking away—there was no immediate threat. I remember that the individual who intervened was another white man. And I remember the belligerent anger of the white male perpetrator.

Bystander intervention is important—very important—but it is neither pretty nor a cure-all. It is hard. It can be dangerous. We need to be realistic, and smart. We need to be both willing to engage as the moment requires, and at work toward more wholistic solutions (including electoral ones).

There is one thing for certain—after Portland, our innocence is gone.

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