Emily Benner took a step toward the noisy group of men on the train, just as one began to unbuckle his pants.
“Hi! Can I sit down?” she recalls asking after a few tense moments. Her audience, a D.C. Metro car full of passengers, was rapt. Benner — unassuming in stature, in her mid-20s with naturally blonde hair and an Eastern Mennonite University graduate — might have garnered the men’s attention if she’d instead blown the whistle clipped to her backpack.
But, her soft words held their attention arguably better.
After a short exchange, sharing a laugh about turning their friend in, she drove her point home. “I have to tell you, as a woman, watching you make sexual gestures at someone out the window was very threatening to me.”
Simple words delivered genuinely are often the key to intervening in intense situations, area experts agree. Whether a parent is berating a child in the grocery store or the customer at the checkout is attacking the clerk, when is it right — or safe — to intervene?
“Bad things do happen,” says Barry Hart, Academic Director at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. “Things occur that are not healthy, but many people take a risk to say, ‘We are a community; how can we be a better community?’ ”
He outlines four “bystander roles,” attributed to colleague Kaethe Weingarten:
1) You are a bystander who is oblivious to what’s happening,
2) You’re aware of what’s happening, but don’t know what to do,
3) You’re aware, but intervene in an inappropriate way,
4) You feel confident enough under the circumstances to take potentially helpful action.
Frequently, Benner has crossed from passive to active roles (her spontaneous intervention experience includes stopping a bike theft, a man chasing a woman, breaking up a drunken fight and confronting a group of men when they harassed her friend), using techniques she has learned from Marty Langelan, a D.C.-based expert in the field of assault.
Langelan regularly teaches safety workshops at community organizations, including EMU’s Washington Community Scholars’ Center, where Benner serves as assistant director.
The insecurity most onlookers feel in the face of wrongdoing often keeps them stuck at the second stage. “I go by my gut,” Langelan says. “Trust your instincts.”
She and Hart believe that bystanders themselves don’t walk away from a violent situation unscathed. “There’s the issue of how sickening it feels, inside, when we see an abusive situation, but feel helpless to stop it,” Langelan explains. “In a very real sense, bystanders are harmed by seeing something wrong and doing nothing. That’s called a ‘moral injury.’ ”
Even after standing up for others many times, Benner still regrets the times she froze. Recently, when a customer threatened a cashier, she felt helpless. “I wish I had called the police, or maybe asked him to repeat [himself],” she remembers.
“Shock and shutdown” is a normal first reaction, Langelan assures.
Hart agrees; it’s a matter of being prepared with the right responses, “like anything in life,” he says.
After sitting in on several of Langelan’s workshops, Benner found herself mentally rehearsing crises, “forming neural pathways so they’re there when I need them,” she says.
Which situation-appropriate actions was Benner preparing to take?
Hart and Langelan suggest that in potentially dangerous situations, simply creating a distraction can break the cycle of violence. This can be applied to situations involving harassment or physical violence.
Langelan calls it the “voice of God” technique: a short, crisp command to stop, from a safe distance — she recommends at least 30 feet — that breaks their focus.
Hart recently used this approach right outside his office. When he saw a man viciously attacking another man, he thought, “This is not good. I need to do something.”
As he exited the building, Hart’s mind was rapidly recalling prior training. He asked a coworker to call the police, then stepped outside.
From a distance, he commanded, “Stop that, stop that!” he says. “It was enough of a shocker to them that they both looked up, and ran off in different directions.”
“Leave your cape at home,” urges Langelan. Don’t jump in the middle of violence to be a hero; even taking out your cell phone to snap a photo of the incident can be helpful to authorities. “The privacy stops when the violence starts … it’s something that affects the whole community.”
In less blatantly violent situations, such as verbal abuse or mistreatment, the lines between right and wrong can be blurry for a bystander.
Nearly everyone has encountered a similar situation: the exhausted parent doling out unduly harsh discipline, or the diner disrespecting waitstaff.
Hart lays out two options: interject directly, or distract and diffuse.
But first, assess. “When these things happen, everybody’s emotional,” he notes. “You are also impacted by the emotion … this is when a quick analysis can be done.”
He gives the example of a store clerk berated by a customer. Approaching the offender — whose own background carries reasons for the behavior — risks their turning on you.
The second option is to show the cashier concern and respect, acknowledging what just happened rather than turning a blind eye.
Drawing attention might seem embarrassing or feel outside of one’s comfort zone, but when Benner merely made her presence known on the Metro, it opened an opportunity for real discussion. “They looked sympathetic as they nodded and just let me talk,” she says.
Langelan says that non-judgmental approaches are key, with women’s presence being especially dynamic-changing. “A woman who quietly walks up and says, ‘Whoa, what’s the matter here? How can I help?’ diffuses it just by her presence and body language.”
For her, seeing children being struck by parents especially hits home. She also considers public humiliation a form of violence.
“When kids get hit, it’s because the parent is out of control,” she says.
Interrupt the scenario with what she deems the “praise the baby” technique: in your most cheerful voice, compliment something visible about the child, such as, “What a cute toddler! Look at those sneakers!”
“It penetrates all those emotions” the frazzled adult is feeling mid-breakdown, she says.
Drawing on surrounding witnesses is another option to distract and diffuse, says Hart. “Ask people around you, ‘How can we help?’ That may be embarrassing, but I don’t think so. Most people would say a parent hurting a child or screaming at a child is wrong.”
Building safer communities
Although the streets of Harrisonburg are relatively tame, Hart, Langelan and Benner vouch for the universal value of communities where eyes and ears are open.
“Violence breaks the common bond of humanity,” Hart says. “It’s there for a reason. It happens because people have been violated themselves, in small and big ways.”
Langelan encourages more connections, especially with otherwise-overlooked members of society. “One of the simplest ways to make any neighborhood safer is to talk to people on the street,” she says. “Nodding, saying hello … it makes such a difference when people do start speaking up.”
As the train came to her stop that day, fellow passengers high-fived and thanked her for stepping in before the situation escalated.
“Sometimes people advise me to stop intervening, because it’s putting myself in danger,” Benner says. “But I feel like that’s a pretty narrow view … I’m not the center of the universe. If I encourage a culture of people speaking up for each other … then it’s a safer community for me, too.”
Courtesy Daily News Record, June 29, 2012